Invisible Ships, or How to Stop Falling in Love with Your Ideas

The story usually goes something like this:

When Columbus arrived on the coast of what would become the West Indies, the first peoples completely ignored his crew. Ostensibly, this is due to the ships being so large and so foreign to any experiences that the native people had, that they could not perceive of what was happening. The ships were invisible. It was not until the explorers approached the shore in longboats that the natives would react with fear and weapons.

Depending on which motivational facilitator is presenting, sometimes the explorer is Magellan or Captain Cook. Sometimes the location is Australia or South America. The story, it turns out, is apocryphal. It is, at best, an embellishment intended to carry the weight of metaphor.

Ships: Obvious stuff you cannot see.

Explorers: People who have mastery of the stuff.

Native People: You.

The point that the motivational speaker attempts to make is that our consciousness is so filtered that we sometimes miss what is obvious or right in front of us. And that you, listener, should wake up to new realities because the explorers are coming to take your native land. Insert artificial intelligence, autonomous cars, robots, holograms, etc.

That is an excellent life lesson. However, two things are troubling about the account and the telling of it as such. One is that it is impossible to know if the native people could not “see” the ships. That is, we do not have an account from the native perspective on what was happening. The second troubling fact builds on that point: the scenario makes the native (and the listener of the story) out to be deluded or, at best, incompetent.

Try this decidedly less colonial version:

Since it is impossible to know if the native people saw the ships, a more plausible explanation for their behavior may be that they were busy. They were working to survive. They ignored anything that did not pose an immediate threat.

That feeling — being ignored — likely feels familiar. Because if you are a person of vision, and the sort of leader who has the wherewithal to construct mighty ships, you may have felt the sting of being either ignored or attacked when you reached the shore.

Since this metaphor has not been completely beaten to death, here is the lesson: if you are seeking to do anything important in this life, you are likely to be traveling into uncharted waters. And just because you have not gone there before does not mean that there are not already hordes of people who are working there in their day-to-day survival. And your survival in that world depends upon your ability to have empathy for their lives, their mental models and their needs. Your ship impresses no one. They must know first that you care for them. So perhaps the most fitting description would be:

Ships: Your awesome idea that everyone ignores right now.

Explorers: You

Native People: The people with whom you must build trust and empathy if you hope that they will care about your ideas and not destroy you on the shore.

Challenge questions: How willing are you to first seek out and understand your audiences (internal and external) before becoming enamored with your ideas? What steps can you take to learn the mental models of the audiences that you try to reach? (Note: Here are some resources if it seems like your people just “don’t get it.”)

Also, if you are just morbidly curious about the roots of the story, this is the best account I can find.