In Life’s Journey, Are You in a Rowboat or a Canoe?

At some point in our life, most of us will return to an unresolved issue from the past. Some of us will think “Yep, that happened. Now what?” Others will remain focused there, hoping that they can finally figure out how to “fix” whatever happened. Those who wrestle with unresolved – and in many cases unresolvable issues – from the past often wind up concluding that they are “stuck.” Are you asking “Now what?” or feeling just plain stuck? And what does this have to do with rowboats and canoes? Read on.


“Imagine two boats that symbolize your journey toward a new career,” I coached my very stuck client. “One is a rowboat, and one is a canoe.”

“Now, imagine that you’re in the rowboat, rowing across a lake. Which way would you physically be facing as you row?”

After a moment of silence, she replied: “To row, I’d have to be facing the back of the boat. I’d be look back where I came from.”

“Now, imagine that you’re in a canoe heading across the same lake,” I continued. Which way would you be facing?”

“OK,” she sighed, “I’d be looking forward – toward where I want to go.”

So which boat would you rather be in?” I asked, “the rowboat or the canoe?”

She thought for a moment and then replied, “In the rowboat. I want to know why I’m stuck.”

A Zen lesson: “The Monks’ Tale”

A senior monk and a junior monk were traveling together. At one point, they came to a river with a strong current. As the monks were preparing to cross the river, they saw a young woman also attempting to cross. The young woman asked if they could help her cross to the other side.

The two monks glanced at one another because they had taken vows not to touch a woman.

Then, without a word, the older monk picked up the woman, carried her across the river, placed her gently on the other side, and carried on with his journey.

The younger monk couldn’t believe what had just happened. After rejoining his companion, an hour passed without a word between them.

A few more hours passed. Finally the younger monk couldn’t contain himself any longer. “As monks, we are not permitted to touch a woman," he blurted out. "How could you then carry that woman on your shoulders?”

The older monk looked at him and replied, “Brother, I set her down on the other side of the river hours ago. Why are you still carrying her?”

Two of the most powerful questions you can ask – Like the younger monk, my client was trying to understand what happened in the past. As a result, she was unable to display any genuine enthusiasm for exploring what might be a more satisfying career in her future.

She was stuck.

There are two powerful questions we can ask at a juncture like this whether we’re a career coach, or a manager trying to help move a staff member off an unproductive island in their past. (It, and its follow-up cousin, are also great self-coaching questions.)

  1. “What are you holding on to from the past?”

    Maybe a staff member continues to wrestle with how a former manager treated them, or maybe they have an unresolved conflict with a teammate, or perhaps the "it" is the raise or promotion they didn’t get. If they’re stuck “back there,” only reliving the pain of the past, they won't be able to imagine any productive steps toward resolution and moving forward.

    And my client was definitely "back there." She was figuratively digging through old steamer chests filled with painful memories of how she was raised, looking for “answers” as to why she developed as she did. Her endless search over many years had tragically led her to ask “How am I even worthy of a new career?”

  2. “And how is your focus on the past helping you to move forward?”

    With this question hanging in the virtual space between us, my very stuck client paused. It was a lengthy pause that she would later characterize as a “defining moment.”

We still have a lot of work to do, but at this juncture, my client is beginning to understand that looking backwards to answer often unanswerable questions isn’t as productive as looking forward to secure the brighter, more productive, and worthy future that she ultimately wants.

In life’s journey, are you in a rowboat or a canoe?

Jeff Ikler