What if You Could Only Go Forward?

OK, you’re stuck, but what if going forward were the only option? What would you do next? (Hint: where do you want to wind up?)


“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade. . . , not because it is easy, but because it is hard; because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win. . . . "

— President John F. Kennedy, May 25, 1961

I knew within the first few minutes that the trail between the two lakes wasn’t going to work out as I’d hoped. I was struggling, but not because I was carrying a 50-pound pack and an 85-pound canoe on my back. I routinely did that, often balancing the canoe with one hand while waving a warding-off-the-flies-and-mosquitoes cigar with the other.

No, I was struggling because the trail was steep, the steepest I’d ever encountered in years of carrying equipment between two lakes within the depths of Quetico [KWEH-teh-co] Provincial Park, a wilderness canoe park in southwestern Ontario, Canada. Quetico was my annual clear-the-mind and push-the-body haven after my duties as a high-school history teacher ended for the summer.

It’s not like I hadn’t been warned. . .

Looking at our map of Quetico Provincial Park, the trail in question was, at best, only a semi-reasonable choice. The elevation lines on the map indicated a steep uphill / downhill climb. “But how bad could it be?” my companions and I convinced ourselves. After all, it was the shortest distance between two lakes.

There was an alternate trail, but it was much longer than the one we were considering – almost a mile in length. Most trails in Quetico are relatively flat in parts, so water routinely collects and turns stretches into muddy, and insect-infested quagmires. The alternate trail was probably not going to be the exception. And getting to that trailhead meant a longer paddle. We’d been in the park for more than a week. We were tired.

We chose the shorter trail.

The tight contour lines soon revealed themselves as accurate. “Very steep, hello!” mocked our map. And if steepness were not enough, exposed tree roots routinely crossed the trail making our footing even more treacherous. At times the trail disappeared on its own, we soon surmised, from a lack of use – other intrepid explorers had more respect for their maps and routinely avoided it. Other times, the trail vanished into boulders that a receding glacier had strategically birthed thousands of years ago.

Because of the steepness of the trail, simultaneously carrying a pack and a canoe became impossible. We started shedding packs, paddles, and canoes, leaving ourselves with only one thing to carry at a time. But once we had traversed the trail and emerged at the next lake, we had to backtrack and pick up our discarded gear – and then, again, hike back to the lake.

Hours later, totally exhausted, we slowly paddled our canoes away from the trail end. No one said anything.

Lessons learned

Now, decades later, I can reflect on that experience with appreciation and extend some lessons to my clients who are considering a job or career shift:

Imagine that staying stuck is not an option. When evaluating which trail to take, staying put was not an option unless we envisioned ourselves becoming a permanent part of the Quetico landscape. We could only move forward.

Likewise, staying stuck in your current job or career is an option, but for a moment, imagine that it isn’t.  Which path would you take toward your goal if you had no option to stay where you are: stuck?

Focus on the destination. “If you’re going through hell, keep going,” Winston Churchill once opined. The trail was hell, but we knew that it would eventually end, and we would reach our goal: the next lake. Keeping that goal in mind was essential while slipping and stumbling over the rocks and tree roots.

When considering a job or career shift, first decide where you want to end up. That probably sounds incredibly elementary, but many people focus solely on leaving a bad situation without first knowing what they really want in a better one. If you don’t figure that out, you’re apt to wander aimlessly because, as the Cheshire Cat noted to Alice, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will do.”

Be honest about the potential challenges. We knew that the elevation lines on our map meant we could face a tough climb and descent, but we chose to downplay them with “How bad can it be?” We hoped that “short” meant “easy.” Even under the best of circumstances, hope is not a strategy.

Most changes in life come with their own version of those elevation lines, muddy patches, biting insects, boulders, and exposed tree roots that slow you down or throw you off track. Acknowledge that a job or career shift is likely to be tough, and then lean into it. Downplaying potential obstacles won’t set you up to face them.


Quetico gave me that rare opportunity for physical and mental challenges, spiritual reflection, and personal accomplishment. It had such a profound effect on me that I named my coaching company after it. To this day, decades after my last trip, I can still hear the haunting song of the loon, the water lapping against the sides of our canoes, the crackling of a camp fire, and the wind rustling through the deciduous and pine. I can still see the dazzling display of the Northern Lights and that one trail rising, rising, rising in front of me.

What “lake” do you seek? Which “trail” with its inevitable challenges are you willing to walk to reach it?

Jeff Ikler