Canoe & You

What if your life was a river and you were in a canoe. How would you spend your time and energy? Would you struggle against the current to head upstream? Would you aim your canoe for a point directly across and paddle like mad to get to the other side? Or would you let the river carry you downstream while you cling to the sides of the canoe, white knuckled and scared. Is there another option?

Consider this:  What if your only responsibility was to steer your canoe?

Steering doesn’t imply little effort or meaningless consequences.  In a conversation early this morning, I discussed this with my brother.  He was quick to inform me that if you steered your canoe into a pile of brush in a rushing river, the canoe sinks in a matter of moments. Lesson: steering matters!

This topic was broached in the retreat I took a few weekends ago (and in between, I’ve been on a sorely needed vacation which is why I’ve been a bit quiet – I visited Savannah, GA, and Beaufort, South Carolina and discovered I’m a Southern Belle and didn’t know it! I had a blast, more to come on that!)

In my retreat, the leader, Carol, spoke about living effortlessly by simply steering your canoe on the river of life.  It sounds too simple to be true, doesn’t it?  However, it doesn’t mean you exist without responsibility, or that you never put your canoe into the water, or that you let the river take you wherever it takes you.  What it means is that you spend your energy (time, money, effort) on steering with the flow of the river rather than fighting against it.

 This is a tough lesson for me.  As I work to achieve my dreams, perhaps I’ve missed opportunities that might have arisen had I been able to win like water.  Instead, I believe I’ve been paddling upstream, or building dams, or trying to redirect the river for most of my life.  Trust me, it’s exhausting.   I don’t think I’ve ever considered the option of simply sitting in the canoe and steering.  Hmmm…

As I thought about it, I realized that Carol didn’t say that we were alone in the canoe, or in the river, or that we had no other tools. We can use all the navigation tools we have – maps, skills, strengths, experience, knowledge, the sun, the stars, and the moon.  We can consult with those we trust.  But we don’t fight the river.  For example, we might steer around obstacles rather than try to remove them.

I like this “just steer” analogy because it gives me something new to try. I also like it for its link to the philosophy of strengths-based success.  It reminds me of the futility of trying to improve our performance by fixing our weaknesses.  It’s a waste of time, money, and energy.  Letting our strengths do the work for us, which feels like breathing, is a much better approach.  Like steering the canoe, it doesn’t mean we’re disengaged in the process;  rather, we remain attached to the moment,  and focus our strengths to enable us to do what we do best with very little effort.  We have a destination in mind, and we know that we must follow our own path to get there, moving with the river. It might be fast, it might be slow. It might be straight, or it might meander.

Recently, I spoke about this topic with my friend, Vicki Flaherty.  We laughed as we considered adding an outboard motor to the canoe.  Let’s go faster down the river!  Afterwards, I realized we have another option as well.

When we are too tired to continue, we can steer to the nearest shore, pull our canoe out of the water, and rest.

Both of those choices are judgment calls that we all need to make, with our health, well-being, and self-leadership in mind.  There is nothing wrong with taking a break to collect ourselves, heal, restore, and grow.  That’s what I did when I visited the southern states.  It felt marvelous.

The moment Carol mentioned the canoe concept in our retreat, a photograph popped into my mind. It’s one I took and it sticks with me, so I decided to share it with you. I shot it some years ago in Michigan.  I was on assignment for a magazine that focused on “lake side living.”  It was a three hour drive from my house.  There was no budget for a hotel nearby.  The night before, the weather forecast was poor, predicting fog.  For once, the weather men were right.  I left at 4 am so I could be there by 8 am. I drove very slowly and focused on keeping my car out of trouble by following the yellow stripe down the middle of the road.  I was doing almost nothing but steering.  I like the parallels to this discussion, and the fact that a cool canoe shot was one of the outcomes is simply the icing on the cake,

We all have a lot going on in our life.  The river is wide, the river is narrow. It is fast, then slow.  It is crowded, then empty.  Sometimes we can see for a long way, other times it’s impossible to think beyond navigating around the approaching boulder jutting in our path.

