Navigating Big Waters: Building a Mindset for 2020 and Beyond

Updated: Dec 18, 2019

Today’s article looks at navigating "big waters" (like floods, class V rapids, choppy seas etc.) as a metaphor for our lives and investigates the brilliance of non-doing and discerning how and when to best practice it. Intentional non-doing (non-reacting / non-responding / non-striving) can support us in building a mindset that gives us more meaningful leadership in creating the conditions of our lives.

It all starts with a conversation I had with my friend and goes from there. Read on, enjoy, and don’t forget to subscribe to my newsletter and blog so you’re never left out of insights for your inbox.

Recently, I met with a friend for a morning beverage, (he drinks coffee, I drink tea). We had a great conversation. He’s a parent of young kids, as am I, and he has a big job, both at home and at work. As a managing director for his division, he’s responsible for the vision, guidance, direction and oversight of a lot of people, programs, and processes. At home, he’s full on with family life.

As we both have young kids, we talked a lot about parenting. We also covered in our conversation that so much about how we show up at home, as parents, is mirrored in how we deal with the stress and demands of a big job. We are only as good as we are in any given moment. Are we rested or not? Are we stressed or not? How can we best show up? What are our toddlers really teaching us?

In terms of mindset at work, I appreciate immensely his ability to center when he’s in the eye of a storm. Multiple times during our conversation I had this image of him sitting on a boulder in the middle of a river. Sometimes the river was calm and pleasant, and he could take a swim up or downstream without breaking too much of a sweat. But when the river would get fierce, he’d just sit on his perch of the highest point of this big boulder and observe the whitewater around him while taking a bite out of an apple. Sure, he’d have moments of concern, and question if he should be sitting there, but his instinct to sit tight does him well.

He’s learned and taught himself, that when certain things get wild, it’s time to sit tight. He knows that if he dives in, he can potentially just add to the chaos, but if he rests and watches, he ultimately has more control over what he can do when the time is right. Yes, of course, he wants to help, he sees people diving into this crazy water to get to the other side. He looks to his left and sees that someone in this fun metaphor has left markers and cardboard. So he writes a message and waves the sign inviting folks to join him on the rock. A rope ladder of his intention appears and he drops it down for those who care to join him on the boulder.

He doesn’t dive in himself to rescue folks who would drown him to save themselves, he knows better than that. As a leader he knows that he can invite others in to the calm but he can’t make folks be the calm. And importantly, I see in his work, that he’s slowly shifting the culture where he leads to be one where people know that they can take the calm route. That’s important.

He knows that in taking a bite out of the apple, chewing contemplatively, and looking at the horizon for what the clouds are doing are more useful to his mental preparation than trying to battle the forces of nature around him. He won’t win everyone over with this approach, but that isn’t his goal. His goal is to do his best with the highest and best impact where he can make a change.

He understands that others may be impatient with his approach, but he fundamentally knows that at times, it’s actually about allowing things to be, to release, and to flush out. He’s allowing that bigger work to take place, just by resting. He sees what he can, and cannot, control. And sometimes it’s a bit of trial and error, and he’s also getting results.

Regardless of what others try to do or not do, he’s able to remain a measure of repose until the waters recede. Then suddenly, as if by miracle, a boat arrives to carry him and the few others who chose to take rest with him, to shore.

As he and his friends from the boulder arrive to the river bank, they see all the exhausted half-drowned folks, who are now congratulating themselves on the hard fight they gave to the water. They lay splayed out on their backs, drying in the sunshine as the clouds part. And my friend, he hops off the boat, relaxed and at ease. Not exhausted, not drenched. He’s not judging, he’s surveying.

He looks back at the river and notices how many boulders there were to rest on, and how few folks took the chance to do that rather than fight the water. He and the others who did rest walk around and start to reset and organize things now that things have finally had a chance to settle. The exhausted folks look up and say, “oh hey, someone has finally arrived to help us.” They don’t see that they could have helped themselves more in the first place.

Now that is some serious mindset work. It also talks a lot about self-agency and knowing where your power is. My friend rested, and eventually, a boat arrived to carry him to shore when things had calmed down. He sat on a rock, had an apple, and chatted with the other folks who were resting in the eye of the storm with him. They decided to save themselves when they knew that exerting themselves in the turbulent external conditions would cost too much, and they have their reserves and their power intact, so they can continue to make moves and take action now that the time is right for doing.

The others, they are exhausted. They have to rest and recuperate. There is a strange sense of accomplishment in that they “won” over the water, but was that really the battle? Did they really win? Or just barely survive. The river had many boulders that were unmoved and good way-points for rest during crossing. But they didn’t wait on them to rest. They felt they had to “do” and muscle their way through. Their ability to now clearly act, think, and plan, is unavailable. They have to rest and recuperate. Inevitably, many folks will focus only on that flood and tell the story of that flood and won’t see the bigger river for it’s lesson. They’ll swim many more floods before they ever, if ever, learn.

