Many years ago, a dear friend invited me to join him and and few other friends for a unique bachelor’s party before he got married. Rather than throw a party, he proposed that we enroll in a whitewater canoeing class at the Nanthala Outdoor Center in the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina. It sounded like a lot of fun and a great way to improve my canoeing skills, so I gladly agreed.
On the first day, our instructors brought us to a flat water lake to orient us to the basics of whitewater canoeing. Although I had spent years canoeing on lakes, I had minimal experience canoeing in rapids, and the first thing I found out was that lake canoes and whitewater canoes are constructed in a very different manner.
Before we stepped into our whitewater canoes, our instructors taught us that every canoe has both primary stability and secondary stability. Those big aluminum canoes that many take out on lakes have excellent primary stability, which means that they feel very stable when you step into them, but they have very poor secondary stability, which means that they will easily capsize if they try to run rapids. On the other hand, whitewater canoes have very poor primary stability, but excellent secondary stability, which means they feel very tippy when you step into them, but have a much better ability to stay upright in rough water.
I discovered how little primary stability whitewater canoes have as soon as I stepped into the canoe for the first time on flat water, as I was so unprepared for how tippy it would be that I immediately flipped the boat and fell in the water. While I was somewhat embarrassed, I learned an important lesson that kept me upright through for the rest of our trip, including our “final exam” which involved paddling through an Olympic training course in very rough water. The lesson my instructors gave me after my early flop was to keep my hips loose.
I certainly took that seriously during the rest of our whitewater canoeing school and visualized my hips as shock absorbers. Instead of fighting rough water, I would absorb the shock with my loose hips, allowing me to remain upright.
While I continue to enjoy canoeing and usually avoid capsizing by keeping my hips loose, I have realized that this lesson applies to many other situations. Whether in our personal lives or in the rocky political world we live in, we often confront situations that pose many challenges and threaten to capsize us. If we expand the concept of physically keeping our hips loose to a mental ability to stay flexible when we encounter difficulties, we have a much better chance of staying upright and finding a better approach to dealing with whatever dilemma we are facing, than if we remain rigid in the hope that our inflexibility will appear to be a sign of strength.
I am not suggesting that we do not need to be strong in the face of life’s challenges. Rather, my suggestion is that our greatest strength may be found in a flexible approach which allows us to utilize creative solutions to whatever challenge we may face. Keeping one’s mind and body flexible may allow us to better understand where our adversary is coming from and respond in a manner that may result in a win-win solution rather than remaining stuck in a win-lose scenario which so many of our leaders try to convince us is the only possible outcome available. The risk, or course, with pursuing inflexible win-lose strategies is that they often end up with both sides.
We can see the results of this I win-you lose mentality playing out in Congress and the current President’s administration, with both sides generally unable to find room for compromise resulting in persistent stalemates dotted with occasional unilateral actions that opponents scream about with outrage. Where this all goes from here is hard to predict, but it is my great hope that if more of us keep our hips loose and minds flexible, we will survive our current challenges and progress to better days ahead when difficult problems are solved in a way that serves most people, instead of just a few.
For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.