The challenge of putting your life on paper when you're Richard Branson is there's so much life to cover.

Finding My Virginity is the high-flying British mogul's second autobiography, covering the nearly 20 years since the publication of the bestselling Losing My Virginity. More than 450 pages long, it's packed to the rafters with tales of startup triumphs, M&A swashbuckling, world record attempts, philanthropic exploits, aerospace disasters, rock star friendships, and billionaire rivalries. 

It's the kind of memoir that includes an itemized list of the 75 times its narrator narrowly escaped death, often while trying to do something foolhardy like kitesurf across the English Channel, and ends with a promise to write a third volume "when I am well into my nineties, possibly with my great-grandchildren, potentially from up in space." 

Finding My Virginity is also stuffed with lessons for entrepreneurs, delivered in the self-deprecating tone of someone who attributes much of his success to luck. Branson believes experience is overrated, delegating is all-important, and customers are smarter than most businesses realize. He even relays a tip from David Hasselhoff on how to go unrecognized in public, should you succeed in achieving worldwide fame. (The Baywatch star told Branson he always carries a David Hasselhoff mask with him, because "if people are looking for you, the last place they expect to find you is behind a mask of your own face.")

But there's one piece of advice most successful entrepreneurs swear by that continues to elude Branson, he tells Inc.

"I suspect I should've learned to say no more often, but life wouldn't have been as much fun if I had," he says. "I can't resist saying yes, as you can tell from the book. If I see a cause that needs me to jump in, I'll jump in."

In the latter (or, to hear him tell it, middle) portion of his career, those causes have often been philanthropic rather than commercial ones: drug law reform, death penalty abolition, ocean conservation. Most recently, after Hurricanes Irma and Maria tore through the Caribbean, Branson lobbied leaders in the region to adopt new clean energy targets. "We convened all the heads of the Caribbean states and said, 'Let's make sure something positive comes out of this. Let's move to clean energy, where we can save the islands money and set an example for the rest of the world,'" he says. "And with one voice they agreed to do so." 

The continuing expansion of Branson's Virgin empire, combined with his evolution as an activist and philanthropist, means that, at 67, "I'm now working harder than I was at any time in my life," he says. "And you can do that as long as you can find time to look after your body in between. Otherwise you are going to burn out."

When Branson isn't risking his body in a hot air balloon or a wetsuit, he looks after it by playing daily tennis matches and swimming, kitesurfing, and paddleboarding in the waters off Necker Island, often in the company of friends like Google co-founder Larry Page and President Barack Obama. Once or twice a year, he undertakes a bigger challenge. Last year's  Virgin Strive Challenge was a super-triathlon consisting of a 2,500-kilometer bike ride through Italy, a swim across the sea to Sicily, a marathon, and a hike up Mount Etna. "I felt like a 25-year-old at the end of it," Branson says. "And I looked like a 25-year-old at the end of it, as long as you didn't look too closely."

It may sound extravagant, but Branson credits his workouts for his uncanny energy and boundless productivity. "It doesn't matter what age you are -- your fitness regime is 100 percent important to get the endorphins running, get the engine stoked up, and then the rest of the day and rest of the week you're going to get tons more done than if you didn't do fitness."

It was during another one of Branson's epic athletic endeavors, the Cape Argus cycling race in South Africa, that his son-in-law, Freddie Andrewes, pitched him on the idea that became one of the newest Virgin businesses, Virgin Sport. "His particular bicycle pitch was there are lots of sporting events around the world which are great fun for the participants but they're not great fun for the family. So why can't we set up something where we can also make sure the family can have a great day out as well?" he says. "Something with more of a party where the whole family can join in." 

Virgin Sport launched in the U.K. in 2015. The U.S. launch was supposed to have taken place this month with events planned around the San Francisco Half-Marathon. Originally, I had planned to interview Branson there, but the festival and race had to be canceled due to wildfires in the region that filled the air with toxic smoke. As it happens, the launch of Virgin Active, the brand's chain of fitness clubs, had to be delayed after a fire in the first club in 1999. "Fires have played quite a big part in my life," Branson notes. "My house [on Necker Island] burned down. My house in London burned. Our place in Oxfordshire burned. I've had fires on hot air balloons. We've had our share of fires, now that I think about it." 

But the wildfires in Sonoma and Napa county were more like the hurricanes that ravaged Necker Island in that scientists attribute their ferocity to climate change: specifically, unprecedented heat waves that killed trees and dried out underbrush, leaving huge amounts of fuel for the flames. "Sadly, scientists have predicted there will be more and more events like this," Branson says.

I ask him if the politics around climate change will be different now that extreme weather events aren't just a prediction but a regular feature of the news. "They should, obviously," he says. "In 192 out of 193 countries around the world, it goes without saying. It's basically just the federal government of the United States that seems to have its head in the sand. And that's very unfortunate because if you look at the last global crisis, the ozone layer, every single country met in Canada and agreed to stop CFC gasses. We got on top of the problem. So it is a big blow that America that the White House is behaving the way it is." 

Perhaps 30 years from now we'll be able to read about how Branson played a part in solving this crisis, too. At the rate he's going, you can't rule it out.

Published on: Oct 19, 2017