hat-hardTighter regulations and increased training requirements won’t lead to a culture of safety. The recent marine accidents are proof. On the other hand, who can deny the fact that shipboard safety is a matter of habit? All living creatures are ‘bundles of habit,’ wrote William James, the great American philosopher and psychologist. We’ve just finished reading his 68-page treatise on Habit, and we highly recommend it to those who continue to wrestle with the safety issue.

The book was published in 1914 and is filled with scientific and psychological jargon. Yet, James clearly explains the principles of habit in terms that can be understood by ordinary mortals. Equally important, he offers some practical suggestions that are relevant to the education of young people in the 21st century.

James makes the incisive observation that ‘habit simplifies the movements required to achieve a given result, makes them more accurate and diminishes fatigue (itals by the author).’ He goes on: ‘Man is born with a tendency to do more things than he has ready-made arrangements for in his nerve-centres. Most of the performances of other animals are automatic. But in him the number of them is so enormous, that most of them must be the fruit of painful study. If practice did not make perfect, nor habit economize the expense of nervous and muscular energy, he would therefore be in a sorry plight.’

There are lessons here for maritime mentors:

• Education boils down to instilling good habits (‘The great thing, then, in all education, is to make our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy. It is to fund and capitalize our acquisitions, and live at ease upon the interest of the fund.’)

• Training requires persistence and dedication (‘As we become permanent drunkards by so many separate drinks, so we become saints in the moral, and authorities and experts in the practical and scientific spheres, by so many separate acts and hours of work.’)

• It’s best to start them young (‘For this we must make automatic and habitual, as early as possible, as many useful actions as we can, and guard against the growing into ways that are likely to be disadvantageous to us, as we should guard against the plague.’)

We urgently need new approaches to the problem of maritime safety. William James has provided one path. ~Barista Uno

NOTE: A free copy of ‘Habit’ by William James can be downloaded from here.