“What do you think? Should we push forward, or should we stay another day in this anchorage? Are we too close to that shore edge? Is the water deep enough for our keel? Is it safe to swim here? Do you think we should add more sail? Do you think we should re-anchor? Has this sausage been thawed for too long? Should we pig hunt with a slightly crazy person? Are we sailing too slow? Are we sailing too fast? Should we explore the beautiful coral reef area of the Tuamotus (also known as Dangerous Archipelago)? Or should we skip it and sail open ocean to the safer waters of Tahiti? Should we try to make it to New Zealand by November, or should we slow down and spend two seasons in the Pacific?” Ahh…decisions.
Andrew and I are usually good at making decisions. We approach a choice with curiosity and interest. It is fun to kick around options, research, balance risks and rewards, make an attempt and alter course once we receive feedback. By the time we left our life ashore, we were assertive and confident that even if a decision we made started to go South, we would notice the problem and course adjust. Out here, though, a question arises and it plagues us for hours. We read cruising guides, pilot charts, and weather files to try to educate ourselves on the risks and rewards. Soon, we reach information overload. The cruising guides all seem to contradict each other, and the people who are write guidebooks seem only slightly more educated on the topic than us. They popped into an area of the world for a limited period of time, explored it, and then wrote a book or article about it. We do our best using the information we have, but I continue to second guess. I hate it. Indecision makes me feel weak and flimsy.
When I look back at my life, I remember feeling exactly this way when I first started my job. How best to learn? What sources are good for my own research? What data or which person provides reliable feedback? Who is just plain crazy? I like to tell myself it is different out here because someone could get seriously hurt or die, but when I started my job I felt like someone could die. The gravity I assigned to my decisions as a baby lawyer was as high as the gravity I assign to my decisions today. So what makes this different?
This question got me thinking about the feedback one receives for one’s decisions. At first, it seemed to me that land-based feedback was easier to obtain. It seemed more frequent, less subtle (see quote above) and given before dire consequences occurred. It usually came packaged with instructions for how to improve: i.e. “This is boring! Can’t you just….Uhg! It needs more color!” No one dies.
Now that I think about it, though, the feedback loop is exactly the same on land as it is at sea. Land feedback seemed easier by the time I left, but this was only because I learned to read the clues and respond over the course of a decade. I knew that when my boss said an argument was “repetitive” I needed to break concepts down into smaller chunks and spoon them out more slowly. When he said a brief was “boring” I needed to refocus the argument on facts colored in my favor: show the judge why we win, don’t tell her. When he said “this is the stupidest argument I have ever read!” I should just delete it. My leadership did not have time to sit down and write out step by step instructions for every task assigned to me. If they had that kind of time, they would just do the task themselves. I had to figure it out. If I missed the subtle feedback or chose an improper course correction, the feedback would inevitably get more direct. Presumably, I would first receive a warning that my employment status is at risk, and later I may be subject to termination. This is the natural course of things. I spent years worried that I was not tuning in to feedback well enough or quickly enough.
Sonrisa isn’t going to sit us down and give us step by step instructions for every possible scenario that could play out. But, she is not silent. If we pay close enough attention, the sounds she makes change. We can feel her tense against heavy wind, and we know we have too much sail up. Her motion might become uncomfortable in the waves, rocking and rolling, pitching and flailing, then we know we are going too slow. When her sails start flogging and flapping around, she either needs us to go a different direction or to adjust the sails to the current direction. If her anchor chain is grinding beneath her hull, it is caught around a rock or a piece of coral and we need to move. If we miss this subtle round of feedback, we could get more direct clues: a blown sail, a broken shroud, a broken mast, a broken anchor chain, or a hole in Sonrisa’s hull.
The key to making good decisions out here is exactly the same as making good decisions on land: Think, utilize available sources for learning, act, be aware and observant, actively try to respond and do better. Success always requires an amount of luck, but the highest risk of bad consequences occurs when you stick your head in the sand, stop trying, and just hope for the best. I need to relax and trust myself. Just like on land, I will learn a lot if I execute the think-learn-act-observe-improve loop, and (hopefully) I won’t overtax the stash of luck life deems fit to give to me.