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A Tiny Lesson from a Titanic Blunder

You don’t have to know much about nautical engineering to get that words like “geometric imperfection,” “misalignment of connection” and “tightening torque” suggest that the implosion was triggered by the smallest of details.
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June 24, 2023
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Every aspect of the story of the Titan vessel that imploded on its way to the remains of the Titanic feels big. Day after day, we saw large ships and multiple emergency missions rushing to a foreboding ocean to try to rescue the poor souls stranded near the bottom of the sea.

The area was so vast, the depth of the ocean so daunting, the situation so dire, it was clear from the start that the rescue mission would be a long shot at best. By the time the news came that a “catastrophic implosion” had destroyed the vessel and all five people on board, there was almost a sense of relief that their deaths were not caused by an excruciating, claustrophobic loss of oxygen over several days.

What caused the vessel to implode? This is where the story goes from gigantic to microscopic.

Even as we wait for an official investigation, experts are already pointing to structural failures as the likely explanation for the implosion. Based on remains that were found, Virginia Tech ocean engineering professor Stefano Brizzolara suggested that the sub’s hull could have had a defect that may have fractured under the pressure.

“Any small material and geometric imperfection, misalignment of connection flanges, tightening torque of bolted connection may have started the structural collapse,” Brizzolara said in an interview.

You don’t have to know much about nautical engineering to get that words like “geometric imperfection,” “misalignment of connection” and “tightening torque” suggest that the implosion was triggered by the smallest of details. This makes sense. According to reports, the water pressure around the doomed vessel was so intense that any small leak at that depth would have sent water rushing in at a speed of about 621 miles per hour.

In other words, this was an environment with very little margin of error. Every millimeter in the vessel’s construction mattered. Just like a surgeon operating on a failing heart, the smallest oversight could have devastating consequences.

Because of my tendency to connect dots, I couldn’t help reflecting on whether this idea of “small oversights” holds any life lessons.

My first thought was with relationships. When considering what makes relationships work, we tend to look, justifiably, at big issues like open communication, good listening and honesty. But because these issues are so obviously important, it’s easy to overlook the little stuff that may appear harmless but can eventually come back to haunt us.

It only takes one or two seconds, for example, to throw a dismissive eye roll at your spouse or a reflexive “shushing” at a sensitive child. An oversight can be as mundane as not sharing household chores, or as awkward as a sarcastic joke that stings. The point is, there are countless little moments that arise in close relationships that can be traps for these little missteps that accumulate over time.

According to Brizzolara, the vessel’s hull was constructed from two different materials: carbon fiber-reinforced plastic and titanium. The carbon fiber element, he said, is “very prone to possible defects” and “exhibits a more fragile behavior” than other materials. The repeated voyages down to the wreckage of the Titanic, he added, may have caused the hull to “deform and shrink.”

Thus, what started with microscopic “geometric imperfections” gradually worsened with time to the point where it caused deformation and shrinkage and eventually implosion.

Each human being is unique and also constructed from “different materials.” This creates natural tension. Some of us are more fragile. In the face of life’s pressures, we’re all prone to making little mistakes. The more we ignore these little mistakes, the more they’re likely to accumulate and “deform” and “shrink” our relationships.

It’s quite plausible that the owners of the Titan vessel got overconfident when they saw repeated voyages happen without accidents. This confidence made them overlook the little cracks in the vessel that were silently growing.

We often do the same in our relationships. We don’t see accidents, so we don’t look for the cracks. By the time we see them, we’re stunned when they’ve turned into a Titanic.

We often do the same in our relationships. We don’t see accidents, so we don’t look for the cracks. By the time we see them, we’re stunned that they’ve turned into a Titanic.

The good news is that there’s a great flip side. Just as tiny mistakes can erode relationships, the smallest gestures of love and kindness can strengthen them.

So yes, sweat the small stuff.

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