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.