This one’s subtitled: An essay on learning (and trying not to drown).
Once upon a time, I decided I wanted to experience the excitement and anxiety of learning something new – the art of whitewater kayaking. Ever since my first rafting trip as a teenager, I knew I wanted to paddle my own boat. The kayakers looked like they were enjoying the river in ways that we on the large raft were unable. I told my buddy next to me that someday I wanted to do that. Someday. So, a few years ago, I decided to stop letting life get in the way of something I yearned to do. I signed up with a local kayaking school and set out to pursue a goal that I had put aside for too long.
However, the first course did not go quite the way I envisioned. I naïvely thought kayaking would be much easier than it actually was and that I would pick up the instruction much faster that I actually did. In reality, I felt awkward in the unstable boat and unnerved by my inability to master something that on dry land looked so easy.
Yet I walked away from that experience with three powerful lessons that offered insights into my own sense of learning and living.
Lesson #1: Just because you’ve been on a river before does not mean you already know what you’re doing. I’ve been rafting before in whitewater and even done some flatwater kayaking and I thought those experiences would give me an edge in quickly learning how to paddle a kayak. One mistake I made was that I didn’t approach this new experience from a place of “not knowing,” but instead tried to filter it through past experiences that may have gotten in the way of actually learning. Recognize each experience, regardless of how familiar it may be to you, as an opportunity to learn something new.
Lesson #2: Don’t be afraid to do something new because you might look like you don’t know what you’re doing. Guess what? More than likely, you don’t know what you’re doing! This means you might notice some uncomfortable feelings like incompetence and helplessness. About half-way through the lesson, I committed a typical newbie mistake of panicking when I accidentally capsized my kayak. Trapped underwater in my kayak, I thrashed and flailed trying to get my boat upright. Two instructors came to try to rescue me before I remembered that I could rescue myself by ejecting from the boat. When I surfaced and caught my breath, I realized that my classmates had witnessed the whole episode with a mixture of fear and thankfulness that it wasn’t them. Yet regardless of how I must have looked, I learned very quickly how to remain calm while underwater and how to get myself out of a capsized kayak. Remember that embarrassment only lasts for a few minutes, while the lessons you gain through trying something new last much longer.
Lesson #3: We’re all in-between swims. After I managed to get back in my kayak, one of the instructors said, “Even the best paddlers get themselves into jams. Dude, we’re all in-between swims.” As I rejoined my fellow kayakers, the full force of that statement hit me. Individuals who choose to fully experience life inevitably encounter challenging situations that are bigger than themselves. Sometimes we can paddle through the situation and sometimes we have to eject. It’s about not letting our fears get in the way of fully learning and living. Be open to not getting it right all the time and understand that failing can often lead to the greatest learnings of all.
So, are you taking tentative action in order to always remain upright in your boat or are you pushing yourself and allowing for the possibility of tipping over? The first option is one of safety, the second is risky, but one of true growth. If you’re playing it safe now because you’re afraid of capsizing, ask what it’s costing you. Maybe it’s a life of significance, meaning, and fun. Start paddling in your life and see where it takes you.