Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: The Consequences of Small Failures in Learning

It was the worst U.S. maritime disaster in three decades, involving an experienced captain with a reputation for safety. What went wrong and what can it teach us about the often-overlooked factors that affect our learning and decisions?

The El Faro was a cargo ship that sank off the Bahama Islands in 2015 during a Category 3 hurricane. It was the worst U.S. maritime disaster in three decades, claiming 33 lives. The ship’s digital voyage recorder was recovered and, along with U.S. Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board analysis, it provides an account of what happened.

The El Faro

This article considers what can be learned from the El Faro tragedy about how small accidents in learning can have major consequences.

It explores how rigorous learning is not simply a technical problem solved by having the right tool, the right template, or even the right data. It is a practice, a way of thinking and working, a set of capacities and habits.

Good learning habits requires assessing what is getting in the way of, or reinforcing, effective use of information. Personal motivation, role identity, relationships and connections, power and norms, rewards and incentives, and even workspaces can affect and inhibit learning. 

Though few people working in philanthropy are likely to pilot a cargo ship, the lessons from the El Faro are applicable to foundations. Each small error, failure, or coincidence matters, and how we learn and adapt matters. That all can have a cascading effect on outcomes and results.