I just finished read a book called Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea by Gary Kinder, which is about the recovery of the SS Central America, a sidewheel steamer that wrecked in the 1850s about two hundred miles off the coast of South Carolina. At the time, the shipwreck was one of the deadliest disasters in American history, claiming almost five hundred lives – at least one from every state in the union. Over the decades, people remembered the wreck for another reason: when it sank, the Central America was carrying several tons of gold.
The book flips back and forth between an account of the shipwreck, pieced together with incredible detail from the accounts of survivors, and the story of a young scientist named Tommy Thompson, who decided that he was going to locate the wreck on the ocean floor, send a submersible eight thousand feet below the surface, and recover the gold without damaging a single historic artifact. Needless to say, Thompson succeeds, but there are so many setbacks, so many false alarms, and so many twists along the way, that the story is worth reading even when you know the ending. The story of the shipwreck, too, is worth reading for its glimpses of the highs and lows of humanity.
Tommy Thompson appears to have come to an ignominious end, running from US Marshals, living under an assumed name, and paying his rent with moldy cash. But reading Kinder’s book, I was struck by Tommy’s methodical approach to the problem of working in the deep ocean. I bet you could take the core of Tommy’s approach and apply it to any seemingly impossible endeavor. Here’s a rough list of what I took away:
- Prioritize – carefully consider what you have to do. Not all tasks are created equal. Choose the one that, when accomplished, will make all the others easier.
- Ration your time – give yourself a certain amount of time to get something done, and then get it done in that time. If it’s impossible, increase the time slightly, but keep parameters on it.
- Amass, assimilate, integrate, produce – always be researching. You can always get in touch with an expert by phone (or email). Keep calling until you find someone who will help you. Pepper them with questions. Put things together that don’t seem to go together. Keep attempting connections until something connects. Create and finish.
- Simplicity of the quest – state the end goal as simply as possible. Put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Establish a working presence at the bottom of the deep ocean. The simpler the quest, the easier it will be to recognize wrong turns, distractions, redundancies, irrelevancies.
- When you meet with investors, know your stuff. Demonstrate that you’ve thought this through before you ask someone to join you.
- Distinguish between what is impossible and what is merely considered impossible.
- Prepare for failure – Even when success seems inevitable, something may happen. Prepare for every contingency. Think through every outcome. Don’t be outsmarted by failure.