Sailor, Drowner, Surfer, Bum


If you missed my presentation at the Fall SGI Expo – or even if you were there and it went by as a blur, I thought I would recap the final portion and go a little deeper into Passion, Commitment, Knowledge and Ability.

One of my favorite films is the espionage thriller, “Tailor, Tinker, Soldier, Spy.” I wonder if I’m fond of it because the title has the same rhythmic meter as much respected life lesson. The lesson says that on the “ocean of life” we run into the same 4 people over and over. They fall into the categories of Sailor, Surfer, Drowner, Bum.

Passion, Commitment, Knowledge, Ability

More about these seafarers later. Let’s start by defining the differences between these four qualities. Passion is ambition and a deep desire to accomplish something. But Passion does not produce commitment. Commitment is a cold calculating choice. But while you can have Passion without Commitment, you rarely have Commitment without Passion! Commitment is simply Passion with a PLAN!

In the same way, Ability is not the same as Knowledge. Just because you could pass a written driving test doesn’t mean that you’re a good driver the moment you get behind the wheel. Sensing the mass of the car and the speed you’re traveling, trying to be aware of the other cars and pedestrians around you all contribute to your ability to be a good driver each time you buckle up and hit the road. You may read a lot about boxing; where the theoretical “sweet spot” is on an opponent, and watch a lot of films about the sport. But does lacing on some gloves and stepping into the ring armed with that Knowledge give you the ABILITY of a boxer? Would you be able to defend yourself against Tyson Fury, Andre Ward or Bernard Hopkins?

Once again, you can have Knowledge without Ability, but it’s nearly impossible to have Ability without the foundation of Knowledge.

Now, while each person, Sailor, Surfer, Drowner, Bum has his place on the Ocean of Life, they also fall into quadrants on a continuum. Let’s take a closer look at each of these familiar personalities, starting with the lowest level on the spectrum of Knowledge and Ability.

The Quadrants on the Ocean of Life

Draw it out on a sheet of paper or in your mind’s eye place the Bum and the Drowner on the left.

We’ll begin with the Bum – and I should point out, that when I say “Bum” what I mean are not the bums that you might see on street corners asking for spare change, but rather the “beach bum”, as in “drifters.” (Think “Big Lebowski.”)

  • Bums or Drifters just go with the flow. They’re pushed this way and that, nudged by the wind and waves of circumstances. Nothing is ever their fault. Their fate is defined by external influences such as the state of the economy, the direction of their industry, or what competitors are doing.
  • They may drift into a career position and just as a wave of success is about to elevate them to the next level they get sideswiped by life and thrown off course. Drifters and Bums are adversely affected by changes in management, organizational structure and economic circumstances. Oh they’ll be around the water and maybe have a few fish tales about where they’d go and what they’d do, but they’re not getting wet. Not today! No sir!

Next are the Drowners, constantly lost at sea and sinking fast, always ready to make YOU their life preserver. Sometimes they cling a little too long and take you down with them! Rescue them once or twice and sure enough, they’ll find themselves in the center of another whirlpool, perpetually wounded, struggling to stay afloat. They’re in the water – but often they’re in too deep!

On the right side of your paper or mental image, put the Sailors and Surfers.

  • Surfers are always on the lookout, waiting for the next wave to ride. Riding the swells, surfers dream of the next “tasty wave”, as Jeff Spicoli would say in those Fast Times at Ridgemont High. But in their paddling around, waiting for the next big thing, surfers rarely gain much distance. They’re at least in the water and more controlled than the Drowners, but their view and timeline are still short-sighted and limited.

Sailors, on the other hand, compensate for shifting winds and the rise and fall of waves with sails and twisting rudders. They have direction and they navigate in an effort to reach a destination. Sailors have respect for Mother Nature and her obstacles. They check their egos at port, but head out to sea prepared with Knowledge as their compass and Ability as their map.

Helping the Sailor in this journey is a fixed point of reference – an immovable light. The rotation of the earth causes every star to move slowly across the sky at night except for one lonely star that sits above the North Pole “Polaris” and another that sits above the South Pole, “Sigma Octantis” in the constellation of the Southern Cross. Perfectly aligned with the earth’s extended axis, Polaris and the Sigma Octantis remain forever fixed, motionless and constant, guiding lights to generations of sailors the world over.

Speaking of reference points, if you were to draw arrows from the center point of these quadrants, the arrow of Knowledge would point left and Ability right. Slicing the middle up and down are arrows for Commitment pointing up between the Bum and the Sailor and Passion pointing down between the Drowner and the Surfer.

Notice the Bum is poised between the Knowledge he only collects but doesn’t put to use and Commitment that easily fades because of his habit of “drifting.” This beach bum is destined to wander with “Yeah, whatever, man” his mantra. He’s all talk, no action.

Likewise, the Drowner below him also becomes an expert in his own mind and he really would do something to change his situation, if only he wasn’t fighting external forces like waves, current and wind. His Passion turns into flailing. (Maybe the best way to help a professional drowner is to hold him under until he stops struggling.)

The Surfer in the lower right quadrant is crowned with the Ability to ride the waves, but he’s down in the water, eyes peeled along the horizon for the “next big thing” to carry him along. Sure he has skills, but any movement is dependent upon external forces and perfect timing. He’ll ride high for a while, but then his Passion fades as each wave reaches the shore and peters out. His only option is to paddle out there and start over.

The Sailor, however, buoyed by Ability and flanked by Commitment, skims the surface, attentive to shifts in wind and weather.

A sailor knows that he can’t control the wind. He knows that staying on course as the winds change is only possible if he develops the necessary sailing skills. The higher his skill level, the more comfortable he is when the wind and sea become more challenging. This is especially evident when unexpected storms arise and his very survival is on the line.

The higher our skill level, the more comfortable and confident we will be when circumstances become more challenging. Passion becomes Commitment. Knowledge is complemented by Ability. A skilled sailor doesn’t just benefit from his experience and proficiency when conditions change unexpectedly. He also develops a greater sense of awareness that allows him to read conditions and recognize the potential for danger. When he senses that conditions are becoming less favorable, he exercises his foresight to seek the shelter of a safe harbor.

Sailing the High Seas of Your Business

In closing, there are 4 helpful ideas I want you to take out there on the water with you.

  1. Cancel Limiting Beliefs. Success comes from the inside out. It’s time to recognize the limitations that are dragging you under and throw them overboard. Decide on what you really want then commit to HOW you’ll accomplish that goal.
  2. Get Granular. Be specific with yourself and your employees and where it is you’re going and why. The more familiar everyone on board is with the destination and what it looks like, you’ll have more mates and fewer mutinies!
  3. Execute With Small Steps. Every sea voyage started with a map. Although Columbus started with a lousy map and he ended up somewhere completely different, he was simply going by what made sense at the time. Plot your voyage in small increments and learn from each “leg” of the trip.
  4. Follow Your North Star. Find that non-negotiable that keeps you going when Passion fades, there’s no shore in sight, and provisions are running low. That’s when Commitment and Ability step up and confidently report, “Nothing to fear, sir. We’re on course.”

Sailors, like pilots, veterans – and small business owners – share stories of adversity, close calls and victories. What they learn from one another is that the adventure of life isn’t always about smooth sailing. I am grateful for the sailors around me who have invited me on board to share their adventures and report from the crow’s nest about rocks, storms, and the occasional magical mermaid.

May we have many more amazing tales to tell, my friends.

Onward, upward. “Arrgh.”

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