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24 January 2005

Get off the ship

"You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do the thing which you think you cannot do."  -Eleanor Roosevelt

In the fall of 1988, I sailed around the world. Actually, that sounds more romantic and rugged than it was. It's not as if I was hoisting the jib and jibing the boom, as sailors are wont to do (though we did live through a typhoon and nearly capsize, worthy of a few tall sailor tales.)

I was working on the University of Pittsburgh's (Pennsylvania, USA) Semester at Sea program, traveling on a large ship that circumnavigated the globe in 4 months. We stopped in 10 amazing ports along the way--from Kobe and Split to Istanbul and Cadiz - and beyond. The students' experiences in port were core to their educational program--we arranged in-country programs to complement their classroom studies aboard the S.S. Universe.

A month into the voyage, I realized there was one student who never got off the ship. Lest we leave a coed in Odessa or Taipei, we carefully tracked students' passports and it was clear that one young woman had never set foot in any of the ports we had visited thus far.

When we docked in Penang, Malaysia, I sought her out and we sat on the promenade deck near the pool. After watching a while as workers brought aboard provisions, I asked her about staying on the ship all the time. She finally admitted that she didn't leave the ship because she was afraid she would get lost. It was an answer I wasn't prepared for.

I had to think for a while before I could respond. Her fear seemed so irrational to me, but of course it was real and rational to her, since it was literally prescribing the confines of her world. "hmmm...," I finally said. "How old are you?" She was 20.

We sat for a few minutes longer. "And what do you think the life expectancy is for women in the U.S. these days?, I asked. "I guess it's around 80," she replied.

"Do you think you'll stay lost for 60 years?'" I quietly asked. We made a pact to get lost together in our next port, which was Madras, India.

I've thought a lot about that since 1988. How much do we hold back on life because of fear--whether rational or irrational? What do we have to gain by getting lost every once in a while? What are we allowing to prescribe the limits of our world? What ship are we staying on?

Outward Bound, a wilderness education program, is headquartered in my hometown in North Carolina. As local high school students, my friends and I participated in their programs free of charge. One trip provided the learning of a lifetime.

Hiking from Table Rock to Mt. Mitchell through the Linville Gorge was supposed to take five days. It took seven. There were 23 of us -- 18 students, two teachers and three guides.  Oue guides provided the training to cross a river, read a map, and find the North Star. They provided the tools to get us to Mt. Mitchell. After that "book learning," we teenagers were in charge. Completely.

Being shown how to read a map and actually reading one are two very different things. It was on the third day that we made the wrong decision, leading us 12 miles out of our way. Our guides did nothing to save us from making the mistake; instead, they hiked those extra 12 miles along with us. The mistake was the learning, as it turns out.

Physicist Hermann von Helmholtz was a great teacher and brilliant experimenter. He likened knowledge to an alpine climb--when you climb a mountain, you don't go straight from the bottom to the top, you zigzag, you go around and through, eventually getting to the top where you can then see both the top and bottom and the straight line between them. When you're at the top, you can show others what Helmholtz called the "royal road." But being shown the royal road isn't learning, it's only the explanation, just as being taught to read a map isn't the same as reading one.

The learning process is far less exact than the royal road. And it is that winding, twisty trail where learning gets done. You make a false start; you backtrack, and then go ahead. Sometimes you go 12 miles out of your way. And sometimes getting lost is the learning. To do any of that, you have to first leave the ship.

37 days: do it now challenge

Many discoveries were accidental, and came from being lost: the Big Bang, post-it notes, Jovian Moons, even GPS systems that help us get found--they were all accidental discoveries. This week, ask yourself what ship you're staying on and what you might be losing out on by not venturing out. One day this week, be an accidental explorer: get lost, take a wrong turn, veer off the path you always take, read a magazine you would not otherwise read, connect with someone you perceive to be quite different from yourself. Take the trail rather than just read about the royal road. Get off the ship.

"Don't be afraid to be out on a limb. That's where the fruit is." -H. Jackson Browne

"I'm not afraid of storms, for I'm learning how to sail my ship." -Louisa May Alcott


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May I just say, I love your beingness.

Oh Patti, what a delightful essay. I especially like the part about zigging and zagging up the mountain part. I am still zagging my way and back tracking trying to find the right path for this time in my life. What fun it must have been to sail around the world! I am looking to to a similar program to partake in.

Much love and kind thoughts

...or read a blog you would not otherwise read.

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