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First Person

The Experience Questionnaire: M. Sanjayan

M. Sanjayan, CEO of Conservation International, is a biologist and host of PBS’ “Earth: A New Wild.” He’s also hosted and co-hosted documentaries for the BBC, Discovery, and Showtime.

Where do you come up with your best ideas?
Some of my best ides come from productive arguments. I’m fortunate to have a group of colleagues I can really argue with and still have a beer with after. I also get ideas when I’m riding my bike to or from work — there’s something about being outside, moving, focusing on the path or trail ahead, that frees the mind.

What is the best non-material gift you’ve received?
Other people giving me the gift of time. There are truly interesting, amazing, thoughtful, smart people in Conservation International. They could spend their time doing so many things and they choose to be here and share their talents with me. I’m grateful.

What is the best non-material gift you’ve given?
The gift of care, empathy, love. For example, a former colleague had terminal brain cancer, and he wanted to find time to get lunch with me. I remember I had a flight, I was busy. But I made it work. Phenomenal afternoon. I think I enriched his day a bit, but in truth, the gift came back to me.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced?
Attempting to fill the shoes of Peter Seligmann, the legendary co-founder and former CEO of Conservation International.

If you had to choose a different profession, what would you do?
I would love to be a storyteller, whether as a writer or a filmmaker. The best and worst instincts are stirred by storytellers. It really is the ability to shape human imagination and thus destiny.

“When I was five years old, a monkey stole my birthday cake as it was resting on the dining room table. I saw it happen and screamed bloody murder. But it’s not about the monkey.”

What is the most useful mistake you’ve made?
My family wanted me to go to college in England. We were from Sri Lanka and lived in West Africa and I had family, a support network in England. Instead, I went to the University of Oregon. And from my parents’ perspective, it was a mistake. We didn’t even know where Oregon was. It was a total whim, it wasn’t thought out at all, and it turned out perfectly.

What’s the strangest experience you’ve had?
Most recently, becoming a father. We don’t prepare men for fatherhood. Not many people are putting a doll in the arms of little boys for practice. Books and support networks are inadequate. I treat my daughter like a little woodland creature I have rescued. I have no idea what I am doing.

What opportunity do you regret passing up?
I attended the University of Oregon, where they filmed “Animal House.” I was there at a time when Ken Kesey was teaching literature on campus and the Grateful Dead were playing at the local fair. It was astounding that in my four years in Eugene, I never smoked pot, took mushrooms, or dropped acid!

How do you relax?
Fly-fishing. Cooking. Reading everything from sci-fi to biographies.

If you could go anywhere in the world tomorrow, where would you go? 
My cabin in western Montana, near the Crown of the Continent. This is a place that still has all the plants and animals Lewis and Clark would have seen on their journey of discovery. It’s managed to escape the spasm of extinctions we see anywhere else. It’s an easy place to be human.

What is your most indelible childhood memory?
When I was five years old, a monkey stole my birthday cake as it was resting on the dining room table. I saw it happen and screamed bloody murder. But it’s not about the monkey. Twenty days before, we’d left Sri Lanka for good with just a few suitcases to move across the world to Africa to live in what looked like a shack on stilts in the middle of the forest. Amidst all this, with me and my one-year-old sister in tow, my parents had the forethought to lug along the essential ingredients for a cake! That is remarkable love.

What’s the most valuable thing you learned in school?
Never believe anyone who tells you that you’re not going to make it. I was told that all the time by teachers in high school.

When you’re stuck how do you get unstuck?
Scenario-plan multiple paths. Either one will open, or a different path to something else will appear. But you can’t be myopic in sticking to what you think is the prescribed progress from A to B. Keep in mind what you want, then watch for windows to open, and have the courage to jump through.

What is your proudest moment?
It’s awesome to see what a great mother my wife is. It fills me with warm admiration. It makes me proud she chose me to create a family together.

What would you like to experience before you die?
In the pit of my stomach, in the darkest nights, I’ve had this deep fear that the future will be tougher than the present or past in terms of climate change and what we are doing to the natural world. I’d like the low point to hit in my lifetime, not in the adult lifetime of my child. It’s not impossible. It just depends on what we, everyone on Earth, from communities and businesses to governments, do in the next 10 years. That will make or break us as a species.

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Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

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