Temet Nosce – Know Thyself

23 March, 2018

I keep making changes for the better in my life- but I’m not sure my life is getting any better

When I first got into offshore sailing at 18 I was a volunteer working with a charity helping people make progress in their personal development by coming out onto the water with us and engaging in the challenge of the ocean. I got paid almost nothing and the hours were long but it was hugely satisfying. I rarely took holidays as the work did not really seem like work to me- it was just meaningful activity with beer money provided at the end of the month. I was at the bottom of the heap but at a very fundamental level – I was happy. Over time however, I became became more skilled in my work and complacent of how important being happy to me really was. Eventually I disregarded is as unimportant and easy to find and instead yearned for more excitement and adventure in my work.

In time I found the opportunity I was looking for. I began work as a professional offshore racer; actually employed with a good wage to do the very thing I loved. Genius! Despite the unusual nature of the work it had all the hallmarks of any other workplace, I had to be here or there at a specific time, I was told where and when to be on the start line, where I was racing to and what the schedule was for the arrival ceremony etc. There was always structure & regularity to what I did plus security, satisfaction and excitement but soon this too began to lose its shine because I decided now what I wanted was to be my own boss.

With a little luck and a lot of hard work I managed to create a new situation for myself where I ran my own campaign- I was the one who was now picking which race we entered, it was I who was setting the details for the sponsor visits, me who was picking the crew uniform and my choices alone that determined the route on the race course. Fantastic! Satisfaction? Yes; Excitement? Yes, Autonomy, Finally! But could this work in the long term? Answer – unfortunately No. Not even close- the deal was so volatile and unstable that one wrong move from me with a principle sponsor or some catostrophic accidental damage to the boat and I would derail the entire situation. The stress was too high, the price on my family and personal relationships was too high and I was miserable.

I rethought what I wanted to do and realized what I really needed were solid financial roots- solid enough to allow me to weather the tough times that might come my way but still allow me access to all the job perks I had grown accustomed to. So, it was that I went to work on superyachts. These were incredible machines with near unlimited budgets- suddenly any level of perfection I could imagine for a vessel was possible. Life was exciting, I found myself pushing through herds of famous people to get to the bar, I engaged in long offshore voyages every month and I managed to develop some of the financial roots I thought I wanted with a paycheck that more than kept the wolves at bay. Had I sold my soul to acheive this? No way- I still had my independence because I was the captain- right?

Well no, actually the owner was in fact the expert seafarer on the team or at least he indicated he thought he was by the way he called the shots… from his office… 2000Nm away. Independent? Hmmm. Ultimately not in the way that I wanted. What further periods of introspection revealed was that what I needed was to be fiercely independent – and bang! just like that I needed something else from my workplace. Grit.

Granted I still wanted job satisfaction, excitement, independence & financial stability but suddenly I could not live without Grit.

What is Grit? Any HR expert will tell you that Grit is what we really want in people we hire these days. Grit is about tenacity, the ability to tough out the hard times, it’s about staying focused on a far away goal and adapting and evolving to reach your target. HR managers dream of entire departments of employees so gritty and tenacious that world famine and war would stand no chance if we could just agree on the overtime rates. For me Grit also means wilfully entering situations that bring out the problem-solver, that challenge our endurance and keep the gardens of our self-belief watered. Whether I like it or not I had to admit to myself that I could not be happy in a workplace unless I was taking the path less travelled.

So despite the cultural norm that says I should want things to get easier, I in fact want each day to be a tooth and nail struggle; not emergencies and financial disaster but challenging and a little uncertain. Just writing that makes me feel like I will be judged a madman. Why would anyone want things more difficult? Why would you want to keep your hands in the dirt when the opportunity to don a suit and have an easier life might exist? Well, because honest, satisfying labour I believe has value in and of it’s self and cultural norms or not- I never sleep better, nor am I more proud of myself than after a hard days actual hard physical WORK.

After years in my industry slowly moving away from the tasks that characterized my first experiences at sea I found that to be happy I had to reset the clock and re-visit the work that had defined and founded my great love of my craft. I had to do that as a matter of great importance or risk losing who I am. Whether the sentiment was understandable to others or not it didn’t matter- for some inexplicable reason I missed the long cold nights on watch , the wet socks, the hours on the fore-deck in ferocious seas, week after week of harsh conditions- those were the things that had defined me and only by regularly re-engaging with those basic things could I begin to recognize myself in the mirror again.

It occurs to me that many people in many industries are in the same position. If you are skilled in what you do then you move up. You stop doing those tasks you are good at and instead become a manager of other people who are doing those things for you. You become a manager whether or not ‘manager’ is a skill set that you are passionate about. Along the way I think many of us lose a little of who we are thinking that dislocation form the work we love is a price that must be paid if we are ever going to truly succeed. It is my experience that in this way organizations end up supremely top heavy in skills and bottom heavy in personnel and all the while the people who are passionate about the work want to be back at the bottom and everyone on the shop floor level wants to move on up.

What’s the answer? I honestly don’t know- whatever the proposed solution we seem to have to either compromise on job satisfaction, wage, independence or family & friends- and something as they say ‘gotta give’.

For myself my realization now is that even though it compromises my possible wage level and a little of my time with my family and friends I have to be busy with work each day that allows me to be me. Whatever that is. To be happy I know I need to be completely independent and thereby solely responsible for the success or failure of my endeavours. I know I need to work with people who are energized and enthused and passionate about their work and I know I need to get up each day knowing that it is going to be a challenge and that whatever the outcome of that day- I have made it that way by my own efforts or lack thereof.

Temet Nosce means ‘know thyself’ and after twenty years in my chosen career I finally see that after many wrong turns trying to improve my career – in the end it took returning to my roots working to get people out sailing with Sail4Cancer that has begun to allow me to recapture some sense of the enormous pride and satisfaction that used to fill each day when I was just a lowly deck slug.

What’s better this second time around is that now I’m calling the shots as well as mopping the decks I don’t have to day dream of how things are going to get better- I know that they already are.

CSM