Stories about the expectation reality gap


Came across this story I first read when I was reading 7 habits:

A battleship had been at sea on its routine manoeuvres under heavy weathers for days. The captain, who was worried about the deteriorating weather conditions, stayed on the bridge to keep an eye on all activities. One night, the lookout on the bridge suddenly shouted, “Captain! A light, bearing on the starboard bow.” “Is it stationary or moving astern?” the captain asked. The lookout replied that it was stationary. This meant the battleship was on a dangerous collision course with the other ship.

The captain immediately ordered his signalman to signal to the ship: “We are on a collision course. I advise you to change course 20 degrees east.”

Back came a response from the other ship: “You change course 20 degrees west.” Agitated by the arrogance of the response, the captain asked his signalman to shoot out another message: “I am a captain, you change course 20 degrees east.”

Back came the second response: “I am a second class seaman, you had still better change course 20 degrees west.”

The captain was furious this time! He shouted to the signalman to send back a final message: “I am a battleship. Change course 20 degrees east right now!”

Back came the flashing response: “I am a lighthouse.”

The captain duly changed course

It’s interesting to find stories like this as they are like Aesop’s fables, the morality stories from ancient times. This approach of using story and narrative still has relevance in today’s age. I am reading several books looking at perception, narrative and self-deception and the idea that story is a way to convey principles of change is currently holding my interest.

Thinking about perceptions, expectations and about the reality of a situation, the captain and the lighthouse story captures the expectation reality gap really well. Here, it’s not so simply a case of holding high expectations but having fundamentally wrong perceptions of the situation: the mistaken belief by the captain that any other light in the night is like the ship he is in command of, in other words a battleship. This reflects a common assumption people make about others, whom they assume to be and act like themselves. If the other person doesn’t often they are judged and this becomes particularly problematic in situations were people hold different values. A good example is in marriages were expectations and values of what a marriage should be can sometimes differ and unless these are discussed openly and constructively can lead to problems in communication and ultimately relationship breakdowns.

The lighthouse metaphor encapsulates A powerful realization of other people’s difference. Just as a lighthouse is shining a light to aid in navigation, people act as beacons in our lives if we are prepared to see it. If however we insist that the other person is like us ‘a battleship’ we may miss the opportunity to learn from people put in our way during turbulent times. Thinking through my story of life I can see this working again and again: before I am able to change myself I first have to be willing to recognize the path that is revealed (usually by listening to others) without allowing my preconceptions to dominate, or if they do, to back down and let go of them.

To benefit from someone else’s wisdom and expertise I first have to recognize that they are in effect a lighthouse. Taking the battleship metaphor further, if we believe the other person is, like ourselves,  a battleship there is a sense of two juggernauts asserting their dominance, competing if not aggressively in battle, then at least in terms of establishing dominance. Under these circumstances there is little scope for accepting any kind of direction and help from the lighthouse. When we face adversity we often inhabit a defensive position assuming situations and people to be opposed to our goals and agendas. Of course, sometimes they are playing an adversarial role intentionally. Nevertheless sometimes even our adversaries can illuminated our path more than they realize, or intend. In my experience and with the right mindset even the assholes can teach us – even if it is just about who we don’t want to be and surround ourselves with.

The moral of the story? In turbulent times keep your eyes AND your mind open…

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