Rearranging Deckchairs on the Titanic

Permanence in Ephemerality

Hi friends,

In this newsletter, we’ve talked about goals and intentionality. Recently, I’ve found a different style that works just as well: a more thematic, outward-in style of living. And the phrase ‘rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic’ elegantly captures the style. This week, I wanted to detour and share share my thoughts on the phrase.

To rearrange deckchairs on the Titanic is to knowingly work on something that you know will soon be overtaken by other larger events.

It’s producing art in a war-torn region, it’s spending time with family when a tsunami is about to hit, it’s continuing to live life with a terminal disease.

To rearrange the deckchairs is not to give up in what you find meaning.

Or, put differently, it is giving up because you’re not solving for the “other larger events” and are instead focused on something that will soon be irrelevant. Yet, there’s something that the violinists playing on the ship knew, that I want to unravel.

They weren’t nihilistic, they certainly didn’t have “optimistic nihilism”, and they weren’t trading “life-lessons”. Instead, they were inventive; they rationally adapted to the situation; they pursued their meaning.

That is rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.

Frankly, I think there’s a lot of subtlety and nuance in this phrase. It’s intriguing, it’s poignant, and to me, it invokes many questions:

  • How can you adapt to something you cannot change?
  • Do your pursuits change after you know about other larger events?
  • What strikes you in a flash when you learn about these other larger events?

The violinists decided that they couldn’t adapt to the inevitable sinking of the ship, that their pursuits would not change even as the ship sank, and that their company mattered more to them than saving their individual lives.

Now, these are conscious decisions that these folks actively took. But the funny part is that these decisions arose as a result of the sinking of Titanic. It’s eerie, but real. It’s as though the sudden realization of the lack of time triggered them to immediately decide what to do and how to respond to the situation. They continued with playing the violin. They rearranged the deckchairs on the Titanic, but this exercise wasn’t futile. It was meaningful. For them.

This week, I decided to delve deeper into this phrase because of a few personal experiences as well. As I reflected on 2021 to write my annual letter to the shareholders, it struck me that for the past two years, I’ve only been working through this one difficult problem at work. It has consumed most — if not all — of my time. It’s taxing, but also rewarding. So, recently, when I was in bed and reading, this phrase struck a chord with me.

It taught me how to strive for permanence in an inherently temporary setting. It taught me to think beyond the ephemeral, and live beyond the dimension of time. It taught me that even when you recognize the larger reality (of say, death), you still continue to work toward what’s meaningful in the present. You might say it’s another way of thinking long-term, but that would be simplistic. To rearrange the deckchairs on the Titanic is to know that the hull’s been breached, that the ship is sinking, and that yet, you continue to play the violin.

When the Titanic hit the iceberg, it took little over two hours for the vessel to sink into the North Atlantic. Now, imagine that instead of two hours, the captain told the passengers they had years until the ship would sink. What would they do then? And it is the pursuit of those things that are the things one should’ve been doing in the first place.

By definition, life must come to an end, or rather, Titanic must sink. The question, then, is not whether we should rearrange the deckchairs or not — we must. The question is how we should rearrange them.

Until next time,