Where is your canoe?  Can you imagine just steering for a while and observe the experience? 

The river never stops moving.  It’s up to us to decide what we do with that energy.  We can fight it or we can leverage it.  Just remember  – water always wins. 

21 thoughts on “Canoe & You

  1. Love the analogy and, of course, the wonderful photograph that captures the essence. When we think about just getting in and steering, you’re right that we often forget about all the tools we have to help us with that. But we also seem to assume that were alone navigating that river. It’s not just staring forward and steering your canoe, it’s looking out for the crazy people in the other canoes who are trying to go against the current, or have gotten caught in the whirlpool or the brush piles.

    What kind of strengths does it take to make sure you’re not only navigating on the right river, but also not ramming into the other crazies in the way? :)

    • Hi Barb! I am laughing out loud, visualizing “Demolition Canoe Derby”! Well, I don’t know that your very accurate observation is so much a strengths statement as a choice we all have: Do we attach with emotion to the crazies as they cut off our canoes (how dare they!) or get sucked into some mess of their own and expect the whole world to stop rotating and help them? Or do we smile, let it go, and focus on our own navigation? It’s an attachment issue – even if they ram us – we how we react is up to us (and they might just need a lecture on navigation!)

      Having said that – what strengths would be helpful? Many – depending on what you’re doing and why you’re on the river. If you want to win, Competition helps. Those with adaptability will be more likely to adjust to the coming and goings of the river, and the journey. Strategic – what 3 points do I need to hit to land where I want to? Futuristic – “I see trouble…” Deliberative – “I need to slow down to make sure this works out like I’d like to” or Activator to help people who are afraid to get in the river at all. In short, there is no one answer that works for us all, there is only the answer that works for you. And for me. And for anyone else reading it. I’m not avoiding the question, I’m saying that each of us will steer our best if we use our strengths as part of the decision making process.

      That’s my zen answer. My non-zen answer is, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” :-) I can easily go both ways, and the latter is more my (previous) style. Obviously, steering without judging the others is not natural for me, but I can also see that it offers a sense of serenity that I have yet to feel on a regular basis. Does that help? Thanks for your thought provoking post!

      • There really is a sport called Canoe Battleship, in which the objective is to sink the opponents’ canoes, using buckets to pour or throw water into them. The last team whose canoe is still floating wins! But when we’re talking about life more generally, I agree with your perspective that it’s best to focus on the journey, rather than getting caught up in other people’s drama.

        • HI Meg! Thanks for coming over to join in the conversation! You make a GREAT point – isn’t it easy to get caught up in all the drama (that takes energy, too!) Imagine having the insight to simply shake your head, smile, wave, and steer around them, robbing them of pulling on that Drama Hook. I like it!

          I also like the idea of “play” which the Canoe Battleship game really is. There are real life lessons in playing (think of puppies wrestling, which is a learning journey) – as your canoe begins to sink in Canoe Battleship, how do you react? There are multiple choices… and all are good practice to see what’s effective and what isn’t. Thanks again!

    • Hey Barb, one last thought. I do believe we have the right to carry our canoe (portage) across land (this takes energy, too) to switch rivers. As navigators of our own destiny, if we determine we’re in the wrong river and it will take us to the wrong ocean, well then – it’s time to switch! There are even portage trails for people making that journey… kinda like switching jobs!

      For pathfinders like you, I see that as a very viable option when the crazy people are too numerous for comfort.

  2. Beautiful post Maureen, and the image to accompany it is great! I am wishing I had more time, but wanted to leave a comment and let you know that your post resonates with me.!!

  3. What a wonderful post, Maureen. Love the photo – and how you had to focus on steering when you were headed to the destination where you took it! I so appreciate your sharing! I remember our conversation after your retreat. I appreciate your bringing this analogy back to me. It’s timely because I think I have been violating my strengths, steering as if there were rapids ahead, getting all tense and determined to be in control – when, in fact, I think those raging waters are just a figment of my imagination. Your post has helped me appreciate the difference between steering WITH the energy of the water, versus paddling like mad when unnecessary! Thanks! (Love that you have discovered your are Southern Belle and look forward to learning about how that plays into your strengths!)

