A couple of years ago, my father’s brother, an ex-Army man, commented that I was a minimalist. I don’t know if he meant it as a compliment, but this was after I had landed up in an unknown city to handle an incident where a very close family member was going into coma at home. Rushing him to hospital and handling doctors and a myriad of medical complications took weeks. It did not help that the hospital had no resting place for attendants of patients in ICU and that medical treatment there was a racket. I was juggling three cell phones, sleeping in the street in winter and eating and washing when I could, in a city where I had nobody else for any kind of support.
Like the seaman that I am, I reduced everything to the basics. I concentrated on the problem and ignored everything else for nearly a month- refusing to even take phone calls from well-meaning but eventually useless relatives. My father’s brother made the comment sometime after the emergency passed.
One of the problems at sea is that Masters do not have much of an opportunity of seeing other Masters in action- barring short parallel voyages or such. We sign on or off and the other Captain leaves. But based on what I saw as a junior officer and on a few occasions later, my sense is that good Masters- indeed, all good seamen- seem to have one thing in common when the chips are down, and that is a minimalist approach to work. A sticking-to-basics kind of single-mindedness. A spareness of sorts, if you will.
Observe a ship Captain when he is shiphandling. If he is good, he will not be charging around the place hither and thither, talking too much or asking for too much information. He will likely be absolutely still, and only his head or his eyes will be moving. He will be concentrating on the essentials and those alone- everything else will be shut out. His situational awareness will be on a knife edge. He will know, to a finely tuned degree, how the wind and the currents are effecting the ship, and at what rate. He will know the quirks of the ship, or those of her engines, better than he knows his wife’s moods. He will know how much safe space he has around him- or below him. He will know, even if he is swinging a two hundred and fifty metre long ship, how much clearance he has to an accuracy of ten or twenty metres. He will know what he will do if something goes wrong.
Everything else is shut out, including the ship-owners and managers- and, barring safety issues, even the crew. If there is too much noise inside the wheelhouse- modern equipment with its alarms, VHF chatter and blinking panel lights can be distracting - he will likely walk away onto the bridge wing, where it is quiet and he can ignore the clutter. Where he can concentrate on the basics. Where he can keep things simple.
He has to be a minimalist to get the job done right. He has to be focused only on what is important- and dump the rest- to be in control of the situation. He has to ensure that he is not paralysed by information or distracted by peripheral issues; else he will have no room in his head to tackle anything unforeseen. And that, as every seaman knows, is going to surely happen sometime or the other; it is at sea, after all.
I bet seamen have been minimalists in their work approach forever; in a hostile environment, that is the best way to ensure survival. Even today, training and experience may be critical to handle any emergency at sea, but these will prove to be insufficient, I think, without the mental rigour involved in keeping things simple. Which is, come to think of it, a very intelligent way of sifting out non-essentials.
I am not sure whether the fact that seamen are often simple people given to pithy comments is an offshoot of this minimalist approach. I do know, however, that we are often perceived as not very smart. Not sophisticated or worldly-wise enough. Too simple.
All that may be true, but it seems to me that the rest of the world could learn much from the simple sailor and his brand of minimalism. Professionally, certainly, but on a personal level too. A world drowning in information overload, paralysed by mental fatigue caused by incessant bombardment of the senses and a world in which communication is often a substitute for action would do well to declutter, decongest and destress. Forget multitasking- another thing seamen do very well, by the way. Instead, discover the benefits of single tasking, or more accurately, of single-minded tasking.
The world would do well to learn, from the simple sailor, that there is tremendous strength in the minimalist approach. Especially when the chips are down.