Back to Workplace Education

Sudden Opportunity

How self-education skills open doors to opportunity

By Bob Webb

Pilot Boat Captain in Guam

My wife and I designed and self-built a 50-foot ketch named Hunky-Dory. Then we sailed the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. As you can imagine, cruising life is very different from home-based living. Cruisers sail a while then work for a while to build up the cruising budget and move on. Local businesses in the Pacific Islands seek out cruisers because they can hire highly skilled temporaries at low wages. It's beneficial to both parities.

In the early '90s, Joan and I stopped in Guam, a territory of the United States. I wanted to get back in the job market and applied for jobs. I was getting nowhere. I always dressed neatly which seemed to make the interviewer uncomfortable. They would tell me, "You don't want to work here." I soon learned that some work environments are very abusive, almost like they were in the early 1900s.

I decided to apply for a captain's position at a company that does harbor work. On advice from former employees I decided to dress down and act like I had a sloppy attitude. I wore a dirty white "T" shirt, dirty blue jeans, wore flip-flops on my feet, messed up my hair, and did not shave that morning. Looking like a bum I walked in the company office and told the receptionist I was seeking a captain's position. She told me to have a seat. In a few minutes I was in a job interview and a job was offered. That was shock number one. My appearance was out of character and I was embarrassed. I always try to look neat. Shock two came when the manager said, "The pay is $9 per hour. I know other companies pay $20, but this is what we pay." Considering my sloppy look $9 should be a lot of money. I later discovered that low wages attracts sloppy management and sloppy employees. My sloppy appearance was the job qualification for this company.

I asked the manager for time to think it over. I never did harbor work before and it would be opportunity to learn a new skill, even if the wages are low. For companies that pay $20 per hour there are no openings and no one is leaving.  After talking it over with Joan we agreed that I should take the job.

The next day I dressed up to make a better impression. I told the manager I would accept the job. Shock three came next. He said, "You start today at noon. You will have an instructor until midnight. Tomorrow you are on your own."

I explained, I never did harbor work before, I never operated twin screws, my experience is on sailboats, I needed more training than twelve hours. I was already screaming at the manager and I hadn't even started yet.

The manager asked, "Do you want the job or not?"

I said I would take it and stormed out of the office to the job site.

During the next twelve hours, with an instructor, I took crewmembers and supplies to and from ships at anchor. The next day I was on my own when I was told to take a pilot off a ship as it was leaving the harbor. All I knew was the ship does not stop and the pilot gets off while everything is on the move.

I was motoring beside the ship when I radioed the pilot and explained, "I never did this before and would like some advice." He did not answer. I asked again and no answer. With the throttles wide open I decided to go in close and get next to the pilots ladder that was hanging on the side of the ship. I was within five feet of the ship and the ship was moving faster than I could go. Soon my launch hit the stern wake. I knew the stern of ships has a lot of suction, but I didn't realize its strength until then. The stern wake picked up the launch, spun it sideways and slammed it into the stern of the ship. With the throttles still wide open the launch shot out from under the ship.

At this time I got the pilots attention. On the radio he screamed instruction and I was so rattled I did not know what I was doing. The pilot kept screaming more instructions. All I could think of was "How am I going to get the launch by the pilot's ladder?" The ship slowed and I was beside it when the launch slammed sideways into it. At that time the pilot jumped off the ship onto the cabin top. He came down the stairwell screaming and I was screaming back. When he saw I was new he patted me on the back and said, "You did OK."

Back at the dock the other captains were listening to the drama on their radio. When I came ashore they looked at me and shook their heads. My shift relief was there and I went home with tremendous emotional pain. Two days on the job and I wanted out. Anyhow, I knew I would be fired when my supervisor head about this.

The next day I came to work expecting confrontation and was in a fighting mood. There wasn't one peep about the incident. As the day ended I decided to be the best captain the company ever had. I am going to conquer the emotional pain by learning to get it right and keep at it until I had complete confidence in my skill. Every day for the next six weeks I hated going to work. I wanted to tell the manager "I QUIT!" My fears and emotional pain was tremendous.

