The Set of Your Sail

There’s a 1916 poem by Ella Wheeler Wilcox that contains the lines:

One ship sails East,
And another West,
By the self-same winds that blow,
‘Tis the set of the sails
And not the gales,
That tells the way we go.

The idea that it is not the direction of the wind, but the set of our sails that determines our destination on the has been popularised in recent years by Jim Rohn. The wind can be blowing favourably, in exactly the right direction, but if you haven’t set your sail correctly, you won’t move towards your destination. Equally, a skilled sailor can make progress towards their target even when the wind is blowing in completely the opposite direction.

I first heard this many years ago and I still love it for its simplicity, directness, and truth. Muddying it with additional ideas – making it more complicated – sort of defies the point of a metaphor … but I’m going to do it anyway!

Firstly, I heard this great quote from Dag Hammarskjold:
“Like wind – in it, with it, of it. Of it, just like a sail, so light and strong that, even when it is bent flat, it gathers all the power of the wind without hampering it’s course.”

The point here is to not fight the wind – which applies to sailing the sea of life, too. When things are going well, enjoy the experience – allow yourself to be swept along in the beauty of it all. And when the wind is blowing against you … accept that, too. Yes, you absolutely need to find a way to set your sail that means you don’t capsize and drown, but any sailor will tell you that meeting a howling gale head on is not a wise move. When the wind is against you, ‘tack’ – that is, move diagonally across the wind. Whichever way the wind is blowing, work with it – don’t fight it.

The second point I’d like to make is a little simpler. If you’ve never sailed before, the first time you get in a boat it is HARD! Really hard, actually. And this is true in Rohn’s metaphor – sailing the ‘sea of life’ is hard. If all you’ve done up to this point is let the wind and the waves take you wherever they want to, then taking control of your little boat, and trying to get to the port of your choice is going to take a little work on your part. Physical work – getting up on deck and raising or lowering sails; mental work – learning how to use a compass and read maps; and spiritual work – in the words of e e cummings, “For whatever we lose (like a you or a me), it’s always ourselves that we find in the sea.”

But like all things in life, if you keep at it – if you keep asking advice from the right people, keep reading the right books, and – most importantly – keep working, then gradually you’ll become a better sailor, and controlling your little boat will get easier and easier.

Remember, what determines your destination is not the blowing of the wind, but the set of the sail. And if you want to choose your destination, you’re going to have to learn how to sail your boat.


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