Now, this analogy isn’t one for one for my friend’s workplace, and he’ll be the first to tell me that he’s not always on the rock having a bite of an apple and that he’s still learning as he goes and grows in his role as well.

But there are parallels and lessons here for all of us.

This isn’t just a lens on leadership (which is where this article would now turn to talk about setting up a culture where everyone knows how to float when needed, swim when needed, or rest on a boulder when needed), it’s a lens for us to view how we can be the best leaders of ourselves.

That’s what I want to share. This is for all of us to practice. (Read, PRACTICE, not make perfect.)

What I want to support you with today is the opportunity to start to catch "big water" moments in your personal or professional life, and start to build tools to create a mindset that helps you build discernment in knowing what you are in control of and how you can best cultivate your growth. How you lead yourself.

As we enter not only into a new year, but a new decade, let’s take inventory of what we can do, or more importantly, let be and not do, in the year and decade to come.

Are you ready for the actionable exercise? Let’s go.

Think back to a “big water” moment in your life.

This might take some reflection. I’ll share a personal example if it helps.

A loved one of mine struggles with her mental health and having her needs met. Because she’s proverbially one of the folks battling the big waters rather than resting on the rock, and I’m close to and related to this person, if I’m not careful, I can easily jump into the churning rapids of her emotions in an effort to “save her” and bring her onto the rock I was just standing on. And let me tell you, I’ve made this mistake in the name of love, loyalty and duty countless times. Each time, I arrive in the end, not just half-drowned, but 9/10 drowned, on the shore, and barely functioning. I can’t even look around to appreciate that I’m not in the flood anymore, because I’m still reliving the trauma of being in the flood. I’m angry at her for holding onto me too tight, when really, I should have been angry at myself for thinking I could drag her to the shore and swim for the both of us. How unwise! And yet, how often do we put ourselves here?

As you think of a “big water” moment of your own, write down what you wished you could control in that situation, and also what you really could control in the end.

Give yourself the space to have some strong feelings come up if that’s happening for you now. It’s okay. I don’t think most people grew up learning how to navigate waters like this and so it’s critical to allow yourself the space for your own learning. Discomfort, mistakes and failures are important, okay, and allowed. Even as adults we also deserve the space to flail, learn and grow. Failure is the compost out of which we can truly cultivate learning. Fail often. Fail hard. And then be willing to allow it, look at it, and understand the lesson when you’re ready.

Now, make a list of what happens in your mind and body, best you can, when a "big water" moment hits. Recognizing that it’s happening is probably one of the best things we can teach ourselves, and it will take practice.

For me, one of these moments cues up in my body shallower breathing and a “freeze, flight or fight” reflex. Mostly for me I feel freeze, then fight, because that’s how I’m wired.

Now this is hard, because our bodies are hardwired to go into this mode and just “meditating” in the moment doesn’t help. Our brains get hijacked in many cases. For most of us, these moments will happen no matter how “zen” or mindful we are in our daily lives, we all have a point where it’s too much. It is the awareness of the moment happening and then taking the steps we pre-plan (we’ll get to that in a moment) that will slowly will help us to make choices to help our body to take us out of freeze, flight or fight and get us onto the boulder up high with perspective to take in the rain clouds and see what the weather is really doing

You might feel tight, shallow breathing, You might get heat up the back of your neck or across your face. You might feel hot, or excessively cold. You might suddenly feel trapped or very angry. Many emotions might collide and you may feel confused and afraid. It’s okay. Every thing you feel is just an energy trying to move through you. As you’re in a calm state best you can, map out what happens in your body when you have a “big water” moment. Then, take a few breaths as well, even thinking of the hard times can spur on unpleasant feelings. Remind yourself, NOW, that you’re helping yourself find ease by making a plan. Deep breath.

Now comes the pre-plan.

This is like the checklist when you’re on a plane flight. The flight attendants don’t start to teach you about the oxygen masks, the exit rows and life preservers when the plane is suddenly in crisis, right? (Heaven forbid that this ever happens to any of us, dear reader.) They teach us these things before hand so you know the details for the exit row and putting your mask on first before helping others in the event crisis hits. You have something to focus on while chaos happens, a pre-plan. Mask, check. Life preserver, check. Exit row, check. That’s good.

So now, what’s the pre-plan for your moment? As you start to notice the feelings and sensations that occur when you’re about to be swept away, what pre-plan can you have in place to support you climbing on the rock rather than battling nature?

For me this looks like the following. And yes, it takes lots of practice, and yes, it is hard. But I will tell you, the reward of this investment and practice in yourself is worth it. If I can practice it, you can practice it.

First, I notice that I'm about to be submerged by a flood of proverbial water. My body has frozen up, and I can feel a fight rising in me. My breathing is shallower and my heart rate speeds up. I can almost feel a “wave” go right over my eyes, in a way blinding me from being present and keeping me tied up in this body response. So first, I notice that it’s happening. That’s the first part of my plan. Just NOTICING it helps settle me just a little, and that’s the key moment to put the other “pre-plan” steps in motion.