Three months later I was taking a ship's crew ashore. They were standing on the bow in front of the pilothouse. The harbor was jammed with ships and finding a place to let the passengers off was not always easy. There was a narrow gap between two ships and I decided to dock there. The passengers looked at the gap, looked at me at the helm and back to the gap. From a distance the gap looked too small. By this time I knew the launch and what it could do. As we slid between the ships to the dock the passengers looked up at me an applauded. I never felt so good in my life. Experienced seamen applauding me was a badge of honor.

That year a Hurricane hit Guam. I was out in the harbor in 100-knot winds supporting tugs that were trying to keep ships from going aground. With the winds over 100 knots I radioed the tugs and told them I could not help any longer or I will be on the rocks. I secured the launch getting ready for the eye of the storm. At that time tugboat captains were abandoning the ships to save themselves. When the winds reached 150 knots twelve commercial fishing boats sank around me and that many more were busted up, but still floating. Our yacht, Hunky-Dory went up on pilings and busted up.

This experience illustrates many elements of risk taking:

  1. I developed skills I never had before.
  2. I strengthen my ability to hang in when everything goes wrong.
  3. By dressing down, I entered a social class that was totally foreign to me. I experienced, first hand, how lower class people are exploited.
  4. I became aware of leadership styles. I worked most of my life for a company that treated its employees like royalty. The pay was at the top of the scale. Then I worked for a company that abused its employees badly. The pay was at the bottom of the scale.
  5. Man has the ability to educate himself. In this case, I was forced to learn on my own by making every mistake possible.
  6. Low paying companies do not spend money on training programs. Employees must find ways to educate themselves to complete the assigned tasks. This is opportunity for limited experienced people. Once experience is achieved, they move on to a higher wage company. This makes room for the next entry-level employee.
  7. Risk comes with a battle scare, that's why it is called risk. During this illustration, we lost our yacht Hunky-Dory.

When accepting the captain's job, the only benefit I expected was a new skill. The other elements were surprises that led to new opportunity and new challenges.

Test Your Reaction to Sudden Opportunity

What would you do if faced with sudden opportunity? Remember, no one knows their true abilities until they have opportunity and take risk. The rewards of risk are endless. Picture yourself in this imaginary situation.

Jesse is flying you to a conference in his private plane. The plane is on autopilot, so the two of you two are relaxed, discussing the conference and commenting on the nice weather. Suddenly Jesse leans back and passes out. He ate too many chocolate chip cookies or something. However, you are faced with sudden opportunity. You must learn to fly the airplane and land it without an instructor. What is your reaction?

Sudden opportunity comes with reactions related to risk, fear and failure. It is your decision to risk all by taking control of the controls. What about your trembling body? You have to take control of that too. What if you fail? If you don't try, it is automatic failure. Trying gives you a chance. How much of a chance depends on how well you control your emotions.

If you were in the habit of taking on projects and finishing them, you have an excellent chance of landing the airplane and surviving. Starting and finishing projects builds confidence. Confidence is the ability to control our emotions. The problem is, we don't know how we will react until we are in a stressful situation. The only way to find out is to jump into projects that are way over our head. In an airplane, at 10,000 feet, without a pilot, WE ARE IN OVER OUR HEAD! Taking aggressive action is the only way out.

People who avoid projects or quit at the first sign of conflict, may never take the airplane off of autopilot; they avoid taking risk. The results are predetermined. However, you have decided to take control of the plane and land it. You see a small airstrip and decide to circle to learn how to use the controls. You push the throttle in and out to get the feel of its response, turn the steering wheel to get the feel of turning and push the wheel in and out to get a feel of climbing and dropping. Training is over when the fuel is low.

Fuel is now low and it is time to land. A few feet off the ground, you cut the throttle and pull back on the stick. The stall buzzard sounds and the plane hits the ground hard. A crosswind spins the plane and it comes to a halt on the side of the runway. There is damage to the plane, but you and Jesse are all right. After you had time to calm down, what is your reaction? Your self-esteem will be at 10,000 feet. Positive self-esteem is the result of being able to do what others haven't done. This experience will become a turning point in your life and will bring many rewarding benefits.

More Information

Back to Workplace Education