Dec 27 2009

Back to the beginning

Tag: failures,introspectionmattholmes @ 5:32 pm

One of the very first jobs we did when we bought the boat was replace the standing rigging [1] [2].  To redo the standing rigging is to replace the most basic structural foundation of the boat.  All the work we have done since then has, in a sense, been built on that foundation.

Last week, less than a month before we are planning on departing, I discovered that the “knees” of the boat have come unbonded from the hull.  Partially ripped off.  If the rigging is the foundation, the knees are the bedrock underneath the foundation.  Imagine digging up your house to shore up the bedrock.  Of all the projects that I anticipated we would have to do on the boat, I never saw this one coming.  It was my assumption that the knees on a Valiant 40 were more than strong enough, for anything, forever.

After much difficult deliberation, Jonny has decided to move on to other pursuits.  It’s a private affair; this is a public forum.  Neither do I wish to gloss over it; do not confuse my brevity for lightheartedness.  My opinion is that Jonny is doing what is right for him, and I support that.  I wish him luck on his path.

This has been the blog of three friends whose paths have diverged.  In the beginning, this trip was about three guys sailing around the world and making a point to the world in the process.  The trip hasn’t turned out as originally conceived.  It’s no longer three buddies all together, and I no longer feel qualified to make a point to anyone.  I have taken down the Owners and Goal page, the tagline as well, and entered them as the very first blog entries (in the archive).  I think it is important not to ignore where we started; perhaps that way we will not ignore the lessons we have learned.

Dec 23 2009

The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley

Tag: failures,introspectionmattholmes @ 1:43 am

“The best laid plans of mice and man oft go astray.”

The title is from a line of Robert Burns’s poem “To a Mouse”; also the source for Steinbeck’s title “Of Mice and Men”

I was taught when growing up that at times it is important to sacrifice current pleasure, satisfaction, or happiness in order to achieve a greater amount of it at some point in the future.  I was taught to save money for later, to educate myself now to prepare for later, to work hard now so that the future will be brighter.

I also learned, largely in my late teens and early twenties, that it is important to live your life in the present, and not sacrifice everything for some future gain, because of certain obvious truths:  many people die too young, having worked and sacrificed for a future they were unable to experience.  Many people work and sacrifice for future gain for so long that they forget they are eventually supposed to reach–and enjoy–that future.  Working towards a goal always in the future becomes an ingrained habit, they work until the day they die, and, just as surely as those that die young, never benefit from the sacrifice.

I feel that at each extreme, both viewpoints are unassailably true:

a)  In the extreme of always working and planning towards a never-reached future, the reward for that work is never realized.  The definition of “sacrifice” contains the notion that there is some future gain that will be achieved by the hard work.  The online dictionary I just consulted gives the definition of self-sacrifice as “sacrifice of oneself or one’s interest for others or for a cause or ideal”.  Where’s the value in spending your whole life, without cashing in at any point?  I.e. what’s the cause?  For some, it can be justified on the basis of improving the lives of their children, or for their children’s children.  But as a universal philosophy, if each successive generation is supposed to sacrifice for the next, exactly which generation is supposed to stop to enjoy the reward?

b) Neither do I wish to genuinely “live every day as if it was the last”, as the popular advice goes.  The advice is easy to pass around among a society that has erred towards constant work and sacrifice, but if I were to pursue the advice literally I would have degenerated long ago into hardcore drug use, breaking the law, and a life generally devoid of the very inspiration and enlightenment that the expression “live every day as if it were the last” is intended to achieve.

(I consider all the rest that I have written below to be highly assailable.)

There are no shortage of activities for us to engage in that are characterized by a high reward to risk ratio.  Usually, the biggest dilemma is selecting between these winning activities rather than a lack of them.  Should I save money for a car or a house?  Either choice has a significant reward (assuming of course that I want those things), and the sacrifice or risk required to obtain it–such as passing on buying a new set of furniture, or eating out less, or working overtime–is small in comparison (which is not to say that it is easy to achieve, only that the value of pursuing the goal is rarely questioned).  If you eat out less for a long time in an effort to save money for the house, and you never end up getting the house anyway because the stock market tanks, you don’t lie awake at night thinking about all those missed restaurant meals–you just think about how frustrating and hard it will be to go through it again.  It is common to hear people lamenting the difficulty of pursuing their particular goal, but uncommon to hear people questioning whether their goal is worth the sacrifice.  When it comes down to it, there are so many things that seem clearly worth the effort (different things for each person, but still many for each) that it is rare for someone to pick a pursuit where the value of the sacrifice is in question.

I happen to have found myself in just such a pursuit, in which I am deferring current happiness and satisfaction for a future gain.  Is it worth it?  On the face of it, this is a simple question that will be answered in time.  If the trip is a success–i.e. we leave the dock and sail as far as the south pacific and enjoy ourselves during that time–then the time, money, efffort, and deferred happiness will have been worth it.  The reward will have justified the sacrifice.  If the boat burns up and sinks in the slip tomorrow, then I will say “no, it wasn’t worth it”.

There are those that insist to me that it will have been worth it (should have been worth it), regardless the outcome–that even if the boat burns in the slip tomorrow, that I should still answer yes.  Many other people in my position–i.e. making preparations for a long sailing trip–find no need to make the sacrifice that I have: they enjoy every minute of the preparations, and the money they put into the boat does not detract from the satisfaction of their life.  They are able to always answer “yes, it was worth it” no matter the outcome.  This is the answer I have for everything that has happened in my life up to this point, with very few exceptions.  Indeed, I vowed at the beginning of this whole plan that my goal was to proceed such that no matter what happened–if the boat went up in smoke at any instant–that the effort and money would have been worth it, in terms of experience and education and enjoying the process.  However, this is no longer true for my pursuit of this trip–things have become complicated regarding friendships, social dynamics, my life away from the boat, and so I can no longer answer that it will have been worth it regardless the outcome.

The important question is “knowing what you now know, if you went back in time, would you make the same choice to embark on this pursuit, and do it all over again, knowing what the outcome would be?”  One must consider the opportunity cost.

So on one hand, it’s only a matter of waiting to see what the outcome will be.  But that is not the point of this post.

Whether it ends up being worth it or not, there is a very large life lesson that I will be taking away from this whole experience: it is not true that every goal is worth pursuing.  The reward may be worth the sacrifice, if the reward is actually achieved.  But if the pursuit involves sacrificing towards a goal that may not be realized, then one should carefully weigh the risk of never realizing the goal.  The risk is that you will have wasted your sacrifice: that the years of time and effort and money you put into it are still not sufficient to assure a successful outcome, and that the work will have been in vain.  This is not to say that there won’t still be some value and some reward from the pursuit, especially if you were careful to carefully collect the valuable moments of happiness and satisfaction and meaning that you chanced by on the journey.  But there are some activities out there whose success is not a foregone conclusion, and there are some sacrifices you can make that you would not go back in time and repeat, now knowing what you know.  In my case, I gambled three years of my life–during which time such things as career aspirations, moving to the place I really want to live, and starting my new life with Karen would have taken place–all of my money–and a large amount of ego and self-worth–into the successful outcome of this sailing trip.  At the time, I thought that a successful outcome was entirely within our hands–that it was merely a question of adequate sacrifice–that if it wasn’t “working”, simply putting in more time and effort would resolve it, and that it was a matter of sufficient devotion and commitment.  Now I understand that the success of the trip is dependent on certain factors that I cannot control, and if I were back at the beginning, knowing what I know now, I don’t think that I would have taken the risk.