Dec 23

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.

5 Responses to “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley”

  1. Mike says:

    As I have followed your work to bring your dream to fruition, I have admired both your critical insight and clear-eyed vision. This latest post is stunning for its integrity and honesty. I know these qualities will see you through to the decision that is right for you (pl). Good luck. Merry Christmas to you and yours

  2. Too Close to Confirm says:

    Whoa, Three years. At least it’s not 33 years.

  3. Brian says:

    ha….I know the feeling 🙂 As we’re going through the same thing — engine seized, structural issues, money dwindling and it’s f’ing cold. I’ve had to look at those questions pretty seriously…I could have bailed on the boat — not even sold it just put it somewhere until a later date, taken my savings and gone on a serious year long adventure, sailed on other peoples boats and had an amazing trip in its own right.

    but as things get tough, I find myself stepping back from the situation and re-evaluating what the goals were, verses what the realities of today are. Even though there are’t always fun days, this has been a crazy ride. no matter what happens, I’m going sailing — having a set place to get to isn’t realistic. I have no idea what the eventual sailing journey holds, but I do know that our journey over the last few years been been exceedingly rewarding. We can be frustrated about not reaching some specific port, crossing some ocean or whatever — any adventure is about the journey. That part that makes it an adventure is that what happens in that journey is an unknown, I certainly had no idea before I bought the boat that being a mechanic, fiberglass worker, plumber and electrician (granted an EXTREME amature) were in my future and learning those skills would be part of this trip. But the cold beer enjoyed after those days, the people met a long the way and all the sunsets are making this journey worthwhile.

    Sometimes the paddle outs are tough, but just making it out there makes it all worth it.

  4. Brian McIlquham says:

    Whoa! how did you get inside my head.Now you made me make a new bookmark “Favorite Sailing Blogs” Wait a go. Good writing here, I predict a book in the future if you guys and girls pull this off.My wive and I share a similar (Cruising)dream although a different path. I retire in 17 months at age 55. Definitely considering a valiant 40/42. Will follow your progress with more than just interest. Goodluck.

  5. hyo-jung says:

    Amen to that. We have started our trip last year and everything you have written is very fresh to us. As you have put it, so many of us are occupied with lamenting how much (financial, emotional) investment went into the boat that perhaps we forget to question whether this goal is worth all the sacrifice. This pursuit of ours has certainly put me in a place of internal conflict between mindful living in the present versus sacrifice for the future. “Where’s the loyalty when things are sucking so bad?” It is a difficult question to answer because it is more complicated than anything else we’ve encountered. The highs and lows of cruising can make one nauseated.

    Although what you write about seems a common sentiment among boaters/cruisers, the reaction/coping mechanism must be different for everyone that I think no word of advice is helpful. People may attempt to simplify things by saying, “You can keep working or you can simply leave.” Although I agree, no one can fully understand what your own experience is. I hope you do not remain consumed by the boat.

    It is my sincere hope that I and others will find that the two viewpoints (a) and (b) in your post are a false dichotomy. I hope that I find a point at which the sacrifices I have made sit well with living for the moment. As we are starting to enjoy the warmer waters and continue cruising, I am starting to believe that you can have both war AND peace.

    Thanks for your insightful post.

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