What follows is a parable, beautifully crafted, by popular author, Gordon MacDonald. Since any attempt at adaptation or commentary would only detract from MacDonald’s masterful style and the calibre of this piece, I am sharing it unabridged, with permission from the publisher. Read it and be inspired.

—Whaid Rose, the Artios Center for Vibrant Leadership


“Once, a foolish man built a boat. His intention was that it would be the grandest, the most talked-about boat that ever sailed from the harbor of the boat club of which he was a member. Thus, he determined to spare no expense or effort.

That the builder would come to be known as a foolish man had nothing to do with his ability to build, nor did it have to do with his capacity to work hard. It also was not a reference to his personality, for he was the most pleasant person; people often said this. None of this! That he came to be called a foolish man had everything to do with qualities of person—invisible qualities, one might say—that no one was initially able to appreciate. But to say anything more about this is to get ahead of the story.

As he built, the foolish man outfitted his craft with colorful sails, and complex rigging, and comfortable appointments and conveniences in the cabin. The decks were made from beautiful teak-wood; all the fittings were custom-made of polished brass. And on the stern, painted in gold letters, readable from a considerable distance, was the name of the boat, the Persona.

As he built the Persona, the foolish man could not resist fantasizing about the anticipated admiration and applause from club members at the launching of his new boat. In fact, the more he thought about the praise that was soon to come, the more time and attention he gave to those aspects of the boat’s appearance that would attract the crowd and intensify excitement.

Now—and this seems reasonable—because no one would ever see the underside of the Persona, the man saw little need to be concerned about the boat’s keel or anything that had to do with properly distributed weights or ballast. Experienced sailors might wince at this, but one must remember that the boat-builder was acting with the perception of the crowd in his mind—not the seaworthiness of the vessel. Seaworthiness seems not an important issue while in a dry dock.

On one of those occasions when he was sorting out his priorities of time and resources, he said to himself, “Why should I spend money or time on what is out of anyone’s sight? When I listen to the conversations of people at the club, I hear them praising only what they can see. I can never remember anyone admiring the underside of a boat. Instead, I sense that my yachting colleagues really find exciting the color and shape of the boat’s sails, its brass fittings, its cabin and creature comforts, decks and wood texture, speed and the skills that wins the Sunday afternoon regattas.”

So driven by such reasoning, the foolish man built his boat. And everything that would be visible to the people soon began to gleam with excellence. But things that would be invisible when the boat entered the water were generally ignored. People did not seem to take notice of this, or if they did, they made no comment.

The builder’s suspicions were correct: the people of the boat club understood and appreciated sails, riggings, decks, brass, and staterooms. And what they saw, they praised. Sometimes he overheard people say that his efforts to build the grandest boat in the history of the club would someday result in his selection as commodore. That made no little effect on his conviction that he had made good decisions and was on a correct course to boat-club acceptance and success.

When the day came for the boat’s maiden voyage, the people of the club joined him at dockside. A bottle of champagne was broken over the bow, and the moment came for the man to set sail. As the breeze filled the sails and pushed the Persona from the club’s harbor, he stood at the helm and heard what he’d anticipated for years: the cheers and well wishes of envious admirers who said to one another, “Our club has never seen a grander boat than this. This man would make us the talk of the yachting world.” There were some boat owners who joined him, sailing on either side and forming a flotilla as they moved out beyond the breakwater and into the ocean.

Soon the beautiful Persona was merely a blip on the horizon. And as it cut through the swells, its builder and owner who at this moment seemed anything but a foolish man gripped the rudder with a feeling of fierce pride. What he had accomplished! He was seized with an increasing rush of confidence that everything—the boat, his future as a boat-club member (and probably as commodore), and even the ocean (why not when one is feeling confident?)—was his to control.

But a few miles out to sea a storm arose. Not a hurricane. But not a squall either. There were sudden wind gusts in excess of forty knots, waves about fifteen feet. The Persona began to shudder, and water swept over the sides. Bad things began to happen and the poise of the “captain” began to waver. Perhaps the ocean wasn’t his after all.

How about connections with other boat-club members? The ones who sailed from the harbour on either side cheering and waving? He looked about for them. But none were to be seen. The boats that had been there in the early part of the voyage had turned back long ago. He’d been too self-absorbed to notice. Besides, other captains knew storm clouds when they saw them.

Within minutes the Persona’s colorful sails were in shreds, the splendid mast was splintered in pieces and the rigging was unceremoniously draped all over the bow. The teakwood decks and the lavishly appointed cabin were awash with water. And then before the foolish man could prepare himself, a wave bigger than anything he had ever seen hurled down upon the Persona, and the boat capsized.

Now, this is important! When most boats would have righted themselves after such a battering, the Persona did not. Why? Because its builder—this very foolish man—had ignored the importance of what was below the waterline. There was no weight there. In a moment when a well-designed keel and adequate ballast might have saved the ship, they were nowhere to be found. The foolish man had concerned himself with the appearance of things and not enough with resilience and stability in the secret, unseen places where the storms are withstood.

Furthermore, because the foolish man had such confidence in his sailing abilities, he had never contemplated the possibility of a situation he could not manage. And that’s why later investigations revealed that there were no rescue devices aboard: rafts, life jackets, emergency radios. And the result of this mixture of poor planning and blind pride: the foolish man was lost at sea.

Only when the wreckage of the Persona was washed ashore did the drowned man’s boat-club friends discover all of this. “Look,” they said, “This boat lacks an adequate keel and there is far more weight above the water line than below.”

They said more! “Only a fool would design and build a boat like this, much less sail in it. A man who builds only above the waterline doesn’t realize that he has built less than half a boat. Didn’t he know that the ocean is dangerous? Didn’t he understand that a boat not built with storms in mind is a floating disaster waiting to happen? How absurd that we should have applauded him so enthusiastically.”

There were a few old men and women off to one side who heard these things and quickly commented to one another, “We do not remember that anyone mentioned these things when the foolish man was building his Persona. What’s the use of such questions when his boat is wrecked, and he is nowhere to be found?”

The foolish man was never found. Today, when people speak of him—which is rare—they comment not upon the initial success of the man or upon the beauty of his boat, but only upon the silliness of putting out on an ocean where storms are sudden and violent.  And doing it with a boat that was really never built for anything else but the vanity of its builder and the praise of its spectators. It was in such conversations that the owner of the Persona, whose name has long been forgotten, became known simply as the foolish man.

The one who values discernment will ask, “What does this story mean?” and soon discover the answer to the question. And the one who cares little for insight will dismiss the story and likely go out and construct something similar to the foolish man’s Persona.

And versions of this story go on being recycled in a thousand ways…

Once, a foolish man built a house;

Once, a foolish man built a career;

Once, a foolish man built a church;

Once, a foolish man built a marriage;

Once, a foolish man built a life.”

[Taken from The Life God Blesses: Weathering the Storms of Life That Threaten the Soul, by Gordon MacDonald. Copyright © 1994, 1997 by Gordon MacDonald. Used by permission of Thomas Nelson.]