Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Lessons from the crew

- Phil Bresnahan [Scripps Institution of Oceanography]

Sailing is one of the oldest professions that exists; there is indubitably a tremendous amount of wisdom contained within the collective knowledge of those who practice it. Over the past weeks on the ship, one of the crew's habits has really stood out, a way of life from which we can all learn a tremendous amount. It is what I would call focused patience. It was not entirely surprising for me to realize that the crew is focused nor that they possess some level of patience after years of being on the open ocean but this particular combination seems much more powerful than either of the traits individually. Focused patience is the recognition that there might be only one chance to get something right and therefore lending it your full attentiveness but at the same time approaching it calmly, slowly, and deliberately.

An example: every three days, we lower an 8 foot, 200 lb piece of extremely expensive equipment (ASIP – see Graig Sutherland's post below) into the water inside a smaller powerboat driven by two crew members and at least one science member. The passengers are lowered about fifteen feet over the side of the ship into whatever conditions the day has in store for them; they've been in up to ten foot waves (still small by open ocean standards, but far from negligible) and a significant amount of wind chop. The small boat swings in the crane's grip until it hits the ocean after which it is entirely at the mercy of the waves. It's a safe but still quite tense process every time.

When they return from ASIP's deployment, they have to drive up alongside our enormous ship, catch the crane hook (which happens to be a nearly fifty pound chunk of swinging metal), attach it to their own boat's harness, wait to be raised out of the water, back onto the ship, and into the powerboat's slings on the deck. This seems like a process that I'd want to rush through; extra time in this procedure is extra time for something to go wrong in a scenario where something going wrong is quite simply not an option. Contrarily, though, the crew executes this procedure with a slow, deliberate concentration every time – with a focused patience. It takes approximately three eternities to get the group from the incessant slapping of the careless waves back into the safety of the ship's deck and, every time, I want to grab the crane's controls from its operator and get the passengers out of the water as quickly as possible, then grab the lines from the deck hands and pull the boat into its slings. The first time I saw the process, I was convinced that the crane operator must have fallen asleep and that the crew on the deck had decided they didn’t want the small boat back on board after all. Maybe they’re just tired of sharing the food with these other passengers...

Yet after watching this process a few times, I've picked up a small piece of wisdom that sailors have ingrained within them from centuries, millennia even, of trial and error. They know that it is in rushing that careless mistakes are made. There are no second chances, really, so they take the time to make sure that every detail of every step is executed with absolute perfection.

It's easy to be focused, I believe, and most of us can find the capacity to exercise a little patience from time to time, but I believe it's rare that we are successful at combining the two. We either focus on getting through something as quickly as possible (“get it over with!”) or we pretend to be patient while sitting in traffic on the way home from work but these are always two separate instances. We don't focus on driving when we're trying to be patient and we're certainly not patient when we're intently trying to rush to the end of some project. I’m certain everyone has rushed through something (with or without focus) and finished with a far from perfect project.

The fact that the crew can afford to (or, more accurately, is forced to) exercise extreme focused patience while performing what is perhaps one of the most important jobs imaginable – protecting human lives in a highly variable environment – is a convincing argument for our own adoption of the practice in our lives. I think there is something to be learned from the habits of those who don’t have the luxury of the option of mistakes. A little more focused patience in all of our lives would certainly lead to higher success rates, fewer accidents, and, most importantly, a more rewarding experience along the way. So even though this process takes about seventeen times longer than my naive outlook would suggest, I now realize that it’s no accident that they don’t make mistakes. For now, I’ll leave the crane controls to its operator and watch from the deck to see what else I can learn from the wisdom of the crew.

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