Thinking the Unsinkable

I used to want a time machine when I was a kid, something out of H.G Wells or “Back to the Future,” so I could see the great events of the past all over again. Lately, I’m starting to wonder if I succeeded.

So far, I’ve seen a presidential candidate (now former) promise to put a man on the moon.

I’ve seen a member of Congress hold up a list of hidden Communists in Washington, D.C.

And now there’s plans to build an unsinkable ship called the Titanic.

Yes, seriously.

Credit this one to Australian billionaire Clive Palmer. He plans to launch a new Titanic sometime in 2016, built to the same dimensions and even starting on the same route – but designed to avoid the same finish.

“It will be designed as a modern ship with all the technology to ensure that doesn’t happen,” Palmer told Reuters on Monday.

Will someone sign the gentleman up for Missing The Point 101, please?

First of all, there’s nothing remarkable in designing a cruise ship that doesn’t sink. Most of them don’t. It’s like bragging that you’ve built an individual airliner that won’t crash – the odds are good that you’ll never have to test your claim.

Second, there’s no real reason to do it, beyond separating a lot of tourists from a lot of money. (Itself a good enough reason for most businessmen, admittedly.) If Titanic II sails safely into New York, it won’t magically bring back the passengers from Titanic I. It won’t even prove the first Titanic could have done it, since it won’t be using the same tools.

But most importantly, it ignores one of the biggest lessons of the Titanic – how the humility of failure can teach more than the pride of success.

I first heard the theory floated (sorry) by an engineer and author named Henry Petroski during an NPR interview. In it, he noted that if the Titanic had sailed safely, there would have been nothing historically remarkable about it. It would have made money and had imitators, like any other successful product.

But the flaws in its design would have still been there. They might have even been exaggerated as competitors tried to build it bigger and better. Sooner or later, overconfidence would get the same payoff – maybe even worse.

“When we have a success, a prolonged period of success, we tend to become more complacent,” Petroski said. “We tend to become overconfident that we’re doing it right, that we’ve got it figured out finally. And then, of course, a failure occurs and wakes us up out of our dream.”

And that’s when the learning comes – when you’re willing to acknowledge that mistakes are possible, that you can screw up, that’s when you really begin scrutinizing your work.

It almost sounds un-American, I know. We have an ideal of almost hyper-competency, that a free people can go anywhere, accomplish anything. And honestly, I’m glad when people dream big; that’s where a lot of great ideas start.

But it’s that dash of humility – that willingness to admit that maybe this time we don’t know everything – that can keep those big dreams from becoming bigger nightmares.

It’s something teachers drill into their students, that editors drill into their reporters: don’t get cocky, check your work. It’s an attitude all too rare in politics anymore, where the appearance of being right seems to matter more than the reality.

And it’s the only way to guard against a Titanic error.

Mr. Palmer, may you have the best of luck and happy sailing. But if Titanic II arrives on time, it won’t be because of unsinkable confidence. It’ll be because everyone acknowledged the worst and planned for it.

Meanwhile, I wish you well.

In fact, with the headlines lately, maybe I should wish you Wells.

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