    • Hi Vicki! Thanks so much for joining in the conversation! Kudos for recognizing that you are predicting or imagining rapids when maybe, just maybe, it’s smooth, slow, kind, warm, generous water ahead (wouldn’t that be great, I say to myself!) I have a thought about that because I have the special good fortune of knowing your strengths.

      Strategic is a blessing and a curse. It helps is connect dots that support navigation. It can also run a bit wild (and I’ve had this conversation with another friend of mine – the three of us all have Strategic in our top 5) and leap to a disastrous spot as the final destination. It’s like racing down the street to greet/prevent a problem before it’s even come to your front door. This special gift (and it is a gift) is wonderful when you’re managing it, and calmly collecting data for a project, or looking at ALL possibilities that appear on the horizon (some include rapids, some don’t) to guide yourself and those around you. When this special gift fires up our emotions and creates it’s own little (imaginary) raging storm, it is in control of us. That’s less useful. We like effectiveness, so it’s good when we can do what you have done – take a step back, realize that you have an awesome, creative mind, and it’s manufactured ONE possibility out of many. Choosing to latch onto that one as if it is real isn’t serving you (I say to myself). And then there is the whole steering versus paddling problem – I’m with you!! :-) We’re all learning together.

      As for my new discovery of being a Southern Belle – well, I can’t wait to share more. I’m still processing all the fun, photos, magic moments, and interesting people I met. Onward!

  4. I’ve always resonated with the river analogy. My spin on the river analogy is that a river is a river because of the structure of the river’s banks (or elegant structure as I like to call it). Without the structure of the river’s banks it would be a bog or swamp. And the structure of my river’s banks are my strengths (Connectedness, Intellection, Maximizer, Relator, Learner, Harmony). From within the banks my river can flow in all it’s twists, turns, whirlpools, rapids, calm waters, etc). And thus my life can move in different directs with my unique strengths as my guide.

    • Hi Rich! Great to see you here adding your awesome two cents. Your notion of an elegant structure is wonderful. What a great point – without structure, the river is a bog or swamp. I just came back from the South (Savannah & Beaufort) and when I hit the marshes, they were difficult for me to “figure out” – where was the water? Was it coming or going (tides). I hadn’t thought about the fact that my ability to judge was due to lack of structure – and you are absolutely right. Plus, I’m really excited that you added the truth of your strengths – when our river runs through them or with them, or is shaped by them, we are comfortable with wherever it goes. Great comments, Rich. Thank you!

  5. Maureen,
    I saw the photo and thought it looked idyllic, analogies aside, I am not one for water. So, setting aside my fear of drowning, but leaving my fear of the unknown on the table, I think my canoe would be on the shore quite a lot for a couple of reasons. First, I often step off and watch the world go by for a bit. Second, and more usefully, sitting by and watching how you and others approach the rapids and deciding my own line based on what I see, is how I would choose to approach the danger. If I could have an instructor in my canoe with me for the tricky bits that would be even better. When the river goes quiet, I would look at where I was, study the river bed, look for wildlife and learn about my surroundings in tranquility. You would rush by, looking for the next exciting thing, and maybe that would delay you for long enough that I could eventually catch up and tell you what I find in the quiet spot.

    • Hazel, this is why I love working with you to solve real problems at work. You bring such a different but attractive strategy, and it always reminds me that we need us all – you, me, everyone reading this, for the universe to reach its true potential. I see your strengths in your post (Deliberative, Context, Learner, Input) and revel in their awesomeness!!

