Captain of your own ship

You are the captain of your own ship; don’t let anyone else take the wheel.

~ Michael Josephson


Challenging words to live by, no doubt.  Captaining your own ship requires you to put yourself on the line and stay in control when the seas get rocky.  And in response to rough seas, well, many of us are content going below the deck and hoping somebody else takes over.


Our response to protect ourselves from hardship may have evolutionary rooting: as a species that’s programmed to survive, we must react accordingly to a perceived threat.  We self-preserve.  That’s what we’re designed to do. 


Humans, like animals, have been known to run, or hide, or fight (or spray) in response to perceived physical threats – the presence of the Moro, or startle, reflex at birth is an example of our survival instinct’s biological deep-rootedness – but also to perceived emotional threats.  The desire to escape threats in order to protect our self-esteem is a uniquely human motivation. A turtle hides inside its hardened shell only when it senses its life is in jeopardy, never to escape embarrassment or social awkwardness.  We hide (or run, or spray, or give up control of our ship) for both.


Oftentimes, to protect our self-esteem, we’ll attribute our successes to personal factors but attribute our failures to situational factors.  Consider the following dialogues; perhaps you’ve some familiarity with your players or children, or as an athlete yourself, in assigning these reasons for each performance.


After a perceived success:

 I did all the things I was supposed to.  I worked hard the whole time, I stayed focused, I felt really confident, and I put up some great shots.


After a perceived failure:

The refs were making terrible calls!  And did you hear the other bench?  They were so annoying!  My mom shouting from the stands didn’t help.  And my stupid coach was calling the worst plays!  Why won’t my teammates give me better passes?!


After a strong test grade:

Because I’m smart!  Plus I put in a lot of studying.


After a weak test grade:

Mr. Johnson does NOT know how to teach!  He’s so old, he should’ve retired years ago.  And the test questions were so unfair…we didn’t learn any of that during class!



These well-intentioned individuals are demonstrating an optimistic attributional style, a characteristic many in the social psychology and wellness industries view as a requirement for happiness and stress-free living.  Those who adopt such a style of thinking will view positive events as internal (good things happen because of me), stable (good things will keep happening to me), and global (good things happen in every part of my life), whereas negative events are viewed as external (bad things are not my fault), unstable (this bad thing was a fluke), and specific (bad things won’t happen in other parts of my life).


Optimism, to a degree, is helpful.  It may promote hope and lead to increased persistence.  And pessimism may breed helplessness and passivity. 


But optimism, particularly unrealistic and inflexible optimism, may also lead to relaxation and abandonment of effort.  And pessimism may result in investing more effort and energy into an activity: research suggests that students who give pessimistic explanations to their poor exam performance tend to make more plans than their optimistic counterparts to study for the next exam.


Rigid optimism is dreadfully self-serving and self-protecting.  No blow to the self-esteem is taken when failure is attributed to something else, rather than me.  “Not my fault” means that there’s no perceived threat, and my coveted self-esteem doesn’t take a hit.  


But what if Mr. Johnston actually taught the material properly?  Or the refs made all the right calls?  Or your teammates, in fact, were giving inch-perfect passes throughout the game?  Our desire to protect ourselves may cause us to blame others and make excuses, thereby losing control of our ship.  As a result, we neither learn nor self-improve.


What would captaining your own ship look like?  To start, it’s studying for every test with the purpose of mastering the information.  It’s setting your own alarm for an early morning practice and not relying on your teammate to set his.  It’s learning the mental skills so that when refs and opponents and parents do get in the way, you’re in a position to deal with it.  It’s acknowledging responsibility when responsibility ought to be acknowledged.  This is a remarkably mature and developed brain function that requires courage, and so not everyone is willing to do this.


Keep your hands on the wheel, and don’t let go.  Ahoy.

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