Globe Syndicate

for release Friday April 29, 2005

Another Way

by Melodie Davis

Mayday! Planning Ahead

Do you know the origin of the term, mayday?

The mayday I’m talking about is not May 1, a spring holiday celebrated in many parts of the world, but the international telephone-radio distress call, “Mayday!”

A former Coast Guard officer, David Van Patten, explained that the term comes from an English form of the French “m’aider,” which means “help me,” and is pronounced exactly like we say “mayday.” The original phrase was “venez m’aider,” which means “come help me,” but the “mayday” version probably came into use because of its distinctive sound, easily recognized above the static and noise of long-distance radio transmissions.

Van Patten, who spent more than ten years in the Coast Guard, is now a business consultant and president and CEO of Dare Mighty Things, Inc. He uses his experiences of how to respond to mayday calls as an illustration of how anyone—a person or organization, can do better long range planning. I heard him speak a couple years ago.

My first thought was, well, if you hear a mayday call, you just immediately start going in the direction of the cry.

But no, of course it is a little more complicated than that, and the reason you don’t just start going in the direction of the need is you need to take into account the probable success of the mission—which has many parallels for any work or effort you set out on.


First, you have to decide if it is even your mission to answer it. Van Patten gave the example that if the Coast Guard spent all of its time just helping fishermen who have run out of gas, they wouldn’t have time or resources or be available to help in crises where persons’ lives or boats are at stake. During one of the gas crises of the 70’s or 80s, fishermen would only put enough gas in to get them out to the fishing waters, and not enough to get back, figuring the Coast Guard would haul them in.

By spending their energies on helping people who just rain out of gas, they would not be available to help with life-critical emergencies.

In a business setting, you have to focus on the primary mission of your business, and wisely let go of things that are not central to your main purpose.

Second, you have to find out where you are located in relation to the mayday. This seems quite obvious. Are you the closest vessel? Could someone else respond more quickly?

The recent tsunami in Southeast Asia and stories of the outpouring of help are an example of sometimes needing to step back and look at overall goals and who is best suited to help. One aid worker from the U.S. who went individually to help, reported in the Washington Post how as an individual, he was in no position to know who had already been helped. He was faced with people begging for eyeglasses to replace their lost ones, only to find out they had already received a new pair. He soon discovered what happens in the wake of most disasters: there are inequities and jealousies among neighbors or families in who gets what aid.

Again, the parallels in our communities seem obvious: we need to figure out the real needs of our community. Figure out the current situation. Why start a soup kitchen when what people need are jobs? Why not start a job training/job preparedness-mentoring program? (There may be times when a soup kitchen is needed.)

In a business, is there someone else better suited to serve the mission or need? This kind of long hard look at goals and available resources would undoubtedly keep many businesses from financial ruin.

Last, you have to determine what forces are out there playing on you or else you will not reach your destination. In the sea, you have the winds, the size and fierceness of the waves, the tides underneath, the overall weather and visibility; all of these can serve to drive you off course. By taking the time to calculate what the wind speeds are and so on, you stand a better chance of reaching the destination in time to help, rather than ending up twenty miles off course.

And again, in a business setting, take the time to look at the market forces, the competition, the target customer, the cost of borrowing money and so on.

There are many pleas for help, many places to spend our limited energies. It can be confusing and frustrating when we can’t figure out who to respond to. Planning ahead helps to reach the goals.

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Write to:  Melodie Davis, Another Way, Box 22, Harrisonburg VA 22802 or e-mail (Please include your paper's name in your response.)

You can also visit Another Way on the Web at

Melodie Davis is the author of seven books and has written her column since 1987. She taught feature writing and has won awards from the National Federation of Press Women, Virginia Press Women and the American Advertising Association. She and her husband have three daughters.

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