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Soundings from Phil Nuytten

A final Soundings column from DIVER Publisher and Senior Editor Phil Nuytten, taken from his 1995 Simon Fraser University Convocation Address in British Columbia

Phil Nuytten, 1965

I am here to give you an uplifting and inspiring message, using examples from my own work. I think we’ll give the examples a pass, since they won’t be of much value to you, unless you’re planning to build a submarine or become deep-sea diving accountants, or something of that nature. 

The old hard-hat divers—you know, the guys with the big copper helmets and the air hoses—had a terse way of summing up their trade to aspiring young deep-sea divers. They used to say, and I quote, “The bullshit ends on the ladder.”

And they were absolutely right. There comes a moment when the water closes over the top of your helmet and theory becomes reality. The tender says over the phone, “Are you ready to begin your descent?” And you answer, “Roger, Topside. Beginning my descent,” even though every cell in your body is screaming, “Are you out of your mind!?! Get me out of here! Pull me up!”

In commercial diving circles, that particular feeling is given a ‘Sphincter Factor’ of 10.

Congratulations, ladies and gentlemen. I can’t help but notice that you are now on the ladder. 

What happens next? Well, that’s something you will figure out yourself. Mark Twain put it well when he said, “A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something that he can learn in no other way.”

I’d be glad to tell you about the most important things I’ve learned in my life, but you already know them. You didn’t learn them here. You learned them at home, in kindergarten, and in grade school. You remember, things like: Don’t tell lies; Clean up after yourself; Don’t take more than you can eat; Don’t hurt anyone—all those simple things. 

What they didn’t tell you was these little truths are actually powerful icons of appropriate global behaviour. Ignore them at your peril. If you persist in being a bully, for example, sooner or later someone will come along and strike you until you are totally devoid of urine.

What you have acquired here, is a skill set. Like a set of mechanic’s tools, their quality and usefulness will depend, in large measure, on how much you paid for them.

My advice to you is to do whatever you want to do, providing you don’t mangle someone else in the process.

Every generation has a name for it. When I was a way cool type, or at least thought I was, it was, “Let it all hang out,” or, “If it feels good, do it!” Mind you, that was back in the days when scuba diving was dangerous and sex was safe. 

A ’50s rocker laid it all out in a song: “It’s all right now, I learned my lesson well. You see, you can’t please everyone, so you got to please yourself.”

I may be accused of advocating selfishness, sloth, egotism, hedonism, and a dozen other vices. Yes, absolutely. You call it what you want and let ‘them’, the dreaded ‘them’, call it what they want. But do what you want to do. Figure out what it is you want to accomplish—which, by the way, is one of the toughest damn things in the world —and do it. 

I made a list when I was in high school. Just like a shopping list or a ‘Dear Santa’ list. This was list of all the specific things I wanted to accomplish. It said things like: write a book, patent an invention, have a nice kid, make a million bucks, write a song and record it, produce a painting or sculpture or piece of art that you like, and on and on. I carried that list in my wallet for years, until if finally disintegrated. By then it was sharp and clear in my mind. And it still is. 

The most satisfying moments of my life have been when an item is well and truly crossed off that list. I’ve added a few things over the years, and done a lot of things that weren’t on the list. But the basic list still remains. To me it was very straightforward. These are the things I want to do. I will bust my ass to do these things. Anything that advances that goal is good news. Anything that presents an obstacle is bad news. 

Remember, if you only one final ally—then it follows that you only have one final critic. The real, valid criterion is whether or not your efforts please you. If your efforts happen to please someone else, well, then that’s gravy on it. If your list contains some things that no one else has done, then I admire you and I applaud your confidence. 

I caution you though—watch where you’re walking, pay attention to the trail. Every single time I believed I had everything completely figured out and I confidently raised my eyes to the heavens, I wound up stepping in something most unpleasant. 

So there you have it. Make a list. Then grab life by the throat, knee it in the crotch, or bring it hot tea and little cakes. Whatever works best for you. Speak sternly to it or tell it your best jokes. Whatever it takes to get to cross an item off your list. 

Oh, yes, I almost forgot: Try to arrange it so that the final item on you list is something that will cause both your friends and your enemies the utmost damn astonishment if you manage to cross it off! 






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