Are You a Rower Or a Sailor?

This post is part of the Reconstruction Series.

There are two kinds of people: Rowers and Sailors. For a majority of my life, I was a Rower. I just didn’t know it.

I thought I had to struggle, with all my might, to get anything in life. That if something came easy, it wasn’t worth doing. So, with that, I turned the world, people and everything around me into an adversary that had to be conquered. I was the hammer in the saying:

To a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

This worked well for about 15 years, until it didn’t.

I had a blowout.

Looking back on it now, I had many smaller blowouts leading up to the big one, but I wrote them off as part of the journey and leaned into my paddles even harder to push through.

But this time, it was different. I took a breath, clenched my jaw and went to grab my trusty oars to get back to rowing like I’d always done. But they were gone. All control that I thought I had all those years had vanished. I was literally up a creek without a paddle and didn’t know what to do.

I can only liken the feeling to what’s been described as Ego Death. I was wrong. Not about some little thing, I was wrong about the thing: life. It was humbling, to say the least.

When this happens, I believe a person has 2 options:

  1. They can try to go back to their old ways, struggling for the rest of their lives, making little or no progress, until the final blowout called death happens.

  2. They can use this as an opportunity to come to new understandings and reconstruct their lives and move in new, unforeseen directions.

Obviously, based on the title of this series, you know I chose the latter. Frankly, I didn’t have much of a choice, though. I knew, deep down, that to try and go back to my old ways would just be setting myself up to have more, bigger blowouts down the road, and that was much scarier than trying something new.

After some months adrift, I randomly stumbled on the Taoist philosophy, and it blew me away. I was especially intrigued because it completely flies in the face of everything I’d come to understand about life.

The Taoist philosophy says we’re all being carried along this winding river called life. Some people think they can row against the current. But whether they can admit it or not, they’re still being carried along in the same direction as everyone else. Their idea of progress is actually just squandered effort. They’re rowing.

Others are carried along by the river as well, but they know it. And instead of fighting the current, they throw up a sail and use the wind to navigate around with ease. They’ve learned to harness the powers acting around them. They’re sailing.

Here’s where it gets especially interesting: A person skilled in sailing can do what’s called tacking, and actually move in the opposite direction of the current with almost no effort at all. This is the highest form of skill – this is the art of sailing.

The person who rows uses immense amounts of effort, to gain marginal results, at best. But the person who puts up a sail uses magic, letting nature do the heavy lifting.

I realized that I was a Rower, through and through.

That nagging feeling at the base of my skull for all those years, the feeling of unmet expectations, which evolved into anxiety, depression and anger, wasn’t because I had some serious defect. It was due to my naiveté about life. I’d never considered the thought that there might be another way to go about this whole life thing.

So I decided to try sailing.

Instead of willing, by sheer force, a situation into existence – whether in business or personal – I’d allow things to transpire naturally, taking as long as they needed, applying gentle pressure when necessary, to go in a general direction.

In most cases, things worked out better than I could’ve hoped. My professional and personal lives blossomed, with much less effort than before. Dare I say the word that I loathed for so many years: things became easy. It’s as if the whole world was conspiring to help me. Like the ground was rising to meet my feet, lifting me up with each step.

When I hear people talk about a feeling of lightness, I know exactly what they mean now, and it’s wonderful.

Yes, some things take longer to happen, or don’t work out exactly how I’d want. And I’ll still get grumpy or upset from time to time. But that’s OK, because the sharp edges have been worn down to a gentle curve now. There’s no severity in my life anymore. There’s no spikes of happiness or troughs of despair. It’s all great.

I am now a Sailor.

Even today, while I wholeheartedly believe that sailing is the best way of life, I still find myself leaning into those nonexistent oars every so often. But each time, I rediscover how foolish I was to think I could row against the current.

So I ask you again: Are you a Rower or a Sailor?

If you’d like to try sailing, here are 3 things that helped me the most:

  • Meditation – If you really want to blunt the sharp edges of life, this will do it. It can be done in as little as 5 Minutes.

  • Read the Tao Te Ching – It’s a simple and short book that’s regarded as the keystone work of Taoism. It’s a set of 81 golden rules to follow if you’re a ruler in ancient Asia – but they easily apply to modern-day, non-rulers like you and I. Here’s a free, web version of the book as well, but the translation is different and, I believe, not as good.

  • Try reacting differently – When a situation presents itself, take a step back and see if there’s a way to use the motivations or actions involved to get a desired result, without applying a direct or counter-force to it. Think of it as analogous to the art of Ju-jitsu, where you manipulate the opponent’s force against them, rather than confronting it with one’s own force.