Thinking Out Loud

Jeffrey The Boat Pilot

Note: The following story comes from my practice and is more about processing style than communication style. The two are aligned and sometimes the separating line is faint and fine: when we process information, after all, we are in communication with ourselves.

Jeffrey had been injured in an accident while boarding an oil tanker. He was a boat pilot, and it was a typical situation for him—a tanker coming up the river from the sea with Jeffrey called to guide it to its destination. As he boarded the ship he fell and injured his hip. The result of the fall was that he would never recover sufficiently to work as a pilot again. In an ordinary moment, his life was turned upside down. He loved what he did and was good at it. You have to be good because there is no margin for error in this kind of work. Like airline pilots one must have exceptional visual-spatial and kinesthetic strengths. Logical processing skills are also essential because of the sequential nature of the many procedures involved.

Jeffrey had highly developed skills in all these areas, which he thought little about because they were so natural for him. He would step onto the deck of the ship, assume control of the vessel, and effortlessly dock it—or so it seemed. Accounting for current, wind speed, size and shape of the vessel, other water traffic and obstacles beneath the water line, Jeffrey managed this complex, dangerous visual-spatial (kinesthetic and logical) maneuver with focused ease.

It had been a freak accident, no outstanding circumstances, and he regularly reviewed what happened, hoping to discover something that would help explain what had happened. Accepting that he would never pilot a ship again brought him into a depression. The loss was hard to believe and live with. As he hit a low point, family and friends urged him to seek counseling.

In counseling Jeffrey expressed his sorrow and anger—all the feelings one would expect from someone in his situation. Fortunately, he had strong family support and good friends who kept close contact. Gradually he got on more solid emotional ground. The acceptance necessary for getting on with his life began to take shape, and part of what helped was his involvement with a new project.

Jeffrey’s brother-in-law owned a small food processing plant. Over the years they had become good friends and confidants. Dan had kept close to Jeffrey after the accident and frequently shared his own concerns and frustrations about his business. He needed the business to become more profitable to survive the competition, and he was struggling to find ways to make the plant more efficient.

Jeffrey became very interested in Dan’s situation and decided to visit the plant. He had been there many times over the years but had never really noticed the details. Now it was different. They toured the plant together, Dan talking continuously, Jeffrey not saying much but absorbing what he saw.

Over the next few days, he spent a lot of time day dreaming and sketching. At the end of the week, he returned to the plant, sat down with Dan, and mapped out the current flow of activity that showed several inefficiencies. Next, he mapped out an alternative flow, which included combining production segments, and he suggested a new machine he had conceived of to streamline shipping and receiving.

When we talked about this process, Jeffrey was baffled that a boat pilot could have such good business ideas. I found it a fascinating story and interpreted it differently for him: when you consider the mental processing styles, it actually makes a lot of sense. Jeffrey’s ability to understand spatial relationships was outstanding. He loved being on the water, but that wasn’t the only place his skills could be used. Recognizing the relationships in space of various objects and activities and manipulating them to a particular end was what he excelled at. He could do that on the floor of a food manufacturing facility as well as on the deck of a ship.

Making these connections was powerful for Jeffrey and validating. His confidence improved and he acquired a wider understanding of himself and the world around him. How it had brought his interests and life experiences together in a coherent form was emotionally powerful and healing as well.

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