Adult Learning

Lessons From The River

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By Janet C.

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Expertbase Articles by Janet C. Adult Learning Lessons From The River

Lessons From The River


The challenges, fears, self-doubt and distractions of life are there everyday. This particular week they just happened to take the forms of a kayak, white water, and my real and perceived physical limitations. In the big picture of life, what did the river have to teach me?

Last July two friends and I went white water rafting on the Ottawa River. It was fun, radical, exciting, scary at times and a thrill. On the second day, we were in self-guided 6 person rafts, accompanied by professional guides who paddled kayaks. The guides were obviously having tremendous fun in the rapids. They made it look effortless, as if the kayaks were an extension of themselves. I was intrigued. In 2003 I went back to the white water of the Ottawa River to a five day kayak school, so that I too could have fun playing in the rapids.

We started on flat water, wedged into small plastic kayaks, our legs at 45 degree angles and our knees fitted into molded cups at each side. Within 5 minutes I discovered that my body rebelled at sitting in this position, my legs cramped and the kayaks did not paddle in a straight line. I was in a wobbly boat, zig zagging across the river, interspersed with impromptu turns and spins! This was not going smoothly, and I was still on flat water, not a ripple in sight.

Our instructors showed us how to brace with the paddle to keep ourselves upright, and failing that, how to get rescued by another kayak. When that wasn't practical, we needed to "wet exit" by pulling the kayak skirt free and maneuvering out of the kayak while upside down in the water. It may sound complicated, however, it is amazing how motivated one becomes when upside down with no hope of getting right side up. We were also introduced to the "Eskimo roll", using our paddle and hip motion to right the kayak. Sadly, this was not something I mastered that week.

Our class suffered one drop out by noon of day one, a man no less! By the end of the day, another woman and I had been dubbed the "submarine twins" because we seemed to spend a lot of of time upside down and underwater. I ended the day swimming my kayak to shore - I had flipped and could not haul myself back into a floating kayak in water well over my head, while wearing with a life jacket and kayak skirt, and with a body that was clearly not willing.

Until then, I had failed to appreciate that those much younger guides, who I so admired the year before, had practiced, practiced, practiced and that was why they were able to make it look effortless and fun? I wasn't on a learning curve - I was on a learning cliff!

On the second day we were back on the flat water to practice what was not mastered the day before, which for me was pretty well everything. I managed to successfully execute a t-rescue. I learned that when I flip over, yelling for help does not work. Instead, I patiently rubbed the sides of my kayak and waited for another kayaker to come up perpendicular to my boat so that I could I leverage myself back to an upright position using my arms and hip motion. The biggest challenge to this move is that the head comes out of the water last, so the impulse to breathe must be overcome.

The second afternoon we were on a part of the river with a current and waves so that we could practice our skills - or in my case, find out how little I had learned. I overturned twice. Everyone admired my patience and breath control waiting to be rescued while floating upside down, in what seems to me at the time, a rushing current. I had distinguished myself for something, even if it was for holding my breath and patiently waiting to be t-rescued.

The third day was where the rubber met the road - or, more accurately, the kayak met the white water. Once we were dropped off, there was no backing out and there was only one way out - beyond the last of the rapids where we would be met the end of the day. The only way there was through the rapids, and occasionally around them when a portage was necessary. At times, carrying a kayak through the woods is an attractive alternative. After the first portage, I learned to drain the kayak before the portage. A small, yet important, point.

The instructors impressed upon us the importance of leaning forward and to keep paddling. If we remembered nothing else, this would get us through the rapids. I steeled my nerves, screwed up my courage and down I went. This was my own survivor reality show. Amazingly enough, I got through the first set of rapids upright. I was so delighted, relieved, and impressed with myself I leaned back and raised my paddle in triumph. Bad plan. In an instant I was upside down. T-rescue! From then on, my mantra was "lean forward and keep paddling".

Unbelievably, I made it through the rest of the rapids without flipping that day. I almost effortlessly paddled across the "rushing current" (not!) that had capsized me twice the previous afternoon. I even paddled in a straight line once in a while.

