Leaning Into the Waves


The day after I submitted my application for my current CEO position, I went on a weekend getaway to celebrate this milestone and my upcoming 30th birthday. My husband and I packed up the car and headed to West Virginia, home to some of the best white water rafting in the region. I’ve always been outdoorsy, but hadn’t rafted many times and certainly not recently. Our guide was clearly an adrenaline junkie who seemed trustworthy enough, but also like he wouldn’t be phased in the slightest if our raft tipped over and threw us into the churning river. Once our journey began, it all felt both familiar and scary. There is a certain rhythm to the water that reminded me of my days riding horses. I tried to maintain my balance sitting on the edge of the raft with one foot tucked into a pocket on the floor and the other braced against the side to keep me in the boat.

As we approached the more dangerous rapids, our guide advised us not to lean in toward the center of the boat. While it seemed counter-intuitive, if we fell into the raft we’d be more likely to be washed overboard. The best thing we could do was lean into the waves as they crashed into us. The pressure we pushed against the water would balance out to keep us centered.

We slid down a waterfall- that at the time seemed comparable Niagara- and I got the chance to test his theory. “Lean in,” I repeated over and over in my mind. A wall of water hit me and instead of shrinking away, I forced my brain and body to push back. After the water subsided, I was still in the raft, unseated by this wave. As more rapids came our way, it became less of a struggle against instinct to embrace the waves rather than shrink from them.

We all managed to end the trip safely, although not everyone avoided being thrown out of the raft. After we packed our boats back to an old school bus that shuttled us back to camp, I cracked open a beer, rolled my window down, and soaked in the mountain sunshine. My adrenaline was still pumping from the excitement of the day, but I also felt a sense of peace and appreciation for what I’d just experienced. As I welcomed a new decade and threw my hat in the ring for a new job, I realized how our guide’s advice applied to many aspects of my life. The things that scare us the most have the least ability to unseat us when we push back against them. As the wonderful Sheryl Sandberg described in her famous book by the same title, the key was literally to lean in rather than back away. I’d leaned into several new chapters of my life story without even realizing it before we made that trip, but that fearlessness has stuck with me ever since. Yes, sometimes I am terrified and uncomfortable but those feelings can only knock me off my feet if I don’t face them head on and then keep moving forward.

How do you respond when confronted by scary or challenging situations? How would you like that response to be different? What can you do to bring your behavior closer to this ideal? When was the last time you sought out a situation that you knew would be uncomfortable?

Like this topic? Here are some great articles that dive into the issue on a deeper level:

How to Practice Being Comfortable in Uncomfortable Situations

3 Simple Tips to Push Yourself to Try Something New

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