Clearing obstacles

Making great progress isn’t worth much if you don’t know where that progress will lead.

There’s an old joke about travel that ends with the subject proclaiming, “I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m making good time.”

It’s funny because the listener knows innately that traveling quickly in an unknown direction is pointless. For all the traveler knows, their destination is behind them and getting farther away with every turn of the wheel or propeller.

It is a reality we all struggle with from time to time. Is it better to put the coals to it and proceed as rapidly as possible, or is it better to slow down, consider our options, and get to our destination a little later? It’s a judgment call, but an important one.

The appeal of speed is undeniable. Yet rapid advancement carries risk. Often, those risks come in the form of issues we can’t see from where we currently stand. Yet they’re out there, waiting to trip us up, or worse.

Consider the fate of the Titanic and its passengers. While it was the largest, most opulent vessel of its day, and considered to be unsinkable by many, it foundered after stumbling headlong into the one thing it could not survive.

If you had asked Captain Smith if that was possible an hour earlier, he’d have undoubtedly scoffed at the idea. A highly experienced professional with years of service under his belt, he was respected, trusted, and wrong. Colossally wrong. Yet, in typical human fashion he was convinced of his rightness. Smith was ignorant of his ignorance, and so he steamed on toward disaster at very near his ship’s top speed.

The Titanic and her crew ran their behemoth beast of a ship forward, confident of her invulnerability. They had reason to suspect they’d encounter ice on the course they were steaming, but they believed they were employing an unerring anti-collision system. They weren’t. It was a system that had served many ships well on many trans-Atlantic voyages, yet it was deeply flawed. Two sailors were in the crow’s nest, using their sharp eyesight and considerable experience to warn the officers on the bridge if they saw ice up ahead. That was the pinnacle of the early warning technology of the day, and it was insufficient to the task.

It should have been possible to see an iceberg at 10 to 12 miles in the distance. It should have been, but it wasn’t — not that night. At the Titanic’s cruising speed the early warning system should have provided as much as half an hour to maneuver around the obstacle. That was the expectation, anyway. The two sailors in the crow’s nest should have seen the ice miles away, rung the bell three times, called out, “Ice ahead,” and corrective action would be taken. No fuss, no muss, no collision.

That’s not what happened, though. The sailors in the crow’s nest saw the ice barely 30 seconds before impact, and the fate of the ship was sealed. The collision that killed 1,517 passengers and crew was tragic and completely avoidable.

Famously, the SS Californian was close enough to be of real assistance. Yet the same issue that prevented the sighting of the iceberg until it was too late led the Californian to assume the ship they saw was smaller than the Titanic and steaming over the horizon.

The curse of that night very well may have been an optical illusion known as a cold water mirage. A simple trick of light hid the iceberg until it was too late to avoid it. That same quirk of atmospheric refraction caused the Californian to misinterpret what they were seeing as well.

So if the Titanic and the Californian were in very nearly the same place at the same time, why did the Titanic sink and the Californian arrive safely at its destination? Simple. The Californian stopped for the night to avoid a collision. The Titanic did not.

So what does a 102-year-old shipwreck have to do with us today? Decision making. As the Titanic story illustrates, sometimes the difference between an uneventful evening and disaster comes down to a major decision and just two words: “Stop” or “go.”

History is a great teacher. If we look to the past we can see glimmers of the future. As we embark on our journey of discovery through life, it is imperative that we determine our various plans of action, consider the flaws to those plans, devise safe alternatives, and ultimately commit to putting our plans into action.

But we would be wise to remember that, sometimes, the best way to reach our destination quickly and safely is to accept the unknown exists and pause for a moment. Breathe. The destination will still be there tomorrow. It is we who may not be here to reach our destination if we insist on running blindly into the abyss.


  1. John Diehl says

    In Air Force Training that was called “Gethomeitis” and reportedly was the demise of many a young man determined to get back where he started. I have kept that if the forefront of my mind ever since.

  2. Dean R says

    Not just as a pilot, that is great advice for life, family, career. Brilliant illustration made me think. Thanks Jamie.

  3. Marc Lee Winnig says

    Great article! Good lesson, and great use of seeminly unrealted example to illustrate the point. Nicely done!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *