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The Alternatives

Seeking the secret to success

Co-authors found the road to prosperity is long and winding.

June 05, 2003|Susan Carpenter | Times Staff Writer

Go to med school. Get an MBA. Take the GRE. Find a job. When students finish college, they're bombarded with advice. But advice, well intentioned as it may be, isn't always what a fresh grad needs.

It's just "noise," according to Mike Marriner and Nathan Gebhard, authors of the book "Road Trip Nation: A Guide to Discovering Your Path in Life." It's the noise of "society trying to push, pull and tug you," they write in the book's introduction. Noise "that distracts you from building a life that's in tune with what you're passionate about as an individual."

Marriner and Gebhard, both 26, have heard a lot of noise. Three years ago, the Pepperdine University students were getting ready to graduate -- Marriner with a degree in biology, Gebhard with a BA in business. There was only one problem: Both had chosen majors based on what others expected of them, and that was making it difficult to decide on careers.

"We never questioned anything our entire lives," said Gebhard, a shaggy-haired Laguna Beach surfer who graduated in 2001. "[We thought], let's get out there and see the world. Take a road trip and see the world and start thinking for ourselves for a change."

It wasn't your average road trip. They drove an RV around the country for 2 1/2 months, traveling to 40 states, logging 17,000 miles and, along the way, interviewing successful people from all walks of life to determine how they got there.

People such as Starbucks Coffee Chairman Howard Schultz, who grew up in a Brooklyn housing project and now runs a $2.6-billion business, and J. Craig Venter, the scientist who got a D in high school physics but later successfully mapped the human genome.

In interviews with 75 people, they learned the road to success isn't always linear. And that's OK.

"Too many people focus too much on what they want to be when they grow up [that] they forget to focus on their path right now," said Marriner, during a curbside interview in their lime-green RV. "It's so much not about the destination. It's more about the journey. It's about what lights you up right now."

That's the message they've been spreading through their Web site (, a documentary film (sold on the Web site) and their new book -- a message they hope will blossom into a movement. They're currently setting up archives of their interviews (all of which are filmed) at 20 college career centers around the country. They're also encouraging others to take road trips and conduct interviews of their own.

Marriner and Gebhard had some financial help from corporate sponsors, but it was by no means a full-ride scholarship: They often found themselves living "day to day," subsisting on peanut butter sandwiches.

This summer, they are loaning out their 31-foot 1985 Fleetwood Pace Arrow RV to students from Georgetown and New York University, who will travel the country for three weeks.

That's assuming the RV can handle the trip.

It already has 113,000 miles and was experiencing engine difficulties during a recent stop in L.A. for an interview with Larry King. Mechanical troubles aside, its interior has a homey, if grungy, vibe.

Its walls are plastered with stickers and posters, one of which reads "Mediocrity Is Contagious: Vaccinate." And signatures of hundreds of interview subjects decorate the ceiling, including that of Benjamin Zander. The conductor of Boston's Philharmonic, who was deemed untalented in a musical composition contest at age 9, signed his with a bar of music from the "Ode to Joy" from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

Having discovered how Zander and others eventually found their paths, Marriner and Gebhard are beginning to find theirs. Marriner, who was on the pre-med track, now wants to be a writer. And Gebhard, the business major, realized "that after all these interviews, the ones that were lighting me up were the artists, the creative people."

"Our search kind of became our thing to do for the moment," said Gebhard, who is now interested in film. "We saw that all these people didn't have this grand plan, a set path. They ... [approached] things from what they were interested in. For us it's given us that framework for how to go about the world."


Mark their words

Words of wisdom collected by "Road Trip Nation" authors Mike Marriner and Nathan Gebhard:

J. Craig Venter, human genome researcher: "I actually make discoveries by ignoring what other people have done."

Randy Komisar, author of the novel "The Monk and the Riddle": "When you speak to people who have all the trappings of success but are really unhappy, there's a common syndrome: They've crossed a lot of hurdles, but they weren't their own hurdles. They were someone else's."

Howard Schultz, Starbucks Coffee chairman: "There are so many older people out there who are bitter and angry at the world. But at the end of the day, they are angry with themselves because they didn't follow their dreams."

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