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Recently I have been reflecting on how so much of dealing with change in life and in business is about learning how to deal with turbulent waters. No matter how prepared we are or how many lists we make, there will always be unexpected situations and vertigo-inducing deviations in our plans.

And yet it is not uncommon for people to feel as though something is wrong when these things happen. As though if we were more perfect and prepared, then nothing would ever feel unsettling or overwhelming.

Which makes me think of whitewater kayaking.


(This is most definitely not a picture of me. It’s a picture of this guy.)

Years ago I helped lead a group of teenagers on a whitewater kayaking trip for orientation. Now by “lead” I mean I was the adult representative of the school, not that I had any idea what I was doing. I had never kayaked whitewater before this, nor had I ever even considered it something I might want to do.


While I can honestly say that I neither found my passion for the sport, nor that I was any good at it. I did, however, learn a lot. And as I was preparing for this topic, I couldn’t get the lessons I learned out of my heard, so here they are. (Warning: these are meant to be allegorical lessons and not to be construed as an actual tutorial. Seriously, I have done this only three times.)

1. You never go down a river without first scouting your path.

I chalk this one up to due-diligence and common sense. Fact is that you have a better chance of success if you look ahead at the possible dangers and plot what path you want to take. Now, things may happen along the way (I spent a fair amount of time swimming next to my boat), but doing the prep work first will only help you along the way. The same is true in our business and life. It isn’t so hard to see many of the changes before they happen, we just often choose to ignore them or not pick our heads up from what is happening right in front of us.

2. Don’t panic. Remember, you chose this path.

Seriously. Even when this happens:


While I was heading into my first rapids I had this novel thought, I chose to do this.

As scared as I felt and as awesome and fierce the water is on a river, I realized that I had a choice to get in a boat on a river and I have a choice how I want to see this moment. I could allow my brain to be flooded with the paralyzing feeling of helplessness or I could choose to say yes to the moment and convince my brain to enjoy it. While I was still scared, there were moments that I actually enjoyed. Not enough to do it for sport, but it was fun for a moment. Seriously, unlike anything I have ever done.

3. Whatever you do, don’t stop paddling.

This was the most profound lesson I learned on that trip. The water moves so fast and if you don’t paddle, your boat will get pushed around and you will be out of control. It is common when things speed up that we can pull our proverbial paddle out of the water for fear of making a mistake. There are so many ways that one can get tossed around and drown in these small boats, but paddling is the one action that we have. Even when things seem scary and hard, paddling is the only way around it, over it  and even through it.

I have noticed that the entrepreneurs, small business owners, executives and leaders of all types understand this one concept, and it is what helps them get through the challenging and overwhelming times. The very best leaders are those who know that if they paddle hard enough, not only will they make it through, but it will be kind of fun in the process.

That’s the way that I want to see my life. This is how I want to approach those moments of turbulent waters in my business and in my life, with intention and with engagement. This is so much better than spending my time sitting in my proverbial boat, trying to think of how I can avoid the rapids.

I chose this life. We chose this path. Let’s get our paddles in the water and not be afraid of getting wet.

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