Right doesn’t cancel wrong

It’s April, 1912, and in the boiler and engine rooms of the Titanic, firemen, mechanics and engineers are working flat out. The captain has ordered a near maximum speed of 22 knots. Sustaining that speed is back breaking work for those who stoke the boilers and keep the thundering machinery running. But they get it right; nothing goes wrong with those engines.

But something does go wrong, just not in the engine room. The lookouts in the crow’s nest don’t have binoculars – they were borrowed and not returned. So the men on watch gaze as best they can into still night air. The lack of airflow is a dangerous problem. Wind-driven icebergs disturb water. Stationary icebergs are hard to see. Suddenly, dead ahead, there’s an iceberg. They sound the alarm, the ship alters course, but too late to avoid a sideswipe against the ice. The hull is breached and water floods several compartments and spreads. Less than three hours later, the supposedly unsinkable Titanic disappears beneath the water taking some 1500 people with it.

Six hundred and eighty eight of those who died were crew; that’s 76 per cent of those who began the voyage. Many were firemen, mechanics and engineers. They’d done their jobs. Those engines raced the Titanic forward. But what was done right didn’t make up for what was done wrong. Almost certainly many things were wrong. For more than a hundred years people have questioned why the vessel was among icebergs, why warnings of icebergs weren’t heeded, whether it should have been going so fast, whether the iceberg should have been seen earlier, and much more. The Titanic was luxurious in appearance and sailed magnificently, but none of that counted when it hit the iceberg and became one of the worst peacetime maritime disasters ever.

Here’s the lesson from this. Getting one thing right doesn’t compensate for getting other things wrong. The below deck crew made the Titanic’s engines run as smoothly and sweetly as possible, powering it through the water. That was good. But it didn’t make up for sailing at speed into water strewn with icebergs.

We comfort ourselves that what we’re getting right compensates for things we’re getting wrong.

It doesn’t and here’s another example.

I was in a restaurant, and noticed that a large pizza was placed in front of a nearby customer. He was far from a small man. I couldn’t help but think he must have eaten a lot of large pizzas before.

What intrigued me wasn’t that the customer was about to eat a pizza which could have fed a family, but his chosen beverage. He was drinking a can of Diet Coke. Normally I’d think well of someone avoiding the approximately 140 calories in a regular cola. Except the pizza he was tucking into had about 2200 calories. Since the recommended calorie intake for men is 2500 calories per day, that customer was getting 88 per cent of his day’s allowance from that one pizza. I thought: ‘What’s the point of a diet drink when its benefit is well and truly erased by your giant pizza’.

One thing right (the diet cola) couldn’t cancel what was wrong (his massive pizza).

How can we pretend that doing one thing right negates one or more things which are wrong? But sometimes we do think like that.

I’ll list three reasons for that idea, and why those reasons are invalid.

We think what’s good compensates for what’s bad, because it comforts us to think that way.   When I was about 15, I was in the top performing class of pupils my age, but I scored near to the bottom of that top group. Almost everyone in the class did better than me. For example, I sat five national exams in that school year. Here were my results:

English – passed.

History – passed.

Maths – failed.

Arithmetic – failed.*

French – failed.

German – so poor I wasn’t allowed to take the exam.

That performance was not good, not at all good. But I wasn’t too disappointed. After all I’d passed in two subjects, those I was actually interested in. So that was okay.

It wasn’t okay. Passing two, failing three, banned from taking another – that’s never okay. Through many of my school years, my teachers’ verdict was consistently ‘Could do better’. I simply didn’t put any effort into studying subjects that I didn’t enjoy. If I had I’d have passed.** I might never have been top in my class, but I didn’t need to be at the bottom.

Instead I underperformed but comforted myself I’d passed something. That was an excuse. I could and should have passed them all. I was indulging in false comfort.

We think what’s good compensates for what’s bad, because at least we’re doing something.    The guy who ordered Diet Coke was at least doing something towards weight loss. I have my own versions of that mindset. If I’ve started pulling weeds out in the garden, I’ve done something towards getting it under control. If I’ve started on my next study assignment, I’ve done something towards completing it. Both of those are good. I’m on my way. It’s an achievement.

Starting is an achievement. But it’s not success if that’s when we also stop. Drinking Diet Coke won’t get restaurant man to his right weight unless he cuts back on pizza eating. Pulling out a few weeds won’t get my garden in order when more weeds are springing up at great speed in every other part of the garden. Writing a couple of paragraphs of a study assignment is not great progress if the deadline for the 2000 or 3000 word assignment is just days away.

We feel better once we’ve done a little. But doing a little can become a substitute for not doing everything we should.

We think what’s good compensates for what’s bad, because we reckon good things outweigh bad things.    If everything was weighed, surely the good we do would tip the scales the right way. ‘Today I phoned a friend going through a hard time. I bought coffee for a colleague. I complimented someone on their work. And I washed the car. Yes, I know I cheated on my expenses, told a neighbour I wished he lived somewhere else, and murdered my boss because he was getting on my nerves. But there was more good than bad in my day, so that’s okay.’

That list of a day’s ‘good’ and ‘bad’ is, of course, ludicrous, but I’ve exaggerated it to make two points.

First, good and bad things don’t carry the same ‘weight’, any more than ten light parcels weigh the same as ten heavy parcels. You can’t compare buying coffee for a colleague with murdering the boss!

Second, the bad things shouldn’t exist at all. If you had a thousand good deeds in your day, they still wouldn’t compensate for theft or murder. Doing something right doesn’t cancel doing something wrong. The wrong should never happen.

So, if we can’t take comfort in having some good in our lives, while ignoring the bad, what do we need to do?

The short answer is living with no half measures and no excuses.

No half measures because often something isn’t better than nothing. When I play golf, I may reach a hole where there’s nothing between the tee ground and the green except water. If I want to get my ball on the green, I’ll have to hit it 150 yards through the air. Hitting it 80 yards isn’t enough. Nor is 120 yards or 140 yards. These are all ‘something’ but they’re not enough. My ball will land in the pond unless I hit it more than 150 yards.

Likewise, the fact that the Titanic’s engines were first rate and running flat out was ‘something’, but it wasn’t enough when the ship sailed straight for an iceberg.

None of us are perfect, and we’ll often fall short. But when we accept ‘short’ as enough we’re in trouble.

No excuses when we’ve simply not given our best. I left school with the worst exam results for anyone in the ‘A’ stream of pupils. I wasn’t much interested in some of the subjects, and I didn’t relate well to those who taught them. But those were excuses, and don’t come close to justifying my lack of effort. I could have done much better, and even if I had a hundred excuses I’d still be guilty.

It’s been many years since I stopped thinking that getting a few things right compensated for getting so much else wrong. Here, in closing, is the image of how I’d like my life to be.

Picture an athlete – a sprinter – giving everything to finish their race well. Eyes focused on the line, arms and legs pumping, chest pushed out to breast the tape. Long before that moment, they’d ironed out the flaws in their technique and mindset, and trained their body to run the distance at full speed. They prepared and on the day they performed. Everything was honed to be the best it could be, and they gave it. There were no half measures and afterwards no excuses.

That’s my ideal of how my life should have been lived. I’ve never wholly succeeded, but I’ll always try.


*  At that time Scottish schools separated arithmetic from maths, hence separate exams.

**  A year later I was more motivated and did pass the maths exam, and when I was 20 (and wanting admission to university) passed ‘Higher’ exams in French, Geography and Accounting. Some years further on I studied for a PhD degree, and read German text books and included passages in German in my thesis. Perhaps I was a ‘late bloomer’.