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

The River Quartet – First in a Series

“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 securing 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
Jeff Ikler
The river that runs through my career lives – as teacher, publisher, coach, podcaster and author – is helping individuals acquire knowledge, skills, and self-awareness so they can better achieve their desired results and impact. • As Director of Quetico Leadership and Career Coaching, I work with individuals and leaders to overcome obstacles and make sustained changes in their behavior. • I co-host the podcast “Getting Unstuck – Shift for Impact,” where I bring to light inspirational stories of transformation in the field of education. • I am the co-author of the soon-to-be-published book for school educators, Shifting: How Educational Leaders Can Create a Culture of Change.

DO YOU HAVE THE "WRITE" STUFF? If you’re ready to share your wisdom of experience, we’re ready to share it with our massive global audience – by giving you the opportunity to become a published Contributor on our award-winning Site with (your own byline). And who knows? – it may be your first step in discovering your “hidden Hemmingway”. LEARN MORE HERE


  1. The Monk’s Tale is one of my favorite Zen lessons. Love your rowboat or canoe take on it. Thank you for sharing your very wise lesson.

    As I sit here contemplating which boat I’m in, questions come to mind. Is it possible to switch back and forth between boats several times over the course of a day? Yep, living the answer to that question. Is this healthy or should I pick a boat already and remain firmly focused on a direction? I know, I know, I should pick a direction. Conclusion: I would really rather take a walk along the shore for awhile. 🙂

    • As long as you’re looking ahead and not behind you. Truth be told, I row sometimes and paddle at other times. Human nature, I guess. The good news is that when I look back now, it’s with fondness. Mostly. So nice to see you here with the BizCat crew. I look forward to your next piece. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  2. What a great analogy, Jeff! I know that it is really easy for me to get stuck looking in the rearview mirror for “reasons” why I’m “here.” In doing so, I’m less focused on what’s ahead. There is a fine line between learning from the past and living in it. Thank you for sharing this one!

    • It’s so easy to look in the mirror. My sister was in town this weekend, and we were reliving our past. While I have many, many pleasant memories of my upbringing, I built a ball and chain that I carried around with me for years making it real hard to paddle much less row. Thank you for taking time to read and comment. More “river” pieces are coming.

    • Thanks so much, Len. It’s been a valuable approach with clients. I appreciate you taking the time to read and comment.

  3. Jeff, Love this story…makes such a visual unforgettable statement of the past interacting with the present, the old with the young and a world of experience to share. I am a retired teacher deeply concerned about our youth in a hyper, fractured social media culture. This is exceptionally good news to hear you are bringing “inspirational stories of transformation” for educators. Definitely, I look forward to your book. My motto is be a “mind-stream” in the same way as you are a river.

    • Boy, could we have a discussion about today’s youth. My BIG fear is the lack of understanding of our history and government. Thanks so much for taking the time to read and comment on my post.

    • Yes, I agree there is much to discuss about teenagers especially about social media. Please forward the link to your soon-to-published book. If interested, I can forward a link to my e-book about Teen Girl Faces Time in the Sand when online formatting is completed. It’s a personal reflection.

  4. Love the lessons here Jeff! We don’t live in the past anymore, so don’t waste your i me. When you cut he chains that bond you, you will find much libération to progress forward. Not always easy but as long as you are not ruminating it’s ok! Thank you for sharing this! Paula

    • Paula — Thanks for your insight. No, “it’s not easy” for most of us, but the liberation comes when we realize that we hold the chain. We can choose to hold onto it, or let it slip through our hands.

  5. Jonathan – Thank you for your very thoughtful read and comment. As a “survivor” myself, I approach this topic very carefully with clients. It can’t be an off-the-cuff cavalier statement “Oh, just let it go already,” but nor do I spend too much time with them digging through the old steamer trunk they have carried around with them for decades. (As did I.) I’m careful not to take on the role of therapist. I’m not there to “solve” the past. It’s a balance. My role as coach is to help them turn in the seat and face forward. It doesn’t mean ignoring the past; it means using it as a springboard for different, better, more.

  6. Dear Jeff, yours was a very thought-provoking message and I appreciate you explaining the significance of letting go of the past.

    Just a few personal reflections : Over the years of interaction with people, who are now termed as ‘survivors’, advising them to let go of the past is actually a very painful task and is not easy. It is difficult for them to understand this seeming cliché, especially when they have lost everything…..BUT…… helping them to ‘gather their past (incl. the good bad and the ugly), appreciate their memories, learn from them while helping them to be thankful for life entrusted to them and to be a better person, and generate hope for the Today in their life, has enabled them to ‘climb onto the raft of creative possibility”.

    “Holding on is believing that there’s a past; letting go is knowing that there’s a future.” Daphne Rose Kingma

    “Let go of the past, but keep the lessons it taught you.” Chiara Gizzi

    “Why let go of yesterday? Because yesterday has already let go of you.” Steve Maraboli