No Sudden Moves

One of the lifeboats from the Titanic. National Archives photo.

I just read a fascinating article about the sinking of the Titanic, which addresses the question: Why didn’t the passengers panic while the Titanic was going down? Apparently, this is of great interest to economists (economists are strange), because they believe that people usually act out of their own self-interest. Three years after the Titanic sunk, the Lusitania, another luxury ship with a similar number of passengers, also sank. But the passengers on the Lusitania panicked, whereas while the Titanic went down, the band famously began playing music, doomed men strolled around smoking cigars, and order prevailed. What made the difference?

The answer to this question is proposed by an economist (so you can take it with a shaker full of salt); he theorizes that the Titanic passengers didn’t panic because the boat took longer to sink. The Titanic took about 2.5 hours to go down, whereas the Lusitania sank in under 20 minutes. David Savage, the economist who proposed this theory, says, “If you’ve got an event that lasts two and a half hours, social order will take over and everybody will behave in a social manner. If you’re going down in under 17 minutes, basically it’s instinctual.”

In other words, it takes time for our best instincts to win out.

This article fascinated me because it seems to support something I’ve been telling myself repeatedly over the past couple of months: “No sudden moves.”

I track time by the photos that show up in the “Last 12 Months” category in my iPhoto program, so I can tell you that exactly one year ago, we had just bought our house in Vermont, Erick was graduating from his PhD program at Berkeley, Georgia was getting baptized, and our California house was slowly filling with moving boxes. Around the same time, Erick and I decided that since he finally had a full-time job, and since our family was going through so many major transitions, I should take a year to focus solely on the home front. A year without thinking about any work outside the home. A year in which my job was to help a husband and three young children adjust to our new life. It turned out to be a great decision, I’m thankful that I had the luxury to even consider it, and it’s been a special year for our family.

But that year is almost up.

Which means that I’m thinking about thinking about what my next move, if any, should be. And that’s why I keep telling myself, “No sudden moves.”

This doesn’t come naturally to me. In fact, the reason I’m telling myself to slow down is because I’ve done the opposite for most of my life. I’ve never been someone with what you might call a “life plan.” I went to college with no firm idea of what I wanted to major in or what I wanted to be. Post-college, if I liked something, I decided that’s what I should do. If I got accepted for a job or graduate school, I jumped. When we reached a stage at which it seemed like we should be thinking about kids, we tried to have kids (and, fortunately for us, everything happened pretty quickly). I bopped through about a decade of post-college life in this completely unintentional, take-whatever-comes-my-way fashion. Even moving to Vermont, though practical and wonderful, followed this pattern: Erick was offered a job in February, we had a baby in March, bought a house in April, and by June we were here.

I can’t say that I entirely regret my lack of a coherent path; all of that strikes me as what you should be able to do in your 20s, and each experience was important in its way. But now I want to do things differently. Thoughtfully. Slowly. No knee-jerk reactions, no taking a job just because it’s there. No sudden moves.

In other words, I’m trying to behave more like a passenger on the Titanic. Because I think that David Savage is probably right; given more time, it’s our better instincts that tend to prevail.

I’m actually trying to behave this way throughout my life, because I don’t think this rule applies only to sinking ships or career decisions. Give anything a little more time — be it parenting, relationships, or major purchases — and I’m less likely to act out of instinctual panic, more likely to make wise choices. Sometimes this means closing my eyes, biting my tongue, and taking several deep breaths before dealing with a kicking, screaming child, but it usually leads to a better outcome.

Of course, taking too much time can also be counter-productive, the equivalent of “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.” Whether or not there’s an open spot on the lifeboat, at some point you have to get off of the sinking ship. So, I’m aware of the need for balance; no sudden moves, but no spinning my wheels for years waiting for some unattainable “perfect thing.” (And, by the way, I’m also aware that EVERYTHING I’m writing about here is a luxury: being able to find jobs after college, being able to take a year at home, being able to take time making decisions. If I were a single mother or if Erick lost his job or if I’d graduated college a decade later, I might suddenly find myself on the Lusitania, even if I wanted to have a Titanic mindset.)

Here’s one more fascinating fact I learned from the article: regardless of the passengers’ behavior, the Titanic and the Lusitania each had roughly the same number of survivors. Which means that whether they behaved calmly or panicked, the same percentage of people made it off each boat.

That could be a discouraging fact: whether you calmly light up a cigar while allowing women and children to board the lifeboats first, or whether you crawl over fellow passengers in order to make it to safety, your chances of survival are the same. If you’ll allow me to extend the ship metaphor a little further, I suppose what it comes down to is this: we all know that the ship sinks in the end, but none of us really know how long that’s going to take. So, how to behave in the time we’ve got?

I say: take a stroll, light up a cigar, listen to the music, let other people go first.

No Sudden Moves.

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