By Dean Whittaker

The intention of our newsletter is to share with you what we at Whittaker Associates are learning in hopes that you may benefit from the experience. Each of us writes an article for each month’s newsletter.  It benefits us by encouraging us to learn something new each month in order to have something to write.  I happened to spend the last month on sabbatical, sailing solo on Lake Michigan. Though it might not seem directly tied to economic development, I can share with you what I learned about fear and sailing.

Life at Seven Knots

Sailing addicts know that the trip is not about getting there, but about the process of getting there… somewhere… anywhere.  Oftentimes we set a course and then change our plans or timing when we determine that wind and heavy seas are in our way.  In my case, weather became a HUGE factor in my plans and I quickly became acutely aware of my environment–the shape of the clouds, the direction and velocity of the wind, the passing cold fronts, warm fronts, low pressure areas, high pressure areas and what each of these could produce relative to winds and seas. I had to be in the moment in the most fundamental way, intensely conscious of the natural elements around me.

Last month presented challenging weather often, with strong 20-30 knot winds and high 5-7 foot seas. While Serendipity, my 34 ft. Sabre sail boat, was up to the task, its sole occupant (me) had to overcome my fear of death and the unknown.  My first task was determining whether it was fear or prudence keeping me anchored in a quiet harbor, safe from the bucking bull-ride high seas and strong winds offer.  Fear plays a valuable role in our lives. It keeps us out of harm’s way and often shields us from injury or death. It was put there to protect our evolution as a species, and this evolutionary process has helped me survive to write this article.

However, fear is also a great preventer.  It prevents us from taking risk, and taking risk is what allows us to move forward, to explore, to learn and to grow. Overcoming my fear of leaving the security of the calm harbor enabled me to explore the abandoned lighthouse on South Fox Island. It allowed me to experience the spectacular sunsets and the canopy of stars.  I learned that my tolerance for fear is abetted by my curiosity and need for uncertainty (adventure) in my life. One of our basic needs is our need for certainty. We go to great lengths (and expense) to achieve certainty. We want our lives to be predictable. At the same time, we want our lives to have variety.  In fact, we probably watch “reality shows” so that we can experience variety through the lives of others (while forgetting to live our own).  Overcoming our need for certainty takes courage, but the rewards can be great.

Fear has been said to be “false evidence appearing real.” We live in very uncertain times. Fear of terrorists causes us to make only short term plans. It allows our government to take from us those freedoms that the Constitution gave us. It gives others who understand the nature of fear control over our lives.

Lots of thinking happens when you spend five weeks alone, traveling at seven knots (about ten miles per hour) subject to the whim of the weather. Seven knots is slow enough for time to ponder, which is rare at the hectic pace we set for our everyday lives. Sabbaticals give us time to take the long view, and see the fear in our lives from a more objective standpoint.

Economic development practitioners are by their nature and task change agents. They are tasked with improving the economic well being of the areas they serve. Helping their communities overcome the fear of leaving safe, familiar anchorage to explore the unknown of the global economy is a challenging task. Step into the fear. After all, it is only “false evidence appearing real.”