The Fine Art of Poking Holes

I’m a hole poker, and people don’t much care for hole pokers. I learned this lesson years ago, when I was the boatswain aboard a large sailing vessel. The boatswain is the highest-rated seaman aboard who isn’t an officer; his job is to keep everything on deck and above in working order, and supervise the other seamen. The word boatswain comes from Old English and Norse, but you don’t often hear it spoken. Instead we say bosun, which should properly be punctuated as bo’sun. Sailors don’t like to move their mouths much, which is one reason why I wasn’t a great success as a sailor.

In the capacity of bo’sun I often found myself delivering bad news to the First Mate, who didn’t always appreciate it. The First Mate, by the way, is the highest rated officer aboard who isn’t the captain, so there was a certain symmetry to our relationship. He didn’t really mind it when I pointed out something that was broken and needed to be patched with money, but when the news was more of the anticipatory “if we don’t fix this then its possible that might happen” variety, he would get a little irritated. I was dreaming up work, which I certainly wouldn’t be doing if I had work to do.

I ended up spending nearly a whole summer aboard a laid-up ship with that same First Mate, and I like to think we developed some respect for each other’s approach. I never forgot that lesson, however, and I’ve had it repeated more than once since, in venues as distant from each other as the deck of an oyster dredger is from a boardroom. Which is to say that while I never forgot it, I never learned it either.

As a species our inherent distaste for hole poking is illuminated by our distaste for criticism. We look down on professional critics, thinking that if they had any real talent they would do things, and not simply criticize the things others are doing. But it takes imagination to criticize, and poke holes. You have to be able to imagine something as other than it is, and then imagine the consequences of that. Novelists should make pretty good hole pokers.

The problem with our aversion to the poking of holes is that there is one thing we fear more than having the flaws in our plans highlighted before a large audience: the consequences of not having those flaws highlighted. We are terrified of Bad Things happening. We hate risk so much we’ll shut down half the world’s airspace rather than chance flying through the Invisible Cloud of Death. We hate it so much that we’ll put colored cellophane around it and call it something else, like Collateralized Debt Obligation.

The way to avoid Bad Things happening as a consequence of flawed plans is to poke holes in the plans before they are put into operation. But that would require admitting that we, the authors of those plans and designs, didn’t possess sufficient imaginative powers to envision and close the revealed gaps before the hole poking began. Perhaps the best thing for all of us is to sit tight, pretend we’ve covered the bases, and then when things go south rise in righteous indignation and demand that our politicians pass a law to keep it from happening again.

On second thought there may be some flaws in that plan.

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