Clutching a rock where the river meets the rugged shoreline, I feel a mix of tension between trying to catch my breath and wanting to cry.
As I look out towards the river, some of the paddlers on this outing wrestle with my canoe, which is full of water and floating downstream in the center of the current. Other paddlers chase my paddle as well as other possessions that were previously inside of my boat… before I “swam.”
In this situation, to “swim” means that when I flipped upside down in my boat in the middle of the rapid a few minutes earlier, I failed to roll the boat back into an upright position.
“To swim” is what happens when you finally give up and choose to separate from your boat. Here, you are swimming in the middle of the river searching for the safety of the shoreline.
Before this particular expedition, I was repeatedly told that my roll (my ability to return my boat to the upright position with me in it) needed to be “bombproof” — so that the trip leaders would not have to constantly worry every time I flipped over.
Few situations on the river inflict doubt and kill confidence like a swim. It is humbling. Sometimes humiliating. Almost always self-defeating.
And then there are the others in your group. After a swim, they enter “rescue mode” to help as best they can.
They work hard to recover your gear before the river current carries it away. When they secure your equipment, most are supportive. They say something like, “No worries. It happens to the best of us.”
Others project a different feeling towards you that communicates something like, “Why are you even here? Why didn’t you just stay home?”
In both situations, you find a way to say, “Thank you.”
On this cold autumn afternoon at the bottom of a steep canyon on a challenging river in a remote area of West Virginia, the image of my fellow 15 year-old friends and classmates back in the Washington, DC area playing team sports and going out for pizza after the game seems pretty appealing right now… which happens to be how I had spent many of my childhood weekends with them before taking a greater interest in paddlesports.
Sometimes, when things are not going well, a change in strategy could be in order. But, that does not necessarily mean that departing the river is an option.
To change course during a low point is not easy. And no matter which adjustments or redesign we think might work, how we shift out of the mistake or malfunction that brought to this intersection acutely affects the quality of our next step.
When my own critical mistakes highlight the river’s unpleasant uncertainty far more than its joyful contentment, two simple and powerful actions avail themselves as clear yet elusive choices:
Self-Awareness — A momentary space in which to pause, notice, question, and reflect.
Self-Gentleness — A nod towards giving ourselves a break.
These are easy to say — much harder to do.
Although absolute determination, grit, and stubbornness can contribute to pushing through a difficult situation, these attributes distract and oppose our ability to slow down, catch our breath, and cut ourselves a little slack.
If self-awareness and self-gentleness are activated in such moments, we reboot the spirit of River Strategy.
Whether River Strategy reinforces our current path or nudges us to revise or even pivot, the concepts of non-finishing and counterintuitive help us build better guideposts, which develop a more effective practice that moves us closer to our essential objective.
These tenets of River Strategy flow into the next section of The Pursuit Of Contentment On The River Of Uncertainty, which is Relationships Bound By Water.
On the river or in life, a “swim” is rarely an endpoint. More likely, it is the next start line.
Back in West Virginia, I feel somewhat shaken, cold, and scared. I collect my gear and find my way back into the canoe.
I sit in calm water near the shore and a few meters from the swift river current… the same river current that just pummeled me a few minutes earlier.
It is time to re-enter the chaos.
Technically speaking, I need a “soft” re-entry into the flow of the river — a first step towards aligning my boat, paddle, and body with this intense force of energy.
This peaceful approach signals respect for the water that is far stronger than me. Only then does the process of collaborating with river’s power start to appear.
When River Strategy simply begins with self-awareness and self-gentleness, the stage is set to:
Respectfully approach the current
Gently edge the canoe to align with the river’s flow
Facilitate a connection between the water and the boat and…
With gratitude, — Joe
PS — New Podcast! As we transition into the next section of this Sunday Morning Joe series, a recent podcast I did with my friend, Adventure Coach, Sunday Morning Joe reader, and fellow whitewater paddler, Kelly Howard, encapsulates the central ideas that we have explored over the past several weeks as well as the subject of today’s post.
Kelly and I dig into managing energy, encountering resistance, the value of daily practice, and being more gentle with ourselves.
I enjoyed this conversation and hope you do too. Please listen → HERE
When Strategy Fails is a part of my continuing Sunday Morning Joe series, The Pursuit Of Contentment On The River Of Uncertainty.
Subscribe to Sunday Morning Joe HERE.
Connect with Joe:
I coach established and experienced professionals, who feel stuck in place, to thrive in transition and bring focus to what matters most without compromising their lives.
My personal experiences winning an Olympic Gold Medal, serving as CEO of a national sports organization, and my current “Simple, Slower, and Less” lifestyle in the Catalan Pyrenees help to form accountable and transformative collaborations that see my clients create their next and most impactful chapter.