What fake steamship stories can tell us about personal development

For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.
– H. L. Mencken

Steam ship
Image courtesy of Enrique L

There is an amusing and inspiring steamship story that is often told in trainings or workshops, it goes something like this.

In the days of the old steamships a passenger liner broke down just before the entrance to New York harbour.

The ship was helpless, there was nothing the ship’s engineer or crew could do. The liner lay dead in the water unable to make any headway.

The captain radioed the harbour asking them to send their most skilful engineer to solve the problem.

The engineer rode a pilot-boat to the crippled liner, where the captain showed him to the engine room.

To the captain’s surprise the engineer just wandered about. He walked around the engine room, putting his hand on the miles of piping and his ear to junctions and valves. He looked into the boilers and over the towering engine.

By now the captain was beginning to get impatient. ‘When is this man actually going to DO something?’ he thought.

After half an hour of wandering around the engineer just scratched his chin, nodded to himself and asked for a hammer.

He walked along a passage to a line of pipes and then, with surprising force, struck one of the pipes a ringing blow. The clang echoed around the corridor the crew heard the ship’s engine tremble into life.

The amazed captain and crew thanked the engineer and guided the liner into the port where it docked safely and disembarked the passengers.

The delighted captain told the engineer to send him a bill for his services.

Later in the day the captain received a bill for $1,000, which left him feeling less delighted, so he sent the engineer a note asking for an itemised bill.

An hour later the captain received the itemised bill:

For hitting the pipe with a hammer: $1.00

For knowing where to hit the pipe: $999.00

The usual moral of this story is that if you know what to do you can make dramatic and seemingly effortless changes with just the right technique.

However there is another story about the engineer and his ‘magical’ hammer that is not often told, that goes something like this.

A few years later an old liner broke down in the approaches to New York harbour.

Nothing the ship’s engineer or crew did seemed to help.

The captain, like every other in the North Atlantic, had heard the story of the harbour engineer and his miraculous hammer.

‘Thank goodness we’ve broken down here’, thought the captain as he radioed for help, ‘it’ll be worth $1,000 to get in on time.’

Once more the engineer and his toolbox travelled out in a pilot-boat to a crippled liner.

As the engineer climbed aboard, the captain was delighted to see the handle of ‘the hammer’ sticking out from the engineer’s toolbox.

‘Not long now,’ he thinks with relief.

The engineer starts his inspection. He walks about the engine room, looking at the boilers, listening to the steam in the pipes, checking valves, inspecting the machinery.

Based on the famous story the captain expected to wait for half an hour for the engineer to tour the ship before striking the magic hammer blow.

30 minutes passed …

then 45 …

then one hour had gone by and there was still no miracle blow with the hammer.

After two hours the engineer approached the captain and gave him a report.

‘Captain your ship has a rusty boiler, blocked funnel, corroded pipes, a leaking piston, dry bearings, four jammed valves and a bent propeller!’

‘OK’, said the captain. ‘So which pipe do you need to hit?’

‘I’m not going to hit any pipes in this case,’ replied the engineer, ‘these problems need different solutions’.

‘But, but, but!’ stammered the captain, ‘couldn’t you just try hitting a pipe?’

‘It won’t work. In fact given the state of your pipes that would probably cause an explosion!’

‘What can we do?’ sighed the dismayed captain.

‘I can fix one of the valves here and you will be able to slowly make your way into harbour for more repairs,’ replied the engineer

Hoping for at least a small miracle the captain asks, ‘Are you going to hit the valve with your hammer?’

‘No, I’m not going to hit it with a hammer!’

‘There is old saying among ship engineers – If all you have is a hammer everything looks like a pipe!’

‘If I hit this valve with a hammer it would shatter. I’ll have to dismantle, clean and reassemble it, it will take about four hours’.

‘So no miracle today,’ grumbled the captain.

‘On the contrary, now you are stuck, after I have fixed the valve you will be able to move slowly and dock safely. That’s a small miracle.’

‘When you replace the piston you will be able to go a bit faster, when you flush the pipes you will go faster still, make all the repairs and you will be good as new. Your miracle will just be a bit slower than the one you have heard about.’

In a last forlorn attempt the captain asks: ‘Are you sure you just can’t hit something with a hammer?’

The engineer sadly shook his head.

‘To tell you the truth that story has been nothing but trouble for me. It was one of the very few times I was able to fix a ship so quickly.’

‘Now when I go aboard struggling ships the captains look at me as if I am going to hit a pipe with a hammer and everything will instantly work.’

‘When I tell them what is really needed they look disappointed, deprived of their ‘miracle cure’. Some of them even get angry. As if I would hold back on an easy solution, but when they get over their disappointment and do the work that is needed their ships work as well as the day of their maiden voyage.’

‘I’ll do what I can to get you moving now, it’s a start isn’t it?’

‘Let’s get moving then,’ agreed the captain.

The internet and YouTube are chock full of reports of dramatic ‘cures’ and videos of miraculous life changing processes.

Some times the right practitioner reaches the right person with the right technique at the right time and a ‘miracle’ occurs. These sessions make great videos.

Some times the right practitioner reaches the right person with the right techniques at the right time and a lot of hard work occurs leading to a slower miracle. These changes are just as valuable but don’t make such amazing videos.

It would be nice to think that every problem could be quickly resolved with a simple solution. Some problems do resolve in spectacular fashion in some cases.

Many challenges aren’t that simple, many interconnected things need to change and that can take time and effort.

When I first got involved in NLP and EFT, 15 years ago, I used to think that there would be a moment when a practitioner or technique would give me a ‘road to Damascus’ experience – one process or insight that would change everything.

It never happened. It has still not happened, and I’m not expecting it now.

In the meantime I’ve been plodding along making lots of small changes in myself and my life and I’m so much happier and content than I was then.

Lots of little miracles do add up, it can take time and patience but it’s worth it.

If you get discouraged by the dramatic successes of the people you see on YouTube when you feel there is so much to do and your progress is so slow, it is worth remembering that they are on YouTube because they are so exceptional.

If you are working with deep stuff, keep going, don’t wait for a single miracle to change everything, it may not come, change what you can when you can. A daily diet of micro-miracles can be very satisfying over time.

‘You just need to do what you can, with what you have, where you are

Theodore Roosevelt

What do you think?

1 thought on “What fake steamship stories can tell us about personal development”

  1. “A daily diet of micro-miracles can be very satisfying over time.” So true, Andy!! The thing that got me hooked on tapping back in 2000 was that I could feel it work right away on small issues, so I wanted to keep doing it. However, it did take time and patience (and help from people like you who’ve shared what works for them) to become more skilled at breaking more complex problems into tappable pieces. Sometimes for my set-up phrase I’ll say, “Even though I’m frustrated and impatient because there are multiple aspects to this problem…..” and that helps. Thanks for your work!


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