What If You Could Only Go Forward?

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.

Impact
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 campfire, 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
Jeff Iklerhttps://www.queticocoaching.com/
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.

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  1. Thank you for this honest article on the messy, challenging, life-giving hike to a new career or I would add-the challenging walk, run, dance, fall down in the mud, step in dog poo, to a new life. How important to connect to that inner fire of passion, purpose (that deep Why?) that will keep you going forward. What are you willing to suffer for? What do you value so deeply that you’ll take those risks? Yes! Great piece. Great story.

    Quick answers to your final questions: I found Lake Tomahawk here in Black Mountain where I run almost every day-a metaphor for the Bonus Round of Living Life. I discovered the “trails” of self-discovery, spiritual awakening, holistic transformations to be the ones I am willing to give my life over to in love and service. Cherish Your World-many meanings inside the name of my business…

  2. Jeff, as always you made me smile and think! You are easily one of the best writers here or maybe anywhere for many reasons. And I know how important getting unstuck is for you and those you help; it’s refreshing to catch a glimpse of where you’ve been and how you’ve moved along a path that surely was challenging, to say the least. I’m still trying to figure out how you carried a canoe, by the way; they’re not like picnic baskets!

    I think it’s fair to say we’ve all been stuck at one time or another, with a path forward that wasn’t easy to spot! It can be tough to see how where we’ve been gives us the tools to move in a direction we’ve never even thought of going. I know for me, back in the ’90s, working internationally for Fred Pryor Seminars was about the biggest leap I’d ever made, and certainly not one I’d ever imagined.

    Looking back before that time, however, I can see how life pushed me in that direction, giving me experiences that allowed me to dare and to succeed.

    Please keep writing for us all, Jeff; I know I’m not alone in appreciating your articles that make us think.

    • Thanks, Susan, for you warm comments. I appreciate that you make my writing read the way it does.

      In terms of carrying the canoe, it has a center strut called a yoke, which fits around your neck and on your shoulders when the boat is upside down. Once balanced, you can literally hold the boat with one hand on either gunnel as you walk. That leaves the other hand free to hold the mosquito and blackfly “repellent”: cigar smoke.

      It’s so interest to read the comments as a group. We’re all charter members of the “I was stuck and sometimes still am” club. We all have that chorus of voices that occasionally harangue us.

  3. A great story and analogy Jeff. Strangely I find myself at a very similar crossroad. Almost 44, I have officially reached a treadmill of career boredom. I’d love to find something more in tune with my talents and interest, but not at the cost of starting over financially. It’s tough to take chances with an eight-year-old child to consider. But I like your train of thought… seeing a possible destination and a path before aimlessly drifting through the wilderness. I’ll keep this in mind as I begin to explore my options… Best regards to you my friend.

    • Aaron, thanks for the read and reveal. I can recommend a couple of interesting books that might get the juices flowing:
      • YouMap – Helps you to identify your skills, values, motivations etc
      • The Art of Possibility – Just a head-turning read that really makes you think about life and, well, possibilities. If you have an Audible account, I recommend that version.
      Happy to discuss both.

  4. Jeff, thank you for this article. Life is well known to present many obstacles, challenges, etc. along our journey through it. We can certainly try as hard as we can to overcome the above. There is no limit to the number of attempts we can make. However, despite the above, we will experience failure. Sometimes despite our best efforts and planning, there may be multiple failures. The key for us is how we react to failure and what lessons we learn. There will inevitably be times when we are stuck with no chance of moving forward. We can move the gears shift so to speak but in the end, we may get permanently stuck. Effort in will not always equal results out. Nothing in life is guaranteed except that it will end.

  5. Jeff, this story is such a great story with lessons that resonate. I love when we experience something in life that can be a catalyst and foundation for a different purpose. In this case, you help us to consider a different picture when we are considering a significant shift in our life. I know you intended it for clients who are considering a job or career shift, but I think its application extends beyond this area also.

    As someone who stayed stuck for much longer than I should have, I appreciate every ounce of the insight that you share in this article. Looking forward is such a healthy strategy. For the longest time, I thought I’d be walking away and was fearful of what that meant. However, I finally realized that I wasn’t walking away. Instead, I was moving forward and walking toward something. I was removing the glue and freeing myself from a place that wasn’t healthy for me and hadn’t been for a long time.

    Focus on the destination and be honest about the potential challenges. Amen to this. It is essential to look at the big picture when considering life changes and to understand the topography of your map. As for the lake, well, there’s nothing I love better than the healing properties of being near one. So, I’ll be sure to consider the lake and the trail I am willing to take to get there – even if it is rocky. The hard trails often lead to the most beautiful horizons.

    • Well, in our case, the hard trail sure led to a “beautiful” lesson. My dad, who grew up during the Depression, often remarked that there are no easy pathways – at least none that are rewarding in the long run.

      I loved this comment of yours: “understand the topography of your map.” Brilliant. One of those lines I wish I could have written. You are right; our lives all reflect those contour lines. Sometimes the lines are closely packed – struggle. And sometimes they are open – gentle challenges.

      Thank you for your insight. I always look forward to your comments.

  6. Really appreciate this great metaphor about choices, challenges and survival. Personally, I’ve never faced the ruggedness of a Canadian wilderness, choosing instead the well-worn trail, calm lake for fishing and a nice cozy cabin for relaxation. However, mentally, I have carried more than one “canoe” over tough emotional situations, one step at a time, finding perseverance, pain and joy live inside…it’s the path and small details that make a difference. Thank you for sharing these thoughts.

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