Over the years, in all of my teaching, speaking, and writing, the most popular illustration I have ever used is clearly “The Wreck of The Persona.” In fact, I used it in the opening chapter of my book, The True Measure of a Man. I realized the other day that I had never shared it in a blog so I am happy to present it to you today.
Once, a very prosperous man decided to build for himself a sailing yacht. His intention was that it would be the most talked-about boat that ever sailed. He was determined to spare no expense or effort.
As he built his craft, the man outfitted it with colorful sails, complex rigging, and comfortable conveniences in the cabin. The decks were made from teakwood; all the fittings were custom-made of polished brass. And on the stern, painted in gold letters, readable from a considerable distance, was the name of the boat, The Persona.
As he built The Persona, the man could not resist fantasizing upon the anticipated admiration and applause from club members at the launching of his new boat. In fact, the more he thought about the praise that was soon to come, the more time and attention he gave to the boat’s appearance.
Now—and this seems reasonable—because no one would ever see the underside of The Persona, the man saw little need to be concerned about the keel, or, for that matter, anything that had to do with the issues of properly distributed weight and ballast. The boat builder was acting with the perceptions of the crowd in his mind—not the seaworthiness of the vessel. Seaworthiness seems not to be an important issue while one is in dry dock.
“Why should I spend money or time on what is out of sight? When I listen to the conversations of people at the club, I hear them praising only what they can see,” he told himself. “I never remember anyone admiring the underside of a boat. Instead, I sense that my yachting colleagues really find exciting the color and shape of a boat’s sails, its brass fittings, its cabin and creature comforts, decks and wood texture, potential speed, and the skill that wins the Sunday afternoon regattas.”
And so, driven by such reasoning, the man built his boat. And everything that would be visible to the people soon began to gleam with excellence. But things that would be invisible when the boat entered the water were generally ignored. People did not seem to take notice of this, or if they did, they made no comment.
The builder’s sorting out priorities of resources and time proved to be correct: members of the boat club did indeed understand and appreciate the sails, rigging, decks, brass, and staterooms. And what they saw, they praised. On occasion he overheard some say that his efforts to build the grandest boat in the history of the club would certainly result in his selection as commodore.
When the day came for the maiden voyage, the people of the club joined him dockside. A bottle of champagne was broken over the bow, and the moment came for the man to set sail. As the breeze filled the sails and pushed The Persona from the club’s harbor, he stood at the helm and heard what he’d anticipated for years: the cheers and well-wishes of envious admirers who said to one another, “Our club has never seen a grander boat than this. This man will make us the talk of the yachting world.”
Soon The Persona was merely a blip on the horizon. And as it cut through the swells, its builder and owner gripped the rudder with a feeling of fierce pride. What he had accomplished! He was seized with an increasing rush of confidence that everything—the boat, his future as a boat club member (and probably as commodore), and even the ocean—was his to control.
But a few miles out to sea a storm arose. Not a hurricane— but not a squall either. There were sudden gusts in excess of forty knots and waves above fifteen feet. The Persona began to shudder, and water swept over the sides. Bad things began to happen, and the poise of the captain began to waiver. Perhaps the ocean wasn’t his after all.
Within minutes The Persona’s colorful sails were in shreds, the splendid mast was splintered in pieces, and the rigging was unceremoniously draped all over the bow. The teakwood decks and the lavishly appointed cabin were awash with water. And then before the man could prepare himself, a wave bigger than anything he’d ever seen hurled down upon The Persona, and the boat capsized.
Now, this is important—most boats would have righted themselves after such a battering. The Persona did not. Why? Because its builder had ignored the importance of what was below the waterline. There was no weight there. In a moment when a well-designed keel and adequate ballast might have saved the ship, they were nowhere to be found. The man had concerned himself with the appearance of things and not enough with the needed resilience and stability in the secret, unseen places where storms are withstood.
Furthermore, because the foolish man had such confidence in his sailing abilities, he had never contemplated the possibility of a situation he could not manage. And that’s why later investigations revealed that there were no rescue devices aboard: no rafts, life jackets, or emergency radios. And the result of this mixture of poor planning and blind pride was that the foolish man was lost at sea.
Only when the wreckage of The Persona was washed ashore did the man’s boat-club friends discover all of this. They said, “Only a fool would design and build a boat like this, much less sail in it. A man who builds only above the waterline does not realize that he has built less than half a boat. Didn’t he understand that a boat not built with storms in mind is a floating disaster waiting to happen? How absurd that we should have applauded him so enthusiastically.” The foolish man was never found. Today, when people speak of him—which is rare—they comment not upon the initial success of the man or upon the beauty of his boat, but only upon the silliness of putting out on an ocean where storms are sudden and violent. And doing it with a boat that was really never built for anything else but the vanity of its builder and the praise of spectators. It was in such conversations that the owner of The Persona, whose name has long been forgotten, became known as simply the foolish man.
I find that as I share this parable with men, it powerfully speaks into their lives. It is one of the clearest examples of how we can develop such a misguided understanding of how to measure our lives. My desire is to challenge you to examine the way you measure your life, how you measure your success; otherwise, you may find yourself in the same boat as this foolish man.