Next. I invite myself to take a deep breath. If this moment is happening when I’m with someone, possibly the person who I have allowed to put me into the "big water" moment, I find a way to excuse myself for some air. Sometimes I need to change the topic of conversation (even if that topic is what I wanted to wrestle in) to create the change needed to step away for air.

Then, for me, the best thing is to take a walk, outside, for at least 10 minutes. I help to over-ride my body’s freeze/fight/flight with meaningful movement and exercise. I need my heart-rate to be up because of movement, not emotion. I need my breath to be focused on moving my body, not caught in my chest.

I then talk through to myself, my pre-planned phrases to remind me of my control over me, and no one and nothing else in this world. Some phrases I like that support my “anchoring” back into the present moment are as follows:

I am not what the other person is experiencing.

I am me.

I am safe.

The air today is cool on my skin.

The sun is brightening the day so I can see.

The ground is firm beneath me, holding me.

I see the trees swaying in the breeze.

I stand tall on my feet and I am responsible for myself.

It is not my fault that others behave the way they do, thinking that I can control how they are is a condition of my earlier life I know to be an untruth.

How others are is their choice whether they know it or not.

I am responsible to myself only.

My responsibility is to do my best.

I am doing my best here and now.

When I care for me, I am able to better listen, better be a friend, better serve my clients, and better be my full self in my full life.

Being my best is not saving people who won’t save themselves.

Being my best does not mean I can’t have compassion and love for others who won’t save themselves. Being my best means I can invite them to calmness but I can’t force them to follow me here.

I am doing my best.

I am a good person.

Now - my phrases and situation as you can tell - work very specifically for the example I gave when dealing with my loved one. Your phrases and actions and situation may look very very different, and that’s great. They are yours to build. Your pre-planned phrases can be written on a small note card or a page in your journal or saved as a note in your preferred note-taking app.

When you realize that you’re having a “big water” moment, first, be proud that you noticed it.

Even if you get pulled into it a little more than you’d like, the key is noticing that it happened, that is a HUGE accomplishment. Most of us ride through it and don’t realize there’s a flood, we’re just struggling. Taking these steps leads us to a new way of seeing.

As you practice and as you’re best able, you’ll start to be able to lean on your pre-planned actions more and more. Even if you have to wait a couple hours or do them the next day, going through the practice of your pre-planned actions and phrases to help you recuperate from the big water moment is excellent priming for your system.

It will not be easy and I’m not saying that you’ll eventually get out of experiencing discomfort.

The discomfort is real and will probably be there in some way or another for the duration of our lives.

It’s in how we meet the discomfort and engage it with openness and curiosity that we can start to build tools for our growth and development in a mindset that serves us into 2020, and beyond. It’s how we’ll start to build more self-leadership that will give us better observations on what’s really critical in a moment, and will allow us to rest rather than “do” more, to allow things to pass and flush out, so we’re ready for the real moments of creation when it’s time.


I hope you found something useful today in today’s post. I’m grateful and appreciative to my friend for the inspiration based on our conversation earlier, and to you, for reading, and continuing to build a better world where we reduce stepping into chaos that isn’t ours and relax more into letting things go that we can’t control.

Please don’t forget to share this with any friends, colleagues or loved ones who can benefit from this, and of course, please subscribe to my blog so you’re always in the know when new insights are available for your inbox.

I also love to hear from readers. Let me know what you got out of this either by commenting below or sending me an email. If you have a mindset question that you’ve been wrestling with send me that too - it might become the focus for a future post.

With warmth and respect,


In the mid-2000's I had the amazing experience of being a guide in the Grand Canyon.

The slideshow starts with the backs of two heads looking at a big rapid (I'm pretty sure it it the top of Lava Falls you can just barely see in the pic) that we're going to run. Rachel, the trip leader and the woman on the right, is helping me, on the left, to pick out landmarks for my ideally safe navigation. She's coaching me in my pre-plan for navigation.

The other photos are just me running my boat through some big water. It is a joy to look back to when I used to navigate a big, fully loaded gear boat downstream for 2 weeks at a time.

The biggest lesson I learned? Go with the flow. Water always wins. You can't control it, the only thing in your control is to pick the best spot to put yourself in the current so you go where you want to be. And sometimes, things still don't go according to plan. But you try again, and you get better. And you still do yoga on the river beach because it's good for you even if you're not the best boater in the world.

(There's a picture of me mid-flip in a big rapid floating around somewhere, but I couldn't find it in time to put it in this post.)

These photos were taken waaaay back in 2006 by Matt Fahey, who hadn't yet won his two, I mean four, Emmy's but at this time was was a seasoned Grand Canyon river guide and way better at rafting and photography than I have ever been. Photo quality not great because these are screenshots from a DVD I have that he sent everyone back in 2006. I don't have a DVD player anymore in 2019.

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