Setting Your Compass

Where does your compass point?

Because a journey is about going somewhere, it is imperative that a sailor maintain a sense of direction.  This is difficult once one has lost sight of land behind, and has only the horizon ahead.   A sun low in the sky may give us a sense of east or west, but at high noon we may easily be lost and change directions unknowingly.  We are helpless without a reliable compass.  Of course, we have to begin with knowing what direction we want to go in.  Only then can we compare the direction we are going in!


Optical illusions abound on the open seas, as they do in life.  When we are leaving harbor, we are visually guided by buoys that mark the safe channel to follow.  To get outside the channel is to risk running aground in shallow areas.  Up close, buoys are much bigger than expected; often twice the height of a man.  At sea they dwindle into almost nothing.  There are three parts to a buoy.  At the top is a cylinder which floats on the water.  Connected to it is a chain that leads down into the water to a concrete weight anchored on the floor of the waterway.  The position of the buoys are marked on charts and we rely on them to be where they are supposed to be.  The buoys are a sign of the familiar, a reassurance, a marker that we are on course.  They are an indication that we are leaving a familiar harbor, or approaching another one.  They can be a welcome sign of relief.  But we have to find them first.  We need a reliable compass to do that.

Our compass tells us how to steer the ship of our life.  It tells us when adjustments are needed at the wheel.  A seaworthy compass is not the same thing as you would carry in your hand on land.  It is a binnacle compass that has a card floating in a liquid.  It’s hand swivels not only to indicate direction, but it also swivels on a horizontal axis like a gyroscope, which means it is always horizontally stable no matter how much the boat tilts.  Compasses are not always reliable.  They are affected by anything magnetic, including the ships engines.  That means that a compass has to be set, meaning you have to turn the yacht to all points of the compass, and insert bits of metal inside the compass to compensate for any magnetic pull of the boats engines.

The compass represents the value judgments and assumptions we have absorbed from our culture; from our parents, siblings, schools, churches, and communities, and that we have accepted uncritically.  Not all of this information is necessarily accurate, and some parts of it may conflict with other parts of it.  If we are going to rely on this body of information to guide us safely through, we need not only to check our compass frequently on our way to our destination; we also need to “set” it by periodically examining and occasionally challenging our assumptions.  Are our settings being continually validated by our life experiences as we have been living it?  Is there congruence between what we believe and what the evidence of our senses is telling us?

It has often been said that sanity is our relationship to reality.  This means that life is a constant process of checking and validating our perceptions of reality against what we believe or accept, and modifying our viewpoints as needed.  For example, we may have always believed that Bob was a great employee, but that perception conflicts with the fact that there is a shortage in the cash register at the end of his shift.  When we close out the end of the shift, we are in effect checking our compass.  When there is a discrepancy, we first re-set our compass to make sure it is accurate and if the discrepancy persists, it may be time to reassess our perception of Bob.  He may not be on the same course as the rest of the crew.

Likewise, our perception may have been that our retirement was financially assured.  The facts of reality may now indicate otherwise.  New information acts like our compass and tells us a change in our plans is strongly indicated.

Whatever destination or goals we may have set for ourselves, we have to continually monitor ourselves to make sure we are still on course.  The sooner we learn that a mistake has been made, the sooner we can correct or adjust.  Mistakes are inevitable, and frequent comparisons of where we are as compared to where we want to be are of the utmost value.  Small mistakes are much easier to compensate for than big ones. Someone at the helm making huge turns of the wheel is the sure sign of an amateur.  Ignoring small discrepancies is foolishness; we can only stay on course by monitoring our deviations from the plan.  Every minor deviation is a small failure, and these small failures are our only means of learning and growing and adjusting.  It is the height of insanity to declare “Failure is not an option.”  Correcting our failures is how we learn.  Sailing is not performed in a straight line. 


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Don Ketterhagen shares his strategies on life and successful living

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