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Three Life Lessons from a Rowboat

The year was 1995. I had been working for the same company for over a decade. I had changed job roles at least six times, doing (sometimes completely) different things, but now something was missing. I was no longer excited about coming to work.

A group of us had fallen in the habit of eating lunch and talking about life. On one particular day, we were complaining about the latest benefit cutback. Out of the blue, I came out with the line:

It’s just a job, not a career.

Rowboat with oars

By Rootology (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

And in that moment, I knew, at some level of my soul, that I didn’t want “just a job”, I wanted a career. I didn’t admit it to my lunch buddies, I’m not even sure I admitted it to myself, but something had shifted inside me.

Look at the picture of the rowboat. You’ve got benches and two oars in the middle. It has two ends – one end comes to a point, while the other end is flat. What can a rowboat teach us about life?

1. Learn your strengths.

Most people who’ve never tried to row a boat before will at least attempt to row by facing the bow (front) of the boat, so that you are facing the direction you want to go. It seems natural, doesn’t it? You would like to see where you are going. But you quickly find that trying to row in the direction you are facing is HARD, because you’re pushing away from you and you don’t have the leverage. It’s much easier to row in the direction you’re NOT facing, because you are pulling the oars toward you, and you have leverage.

Lesson: You make better progress when working with your natural strengths.

2. Use your past to chart your future.

The strange thing about a rowboat is you face AWAY from the direction you want to go. So, just how do you stay on course? There’s multiple ways, but essentially you have to pick a direction forward that is based on your past. In other words, you look over your shoulder, pick a direction, get lined up, face back, pick a point directly opposite your direction, and row for a while directly away from that point. And then you course-correct, by doing it all over again. And the closer you get to your destination, the more you have to course-correct, until you zero in on your final destination.

Lesson: Your future depends on your past.

3. Focus your efforts.

What if – you get in the rowboat, and sit down, and line up where you want to go, face backwards, and start rowing… and it seems super hard, and you can’t stay on course, no matter what? Well… remember there are two different ends to a rowboat? A flat side and and a pointed side? Look at how you’re sitting. Are you trying to row in the direction of the flat end? If that’s the case, of course you will be encountering more resistance.

You may think “oh, that’s unrealistic” – but have you ever tried to change several habits at the same time? Of course you have, we all have. New Year’s Resolutions are notorious for failing, because you typically try to “improve” yourself in several different directions (e.g. giving up smoking, losing weight, reading the Bible). But trying to change multiple habits at once distracts you from the main thing, the most important thing. It’s like rowing a boat with the flat side into the waves – you get much more resistance. If you focus on one habit at a time, it’s like rowing with the point of the rowboat moving forward – it cuts through the water much more efficiently.

Lesson: The more narrow your focus, the easier it is to move in that direction.

Remember my wish for a career? Over time, I had to learn these three lessons. Actually, I am still learning them, over and over, deeper and deeper.

  1. Learn your strengths – once I took inventory of what I did well, I could see that my current employer did not have the opportunities that would provide me with a satisfying career.
  2. Use your past to chart your future – looking at where I had found joy, satisfaction, and even passion in the past let me start investigating new directions and “rowing” towards them.
  3. Focus your efforts – I planned out a series of steps and executed them one by one, being open to new opportunities as they came but keeping the main focus of finding a career.

Of course, my career in 1996 has changed significantly by now. But that’s life, once you get to one point, it’s time to pick another destination and start rowing towards that.

If you are having trouble with these three lessons, consider a coach, a mentor, an accountability partner, or some other external view of your situation. Often when we’re in the middle of the rowboat on the water, we really can’t figure out by ourselves what we’re doing wrong. But someone outside of the rowboat can help us figure it out. I had some help for a while from my lunch buddies but it wasn’t until several years later when I had a mentor that some of this came into clarity.

About Coach Dale

"Coach" Dale Young specializes in Executive, Leadership, and Teamwork coaching and has a passion for helping people figure out their purpose and passion -- and then how to pursue that. Dale holds a Certified Professional Life Coach (CPLC) credential from the Professional Christian Coaching Institute (PCCI) and is actively pursuing accreditation with the International Coach Federation (ICF). See the About page for more information.

8 Replies

  1. Coach Dale – your 1,2,3 points are spot on. When I was transitioning from a 23-year career to beginning my Christian life coaching practice, you can bet these three points were a part of that major shift! Thanks for a great post.

    1. Thanks, Nancy! I appreciate the comment and the encouragement.

  2. Thanks for a great post Dale! I could easily picture the rowboat and imagine myself rowing it, which made your lessons so easy to understand. While I do believe that our past doesn’t define us, I do agree that we can use our past to learn valuable lessons to help navigate our future path. I’ll remember this for along time!

    1. Thanks Kerry. I’m glad you could visualize it easily. I find using word pictures like this can help when coaching certain clients, and I’ve used the rowboat picture with several clients.

  3. Michael Pfau

    Really great article Dale – The 3 points and rowboat illustration are so helpful. Point 3 resonated most to me to just stay focused and keep rowing!

    1. Thanks Michael. Yes, sometimes a reminder to “keep rowing” is useful!

  4. LOVE the post. I didn’t know all that about rowing a boat.
    Makes sense. And very helpful to compare to “living life”

    1. Thanks Pam. It’s interesting the Life Lessons that you can get out of the most mundane events, like rowing a boat.

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