A useless class taught me everything I need to know about life

In college, I took what I thought was the most useless class ever. I had a ton of fun in the class but I thought it was completely irrelevant to me. Last night, almost 9 years later, I realized that class was the most important class I've ever taken. It's funny how those older and wiser than you may be having you accomplish a "useless" task for reasons you'll never understand at the moment.

It was August 2013 and my first day of Marine Survival class. This was a two-parter-class work focused on how to survive on the ocean if you had to abandon ship and an in-person lab where we learned how to deploy and flip inflatable rafts, lower lifeboats, and make personal floatation devices out of our pants. A big part of the class was learning to row an open-top lifeboat. On the first day of the rowing portion, the instructor said very plainly, "you'll never see one of these open-top lifeboats again". Opentops are obsolete. I figured the school just didn't want to upgrade to modern equipment or was going at the approach of learning the old school before getting into today's survival craft. No matter the reason for the old equipment, we hopped in and got to rowing.

The crew was composed of nine of us. Four on each side and one steering (coxswain). When you rowed, you took orders from the coxswain. Depending on what they wanted the boat to do, they'd say something like, "starboard side prepare to give way, ready, steeeee-roke" for a left-hand turn and the coxswain would give a little help with a left-hand turn with the sweep oar. Everyone got a turn as the coxswain and everyone got, even more, turns at rowing the craft.
It was incredibly challenging to be the coxswain. Most of us had been in control of a boat a time or twenty thousand - this was nothing new for us. What was new, having a bunch of people you didn't know being your power and having to communicate what you wanted to be done. Last night, this finally hit me - that's leadership, management, and business operations all wrapped up in one nicely bowed life lesson package.

When you were the coxswain, you had to trust that the people with the oars were going to do the right thing on time. You had to communicate effectively, clearly, concisely, and very quickly to keep course and maneuver as you needed. You had to work with people to get a task accomplished. Most importantly, you had to build rapport so that when you got in a bind your oar people wanted to help you get out of it (not make it worse like I did or those I didn't like).

As a recovering lone wolf, this was quite the realization that people are the key to successful projects and business executions. I had for years thought fondly of that class. I think about all the fun I had with my friends rowing and driving boats around. That class forced me to communicate with my peers and those who were on my team. Hell, it forced me to have a team. When you're a solo operator, you can make decisions on the fly, and be more "nimble" than those with teams. That's the reason large corporations are run out of business by small start-ups. Small is nimble. Solo also means you don't have to ever work on communicating (I suck at that). A team requires that you communicate. The class I thought was useless taught me that I need a team (and how to work with one).

Working with a team, communicating the plan, then executing took a little more time than working solo. When you wanted to turn left, you had to tell the guys on the port side to hold water and the starboard side to give way. You could make small course changes by yourself but wanted to make a 30º course change? That ain't a solo effort. You had to think a few minutes ahead of where you were at (more on thinking 10 minutes ahead of the ship later). When you pilot by yourself, you can adjust for set and drift alone (movement of the vessel off of its intended course). You can mostly just react to a wind shift rather than think ahead and predict. If you tried to just react to the changing circumstances or environment, you'd never make a successful landing. Having a team required you to think ahead, about where you are going and how to position yourself to get there. If you weren't thinking ahead, you'd never be able to get the oar command out of your mouth in time to get anything accomplished.

I remember a few times when I was rowing, a coxswain wasn't thinking far enough ahead and they'd get in trouble. The instructor would try and jump in to attempt to correct the situation. The instructor would spit out oar commands at lightning speed - sometimes it would same us, other times we'd still crunch the boat a bit (training academy for you). Luckily we were in small, overbuilt wooden boats that were incredibly robust and resilient. An accident wasn't catastrophic. Scale that up to a large ship or a business? Not keeping on top of where you're going and staying 10 minutes in front of yourself can have catastrophic effects. Simply reacting will leave you on the rocks, high and dry, on the front of the newspaper as the latest disaster.

Looking back, the class I thought was the most useless was one of the most important and foundational classes for not just marine operations and business but, getting through life successfully. Sometimes the classes you think are a waste are the base for a successful life.

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