Business Lessons From a Day At Sea

My father, Dr. Thomas Owen, often said: “Every principle in business and in life can be related to flying an airplane or sailing a boat.” When I was young, he and I spent a lot of time sailing in the Gulf, and there are certainly many parallels between life at sea and entrepreneurship. One trip in particular is the perfect example.

On the day we planned to set sail we were met with storms and winds left over from a hurricane in the gulf. Our first priority was getting safely out of the harbor, and we quickly realized that task would require careful forethought and planning.

We checked the forecast and then took into consideration the location of our slip in the harbor, the lack of visibility, and state of the water caused by the weather. We combined that information with our past experiences to determine how to safely get out of the harbor and set sail. We didn’t have a 100% guarantee of the weather, let alone our safety and success that day, but we took what we did know and used it to formulate a plan.

Pre-planning is so important when you’re preparing to take action. Whether it’s choosing a technique or opening a practice, you need to have as much information about your situation as possible, because it is necessary to determine your outcome.

This is where some people get tripped up. They either don’t take the time to gather the information and plan, or they think that because they don’t have 100% of the information available to them, they can’t make a plan at all and give up without even trying.

Understand that you may have decisions to make and plans to prepare, and having all of the information simply isn’t possible. Sometimes you are going to be required to factor in a certain amount of risk. Seldom are all of our plans guaranteed. What you have to do is decide how much risk you are willing to take.

A good rule of thumb to follow is to say, “If I can get __% (you set your number) of the information I need to make this decision, then I will proceed. If not, I will go with Plan B.”

Once you’ve decided, take the information available to you, weigh it out, make your plans and get on with business. If you wait until you know 100% of what there is to know about your situation, some decisions will never get made. You won’t formulate a plant, and those opportunities will be lost to you forever.

My father said it this way: “It’s called risk, and no one has ever been successful without a little bit of that.”

About an hour into our voyage, the storm worsened and visibility became almost non-existent. As any novice seaman can tell you, there are red and green markers in the water, known by the terms “port” and “starboard’ which are placed to help you safely navigate. Those markers were our salvation that day.

Adding to our problems, one of our engines mysteriously quit working, making it impossible to move forward. Without that engine, the ship began to spin, causing us to lose track of the markers. While I worked on the engine, my father, a master seaman, was able to gain control of the ship.

Though it was shaping up to be a rough day, we happened upon an unexpected blessing. During all the chaos, we encountered three fishing boats from Cape Cod. We knew they were experienced and had successfully navigated these waters before. Their familiarity with the waters allowed them to stay on course, despite the rough conditions.

So, we followed in their wake, trusting that their knowledge and experience would help guide us to safety.
When you have a day like that at sea, you realize how important certain things are to stay on course and out of danger. Making a plan, staying within the markers, and following someone with experience who has “been there and done that,” can mean the difference between success and failure.

You never know when low visibility or engine trouble could happen. It always helps to plan and get the right start, so that when situations cause you to lose sight of your markers, you know you can’t be too far off.

My story makes an obvious point. Sometimes there are situations in our lives that disorient us and cause us to lose sight of our intended destination. But, if we plan well, stay on course, and learn from those who have already succeeded, we can find success.

It is always easier to find your way if you have a point of reference, like the markers out at sea. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been temporarily sidetracked as a result of your own choices, or something you had no control over. Consider your lessons learned, and find someone who has gone before you. Ask their advice, follow in their wake, and let them lead you to success.

One final lesson from that day: a master sailor always uses his good judgement, to avoid needing his master skills.

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