Lessons from the River
Posted On: Wednesday, October 16, 2013 - Chaconians
By Chris Gragtmans
The river is a powerful thing.
When experienced from the seat of a kayak, it teaches us important lessons, many of which apply to our day-to-day lives more than we immediately realize. After spending a lifetime immersed in the river and trying to understand its intricacies, I feel compelled to share few lessons that I’ve taken from the river to find a place in my day-to-day life. I smile when I think about any of these, and I love how often I am reminded of them on the water and in life…
1) Look Positive.
When you are paddling through rapids on a river, you always look at where you want to go, and not at where you don’t want to go. You look positive. When you look directly at something, your whole body rotates in that direction, and your boat always follows your body. Your boat goes where you look. This applies to kayaking and any other sport you can imagine. You always look and paddle where you want to go, and you will go there.
The same goes for life.
All of us, during our lives, have and will run into negative influences. Just like on the river, if we orient ourselves towards the right place, and not get caught up in the negatives, we will be successful and happy. Looking positive in life, to me, means not being afraid to separate yourself from influences and people who are trying to pull you off the clean line. This is one of my favorites to discuss with teenagers when I have the opportunity to coach or speak to them.
Commitment is one of the best strengths that kayaking has given me. There are few times that I feel as alive as when I am in an eddy above a thundering rapid. The process before that has been a whirlwind of emotions- scouting, weighing all the factors, setting safety, calculating the risks. But once I am back in my boat above the rapid, and the decision has been made to run it, there is only one thing to do. I peel out of the eddy and into the current, and there is no turning back.
From that moment onward, it is critical to put aside all self-doubt and crippling anxiety, and commit 100% to what you are doing. In high levels of kayaking, your life literally depends on this commitment. I focus in on what needs to happen, and no matter what happens, I try never to panic. There is always a plan A, B, and C.
This applies to real life in such vivid ways. The ability to commit 100% to anything is an invaluable skill. It can apply to school, business, or romantic relationships, as well as a myriad other things. I believe commitment is one of the important ingredients to a truly happy and fulfilling life…
Sometimes when I have a critically important decision to make, I visualize sitting in an eddy above a huge horizon line. That always makes me smile, and I make the best decision that I can.
There is nothing like a group of people who are finely tuned in to each other on the river. I have certain friends with whom I don’t even really need to talk in order to communicate properly, and when we’re in the zone, we can navigate the most heinous class V+ gorges smoothly, each equally dependent and trusting toward the others’ abilities and knowledge.
In spite of kayaking being such an individual sport, this teamwork can push us to a higher level than we could ever reach on our own.
In the real world, this same ability to collaborate manifests itself clearly. Those who achieve great things in life surround themselves with exceptional people, and the result of their teamwork is far greater than the sum of their individual efforts. I have noticed this with my business partner, Nathan. We have complimentary skills, and we constantly push each other above what we thought were our capabilities. There is no doubt in my mind that our company will do some incredible things in the future.
4) Risk Management
Kayaking is 100% risk management. The river draws us to it because we’re not dealing with some regulation-limited amusement park ride. The river is a living, breathing, force of nature that cares nothing of our presence. We can bite off exactly as much as we want of its unlimited power, and the stakes are as high as they get.
The act of scouting a rapid is a methodical scan of any and every hazard that may impede a safe run. All possible outcomes need to be visualized very quickly and specifically, and only then can a decision be made about line choice and whether or not it is a good idea at all.
This risk management practice shares great parallels with any business decision, entrepreneurial or not. Risk and return are weighed constantly, and emotion must be kept in control. There is nothing that I have ever encountered that has prepared me for this as well as kayaking.
Photo Credit: Robin Betz
I started kayaking for a very simple reason- because it is incredibly fun. I didn’t know when I started paddling that the river would become one of my biggest teachers, that it would be there through the ups and downs, and silently show me how to live life right.
I see that clearly now, and I hope to keep going back for many more lessons in the future.