Prudence and Excellence

Samuel Plimsoll on Cargo Ship with Crew

As we pursue a new year our ambition may, at times, overshadow prudence in choosing what we should resolve to accomplish and do in the new year. It is resolve and consistency that will keep us moving steadily forward in our quest for improvement. 

A few centuries ago, British ships were sinking into the ocean because they were overloaded before they headed out to sea. Samuel Plimsoll developed a way to mark lines on the hull of a ship before it was loaded, guiding  the dock workers and captains on the appropriate load. When the boat being loaded reached a certain line in the water, they stopped filling it. This approach required managers to prioritize what they loaded—packing the most critical cargo first—and this system became known as the Plimsoll Line. 

Prior to developing his ship loading system, Samuel Plimsoll was attempting to become a coal merchant in 1853 London. He failed and was reduced to destitution and, for a time, lived in common lodgings that cost a modest rent of seven shillings and two pence a week. He learned to sympathize with the struggles of the poor, and when his good fortune returned he resolved to devote much of his time to improving their condition. His efforts were directed especially against what were known as “coffin ships”—unseaworthy and overloaded vessels, often heavily insured, on which unscrupulous owners risked the lives of their crews. In 1867 Plimsoll was elected to Parliament from Derby and endeavored in vain to pass a bill requiring safe loading limits on ships. The main obstacle to this legislation was the number of powerful ship-owning Members of Parliament.

From Samuel Plimsoll's campaigning book 'Cattle Ships', intended to show how ships roll in bad weather. It was his case that cattle steamers were dangerously unstable and a menace to seamen.
From Samuel Plimsoll’s campaigning book ‘Cattle Ships,’ intended to show how ships roll in bad weather. It was his case that cattle steamers were dangerously unstable and a menace to seamen.

In 1872 Plimsoll published a work entitled “Our Seamen,” which became well known throughout the country. Plimsoll never quit trying to reform shipping safety laws and, after his motion in 1873, a Royal Commission was appointed and in 1875 a government bill was introduced. Plimsoll resolved to accept the bill for its improvements, even though he considered it less than ideal. But on July 22, Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli announced that the bill would be dropped. Plimsoll lost his temper, applied the term “villains” to members of the House, and shook his fist in the Speaker’s face. Eventually Plimsoll made an apology. Many people, however, shared his view that the bill had been stifled by the pressure of the shipowners, and popular feeling forced the government to pass a bill which in the following year was amended into the Merchant Shipping Act.

The Plimsoll Line holds many lessons relevant to our quest for excellence. As we shape our goals for the year we need to make sure we do not overload our lives with more than we can take on or do. 

We start as Stephen Covey taught by “beginning with the end in mind.” What will the year look like if you are successful in achieving your goals? 

Next, what are the right questions to help you craft your goals? Here are a few to consider. 

  1. Whom do you admire? Why? 
  2. What gifts or talents seem important to your future? Why? 
  3. What would you like more or less of in your life?
  4. What are you doing when are you happy and engaged with life?
  5. What has given you greatest meaning in your life?
  6. What is your highest goal or aspiration?
  7. What is the best book you ever read? Why do you consider it such? 
  8. What would you do with your life if you weren’t afraid to fail?
  9. What problem is annoying you these days? 
  10. What would you like to try or learn this year? Why?
  11. What are your goals this week? This year? Why might they matter to you or your family?
  12. What is your greatest dream? Why? 
  13. What do you expect of life? What does life expect of you?
  14. What do you live for? Will it sustain and motivate you throughout your life?
  15. Are you free? Happy? Why or why not?

I ask these questions because in them will likely lie the key to directing or further polishing your life and future.  Dr. Viktor Frankl noticed this from observing those who could continue to endure the difficulties of the Jewish concentration camps. 

“As we said before, any attempt to restore a man’s inner strength in the camp had first to succeed in showing him some future goal. Nietzsche’s words, ‘He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how,’ could be the guiding motto for all psychotherapeutic and psychohygienic efforts regarding prisoners. Whenever there was an opportunity for it, one had to give them a why—an aim—for their lives, in order to strengthen them to bear the terrible how of their existence. Woe to him who saw no more sense in his life, no aim, no purpose, and therefore no point in carrying on. He was soon lost. The typical reply with which such a man rejected all encouraging arguments was, ‘I have nothing to expect from life any more.’ What sort of answer can one give to that? What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual…” (Frankl, Viktor E. Man’s Search for Meaning. Boston:Beacon Press, 1962.)

This type of therapy he pioneered is called Logotherapy or “meaning therapy.” Rather than concentrating, fixating, or focusing on past errors, Logotherapy invites us to explore our future possibilities, our purpose, and why we exist. Meaning becomes more apparent as we identify our special excellences, cultivate them by using them to bless others in a state of self-transcendence. This is how we put ourselves on the path to achieving true excellence with both wisdom and prudence.

Featured image attribution: Samuel Plimsoll and his wife (she behind him) with the crew of a Mediterranean cargo steamer Unknown photographer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Published by Dean Forman

I am co-founder and CEO of the John Adams Academies, an institution that is perhaps the most unique charter school system in America today. The Academies’ curriculum is designed to give its students an American Classical Leadership Education®. This is an education that pursues truth, beauty and goodness and turns its scholars outward in search of those whom they can serve in becoming servant leaders. This website is dedicated to sharing the concepts of an American Classical Leadership Education with its readers so that more citizens can benefit from the truth, virtue and wisdom of the past. The thoughts and opinions I share on this page are my personal views.

2 thoughts on “Prudence and Excellence

  1. What a beautiful, purposeful message, dear son! I want you to know that it instilled hope and much needed energy in prioritizing the eternal cargoes in my old, but still sea-worthy ship of life. With enthusiastic determination the load-line has been adjusted and my sails are raised as I joyfully embark on the much anticipated journey ahead. Your powerful message was inspired and has touched my soul deeply. I thank you again for being such a righteous disciple of our Heavenly Father.

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