The unexpected consequences of moving mountains

Hoosac Mtn
The unexpected consequences of moving mountains
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Reverend Dr. Morar Murray-Hayes

Reverend Dr. Morar Murray-Hayes

The Reverend Dr. Morar Murray-Hayes is the Minister of Maple Grove United Church, and is a member of the Interfaith Councill of Halton. A chatty extrovert with a conversational preaching style, a multi-tasker who is a “multi-worrier” when it comes to caring about people’s problems, and a leader who treasures teaming with the lay people in her church, Morar says that at Maple Grove she has experienced “a deeper level of ministry than I thought possible.” Anyone who has personally received Morar’s deeply compassionate caring and wise counsel will testify to what an inspirational, healing and encouraging ministry it is.

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In the 1850s, builders of the rail line from Boston to the Hudson River faced a huge obstacle: Hoosac Mountain.

  1. James Hayward, a leading railroad engineer, estimated the cost, at most, two million dollars.
  2. A skilled geologist, president of Amherst College, said that the mountain was composed of soft rock and that tunnelling would be fairly easy after the surface was broken.

The experts were wrong. Digging through that mountain turned out to be a nightmare. It cost more than twenty million dollars. If the people involved had known the true nature of the challenges they faced, they would never have funded it.

Was the ignorance of the experts a hindrance or a blessing?

If they hadn’t misjudged so badly, Massachusetts wouldn’t have been able to ship goods to the developing west, freight costs would have remained prohibitive and the state would have been poorer.

Sometimes it is only as a result of the heroism of fools and the blindness of ‘true believers’ that creativity can triumph.

Many challenges in life are complex, and it is difficult to gather enough information to guarantee the outcome one desires. I don’t know about you, but I love to gather information and hate to make decisions. ‘Perhaps,’ I think, ‘if I wait just another day, I will have all the information I need.’ It’s a tortuous process.

The solution? “Jump in,” you decisive folks will say. And history will prove you right in so many instances.

Fear of failure can be pretty powerful. But history tells us to keep on — keep on making decisions, whether or not we can guarantee the outcome, keep on blundering along, because no matter what decision we make, there will be unexpected consequences. Results we couldn’t have predicted. And even if some of them are bad, we will be challenged to create new solutions we couldn’t have dreamt of.

The Karnaphuli Paper Mills was one of the earliest large industrial projects set up by Pakistan after partition. It was planned to use bamboo from the vast forests along the Karnaphuli River. It operated from 1953 to 59, but then the bamboo began to flower — all of it — unforeseen since it only happens once every 50 – 70 years. Then it died. Dead bamboo couldn’t be pulped. What to do?

In villages throughout East Pakistan, bamboo was gathered and sent by water. They started a research program to find faster-growing species of bamboo to replace the dead forests, and planted an experimental tract. They found other kinds of lumber that worked just as well.

Because of ignorance and bad planning, a new, multimillion-dollar industry was created that was more valuable than imagined.

The economist Albert Hirschman in his article, “The Principle of the Hiding Hand” was the one to point to this phenomenon. He wrote:

“Creativity always comes as a surprise to us; therefore we can never count on it and we dare not believe in it until it has happened. … We would not consciously engage upon tasks whose success clearly requires that creativity be forthcoming. Hence, the only way in which we can bring our creative resources fully into play is by misjudging the nature of the task, by presenting it to ourselves as more routine, simple, undemanding of genuine creativity than it will turn out to be.”

Often, seeing the complex as simple can get us moving in new directions.


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