That night in my cabin, with the help of a vodka cooler, I reflected on my experiences to that point. I realized that I had great many lessons from the river that will serve me well in my everyday life. The challenges, fears, self-doubt and distractions of life are there everyday. This particular week they just happened to take the forms of a kayak, white water, and my real and perceived physical limitations. In the big picture of life, what did the river have to teach me?


Know where you are going.

Before I went down a set of rapids, I knew what part of the river I needed to take to get where I wanted to go and why. I had a goal and a plan to achieve it. So it is with life. Have a clear idea of what it is you want to achieve, where you want to end up and why. When we are clear on who we are, who we want to be and what we want to achieve, we can then achieve success.


Focus on what you need to do and do it.

Do not lose sight of it, not matter what is going on around you. There will be distractions, temptations and self-doubt. The only way to get the results you want is to focus, focus, focus.


Look where you are going.

When I looked where I was going I paddled straighter. If I was looking in another direction, that's where I ended up going. Keep your sights on your goal and do not get distracted. Use visual triggers, such as photos, pictures, charts, or symbols to keep you focused and motivated.


Learn from the experts.

They become experts by "doing". At one point our instructors shared how intimidated and scared they had been when they learned to kayak. Somehow that was very comforting to me. They had been there, done that and had the kayak skirt to prove it. Who better to ask? Most experts have a passion for what they do because a strong interest and desire are required to go through the challenges of the learning curve to acquire expertise. That passion makes them happy and enthusiastic about sharing their knowledge. There is an abundance of expertise for the asking and it comes in a variety of forms - through personal contact, courses, books, tapes, publications, workshops, the Internet, professional associations. Remember, no one was born an expert. Where you are right now is a great place to start.


When you feel that the odds are overwhelming, stick to the basics.

If I had tried to remember everything I had been told before, or while I was in the rapids I would either not have started, or not made it through. Instead, by using "lean forward and keep paddling" as my mantra I got through, proved to myself that I could do it and the other skills fell into place. Don't get bogged down trying to be an instant expert. Keep it simple, stick to the basics and allow yourself to succeed. Then build on that, one step at a time.


Take action.

I could not learn to kayak by standing on shore, listening to tapes, reading a book or watching an instructional video. All of these things may help, however, I had to take action, get in the kayak and "just do it". It's the same with life, whether personally or in business; the only way to move forward is to take action. Decide what you need to do, do it, and then assess what works and what doesn't. The fear will never go away. The way to deal with fear is to move through it to the other side. Once you have taken action and created results, the fear will diminish.


Trust and believe in yourself.

My inner critic would have kept me safely on shore, while watching others paddle and thinking "I can never do that." I had to ignore the inner critic and trust and believe in myself to get the job done. How often does that inner critic keep you on the shore of life?

Dig down and find your courage, determination and persistence.
Once we departed on the river there was only one way out; going back was not an option. Going down the rapids was a big enough challenge; going up them was an impossibility. So it is in life. We can never go back. Things are never exactly the same. There will always be challenges along any path that we take. When you decide to what is necessary, you are drawing on your courage, determination and persistence to get you through life's challenges and opportunities.


Control is a myth.

Even when I knew where I needed to go to successfully navigate the rapids, it did not always happen. I was prepared with equipment, lessons and some skills, yet the power of the river could not be denied. I got off course and, when that happened, I had to adjust my paddling and occasionally bail. When the river of life throws me an unexpected current or wave that threatens to tip me over or take me off course, my way through is to go with the flow. To go with the flow, is to:
Accept reality, rather than resist it. Do not waste time and energy denying what is and wishing it wasn't.
Adjust your perspective to the new reality and then choose your response
Stay focused and look where you are going
Show courage, determination and persistence
Trust and believe in yourself
Stick to the basics and take action


Celebrate and acknowledge your achievements.

When I successfully navigated the rapids I felt great, in part because I was still upright, and in part because I had proved to myself that I could do what I needed to do. The sense of accomplishment came from the experience of the process as well as the result. I was able to build on my successes to learn and experience more. Give yourself that well deserved pat on the back, for what you demonstrated along the way, as well as for the end result.


This Article is authored / contributed by ▸ Janet C. who travels from London, Ontario, Canada. Janet is available for Professional Speaking Work both Virtually and In-Person. ▸ Enquire Now.

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