IVP - Addenda & Errata - On Boiling the Ocean

April 26, 2007

On Boiling the Ocean

I recently came across the term “boil the ocean.” It was at the time of the release of Microsoft’s new operating system Vista. Scott Rosenberg in the The Washington Post was talking about the challenge and pitfalls of writing software: "too often, software teams get lost in what are known in the field as "boil-the-ocean" projects -- vast schemes to improve everything at once. That can be inspiring, but in the end we might prefer that they hunker down and make incremental improvements to rescue us from bugs and viruses and make our computers easier to use. Idealistic software developers love to dream about world-changing innovations; meanwhile, we wait and wait for all the potholes to be fixed."

This reminded me of a conversation about five or six years ago with someone who was working at Amazon.com. He spoke of the heady days when Amazon was getting underway, dreaming of all the things they could sell. Books were just the beginning. All kinds of things could be sold through Amazon. As he described it, they would first dam this Amazon River of books and generate dollars. No, do the electronic products river too! Dam all the rivers! No, why stop there? Dam the ocean! Finally there came a point when reason prevailed and choices were made.

It occurred to me that the making of books sometimes ends up in boil- or dam-the-ocean projects. We want this one book to do everything, and if we’re just clever and persistent enough, we’ll be able to pull it off. We’ll clear the shelves of all competition! We’ll create the definitive reference work on the Bible. The killer-app of the Old Testament introduction genre. The hermeneutical textbook that will do it all—put in text, pull lever, and “correct” interpretation pops out. Yes, I have been tempted by editorial fantasies of such projects. And I’ve seen some book proposals that were clearly attempting to boil their own little ocean. Nowadays the burden of boiling the ocean has largely been assumed by software companies that seem to want to put the Library of Your Dreams on your laptop. Whatever. But in writing or editing an individual book, less ambition can be a virtue.

I once sent a boil-the-ocean textbook manuscript to a friend—an academic who taught the subject—for his professional evaluation. One line in his response has stayed with me. It went something like this: “This book doesn’t leave any place for me as a teacher.” The book’s author was going to push him right out of the classroom! What was really needed was a modest book that just boiled a pot (or filled a pothole). And he wrote it.

Posted by Dan Reid at April 26, 2007 6:38 PM Bookmark and Share


This is a good principle to remember for all ministers, particularly those working with youth. Rather than "boil-the-ocean" with the newest grand program trying to double your "numbers", making disciples is about focused attention and invested time into a few.

Thanks for the post and new blog!

Comment by: jmy at May 2, 2007 9:01 AM

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