  6. Hi Maureen, what a delightful read and how accurate it is, imo, in terms of describing what we do in life. I have always thought of the river being life, of each of us being the canoe and of serendipity being the steer, whether upstream or downstream. If you take life as a flow you will always have a choice whether you want to just flow with the water, or steer upstream. Either way, it’s always a choice depending on the context of where you are, what you are doing and where you are heading and while flowing along is perhaps what prevails the most, some times it’s a good thing to go upstream as an opportunity for serendipity to kick in and do its magic. Strengths here play a good, key important role: they define how we steer and for what purpose and, as such, they are the elements that define the path towards reaching our final destination.

    That’s why, to me, life is that river you get on with your canoe, decide whether to go downstream or upstream, depending on the context, and then let serendipity do the rest. There is a great chance that magic will happen. Always does, the challenge is whether we are always well prepared for it, or not. Sometimes we will, and some times we won’t. It’s part of the flow and how we are going to handle and embrace the unknown and the unexpected and make the best out of it. Such is life. Ready to grab that canoe and get on board. Flow, just like we all do. In whatever direction :)

    • Hi Luis! Gosh, it’s great to have you come join the conversation. No one knows better than you the value of choosing the right river, and managing your energy to allow room for serendipity. The unexpected is so often the greatest gift, isn’t it?

      Your point about strengths defining how we steer and why – that’s so true.

      Here’s to following your great advice and making room for flow and magic – thanks again, my friend!

      • Hi Maureen, thanks a lot for the additional feedback comments. More than the unexpected I’d tend to think it’s the learning experience that’s the greatest gift. That constant urge to want to learn more things to keep moving, progressing, advancing on that river having acquired whatever serendipitous knowledge discovery would make it just worth it on its own. It may well be the right or the wrong flow of the river, but the key thing there is to keep flowing, never stagnate, keep learning and be ready to embrace magic when it happens, because it *will* happen :)

        My pleasure and please do keep blogging! Some amazing insights and lots of great conversations happening! Learning a lot can never be an understatement! :-D

        • Hi Luis – you are one of my favorite learners – not only do you love the process, you love sharing what you know, and are unafraid to follow wherever the topic leads you. Your “flow” in the river of life is amazing, and you have inspired us all with your courage to leave the corporate world and fly like an eagle on new winds. Learning a lot can *NEVER* be an understatement. :-)

          We talked about ethics on the river of life in this weeks blog – I think you might have a few things to say about that as well! We love learning with you, my friend. Onward!

  7. Hi Maureen, hummm, not sure what’s going on, but I am no longer receiving notifications from follow-up comments on your blog posts. Need to double check on that one. Either way, thanks for the follow-up and apologies it took me a little while to notice this conversation again :) hehe

    Well, what can I say about learning that may not have been said before. The way I have always felt about it is that we all learn on our own ways, but the power of learning really happens when it’s a “shared” learning, where we all get a chance to share and exchange thoughts and ideas on what we are learning along the way and over time, as a result, we become better at what we do. The key message from that shared learning is essentially to realise that you don’t know it all, that there will always be someone out there way smarter than you are, and that the challenge would be whether you know that person, or are connected to him / her, or not. And if not, why not? That’s where the learning process begins, and from there onwards into plenty of wonderful things in the making! :-D

    And on the topic of ethics, I published a blog post on it yesterday that may well hint a bit of that as well and with so much more to come along as I get to uncover own my journey from where I have been the last 17 years and wherever I may be heading from here onwards. Who knows what that would be. That’s the beauty of the journey. You know when you will start, but not when you finish and that’s what makes it all worth while, don’t you think? :)

    Onward, indeed!

    • Hello Luis! I hope you see this one! :-) I am sorry the system isn’t working properly, maybe it is something on my end?

      I think that you are the master of the comment, “Knowledge Shared Is Power.” Nobody does it better, and that’s why you’ve had such a positive impact on the universe. Combine that special talent with your high standard of integrity, and voila! It’s a recipe for total awesomeness. People are drawn to you, Luis. I’ve seen it happen over and over and over again. I’d love to read your blog so I can see the beginning of your new journey – destination unknown, value = priceless! :_) Thank you my friend.

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