“A Ship is Safe in Harbor…”


“A ship is safe in harbor, but that’s not what ships are for…”

I’ve always loved this quote.  It’s a powerful, beautiful metaphor for stepping out of your comfort zone.  John Shedd nailed it.  Or was it Grace Hopper?  Einstein?  Let’s just go with Abraham Lincoln.

Despite my affinity for this masterfully crafted and comically misattributed quote, I was always hesitant to use it at the academy.  It’s just too easy to misconstrue.

It’s not a rallying cry for recklessness.  I’m not suggesting you go skin diving off the coast of South Africa in your favorite seal costume.  I’m urging you to brave the open waters of your life.

That may sound corny and cliche, but experience has taught me that cliches often hold invaluable and inexorable truth.

The harbor is where we feel safest.  The water is calm.  There is no threat of storms, or pirates, or giant vindictive white whales.  You can spend your days in the harbor and never butt up against a single inconvenience.

But your treasure awaits you on the open sea.  That’s where adventure lies, where opportunity and majesty are waiting to be found.  Fortune favors the bold.  You get the point.

Everyone’s harbor is different.  It’s the place with the fewest variables, where we feel competent.  And this goes beyond your job.  It’s your entire life.  When was the last time you were challenged?  Truly challenged.  When was the last time you braved the possibility of failure chasing down a dream?

And for a lot of us, it isn’t even failure we’re expertly avoiding, it’s discomfort.

For some, the metaphorical harbor is their couch.  For others, it’s half-guard.  I can relate this to Jiu Jitsu in a million ways.

Here’s one.

It’s too easy to stick to what you’re good at in Jiu Jitsu.  Once you experience a certain amount of success with a technique, it’s only natural to lean on it.  It becomes your go-to, your Jiu Jitsu identity.  For me, De la Riva guard became my home base, or “mission control” for the 10th Planet enthusiasts out there.  But a recent injury- a torn meniscus- has reminded me that the power of Jiu Jitsu lies in its difficulty, that embracing and overcoming challenges to constantly evolve is what creates lasting personal growth.

I’ve relied on flexibility and craftiness for some time, and now that I’m physically unable to make up for small technical mistakes, I’m forced to focus entirely on new techniques and strategy, and abandon my most effective ones.  I haven’t triangled someone in a month.  I’ve been embracing a whole new approach to training, and it’s been a blast.  I feel like a white belt again (Ok, maybe a purple belt…).

Sometimes you don’t even realize you’re back in the harbor.  This is why our mentors, peers and teammates are so crucial to our growth.

There have been times when I was certain I was pushing the pace in training, and that I was improving alongside my students.  I would boast to my friend Dante Rivera how hard I was training, and truly believe it.  But one training session with Professor Almeida immediately shatters this thought, and opens my eyes to the fact that my Jiu Jitsu is nowhere near where I’d like it to be.  This is a painful lesson, no matter how enlightened you might think you are.

If we aren’t trying to grow, what are we doing?

We humans are an adaptive bunch.  It’s amazing how quickly we become accustomed to a new normal.  This is helpful in some instances, and hurtful in others.  We naturally adapt to new challenges and become comfortable in previously uncomfortable situations.  This is growth.

The goal is to use these new normals, or harbors, as a launching point to venture into the next stretch of open water.  It’s what you were designed to do.

Tags for this post

author: Peter McHugh

Professor Pete McHugh is the owner and Lead Instructor of McHugh BJJ in Mt. laurel NJ. He is a black belt under BJJ & MMA legend Ricardo Almeida.

Peter Liciaga

Great Article Professor! I always appreciate you sharing your insight. Oss!!


Good read, like the way you think.

Leave a reply