This past weekend, I attended a family event where I both failed and succeeded, depending on how you choose to look at it.
The setting was a barbecue at a recently renovated home with a dock on a gorgeous little lake in downstate New York. We’d been told to bring bathing suits, and the weather was lovely, and so it didn’t take long for most of us to end up in the water.
What followed can best be described as a version of the old “Wacky Races” cartoons I watched as a kid. Except in this case, instead of crazy cars, we all set out in a hodgepodge of lake craft: two in kayaks, two in a rowboat, two (including me) on paddle boards, and one using a sailboard (without a sail) as a paddle board.
The goal was to reach a small island a few thousand feet down the lake. Which sounds easy, right? Except I’d never used a paddle board before. But I’d seen people do it, and I’m in decent shape these days. So how hard could it be?
Famous last words.
As advised by one of the hosts, I started on my knees, getting a sense of the board and how it moved on the water. I paddled as well as I could like this, but it didn’t take long for the rest of the pack to start moving away from me.
So I decided to try and stand up, like the other paddle boarders had already successfully done. I managed to get vertical, but my knees immediately started to shake and the board to wobble. I lost my courage, and was back down on my knees a few seconds later.
Okay, so maybe it was harder than it looked. (Most things are.)
Over the next few minutes, I grew increasingly more anxious, watching the other wacky racers shrink as the distance between us grew. Also, my knees were starting to hurt a bit. So I tried to stand again. Wobbled. And came back down.
I tried again a few more times, and even stood for all of about ten seconds at one point, hoping that if I gave it long enough, my equilibrium would outvote my brain’s obvious reluctance and I would feel more comfortable.
Spoiler alert: It didn’t.
So there I was. On my knees again. Feeling defeated and small. All the more so because everybody else had nearly reached the island by this point. So even if I did manage to stand at that moment, there was no way I could possibly catch up now.
This was a familiar feeling for me. One I’ve wrestled with my whole life.
For starters, I was a very small child. At five foot seven, I’m hardly tall now, but I was easily the shortest boy in my class as late as fifteen years old. Shorter even than the vast majority of the girls. That takes its toll after a while. It shouldn’t, of course — because what does height really matter? But especially as a teenager, it does.
I dated girls later than all of my friends. Thanks to some “creative” life choices I made in my early twenties, I graduated college years later than most of my peers. I didn’t even start my career as a web developer until I was 30 years old.
I didn’t get married until the age of 37, later than both of my brothers, and after waiting all that time, it didn’t even take; I was divorced five years later. (And both of my brothers had beaten me to that auspicious landmark as well.)
And of course, here I am now, trying to reinvent my career, to build my business, at an age when some people are already discussing early retirement.
So as I sat there on my knees on that paddle board this weekend, the weight of all of this crashed down on me. Once again, I was last. Once again, I had failed.
Yes, it was only paddle boarding. But nothing is ever just paddle boarding, is it? We each carry with us at all times every success and failure in our lives. They make up who we are now and affect the decisions we make going forward.
And in that moment, as the others pulled away from me, I made a decision.
I dug my paddle into the water and pushed it forward, rather than back. Thanks to Newton’s third law of motion, the board came to an immediate stop and turned itself in the opposite direction, putting the others and the island behind me.
Then I set my sights on the middle of the lake and started moving in that direction instead.
After a few minutes of this, I got tired of my knees hurting and my thighs burning, and shifted myself so that I was sitting with legs crossed, yoga style. Sitting this way, low to the water, the wide board felt considerably more stable.
In short, I had made the decision to shift my perspective.
Rather than fail at paddle boarding, I could succeed at relaxing.
Rather than be the last to reach the island (an arbitrary goal to begin with), I could be the first (and only) to make my way to the middle of the lake.
This turned out to be the perfect decision for me. Because after reaching it, I spent the next half-hour sitting on that board in the middle of the lake. Away from everybody else. Just me and the board and the motion of the water and the sound of the breeze …
For an introvert, it doesn’t get much better than moments like these, which in a “hustle and hurry world” come all too infrequently.
At one point, I closed my eyes and tried to meditate. Tried to push every thought out of my mind and focus only on my senses. It didn’t quite work (my brain rarely shuts up), but it was entirely relaxing and centering nonetheless.
Several thoughts occurred to me as I was trying hard not to think at all …
1) When We Measure Ourselves Against Others, We Always Fail
Earlier this year, when I truly doubled down on my business, my first instinct was to imitate the activities that had brought others in my field success. So I started posting videos on LinkedIn, even though I didn’t like doing it. Tried posting on LinkedIn every single day, even though I didn’t always have something interesting to say.
Ultimately, I had no better success with these than I did with standing on that paddle board. It simply wasn’t my thing. And that’s okay. I have my own thing. I’m the guy who will paddle out to the middle of the lake and sit there thinking.
I’m also the guy who doesn’t want to focus (anymore) on convincing people they have “pain points” I can rescue them from. There are plenty of other professionals out there racing across the water toward that island who can do that for people.
Telling stories is my thing. Helping people and businesses understand what their story has been so far — and how it can be used to write their story going forward — is my thing. That’s the business I’m in, and I don’t need to imitate or compete with or measure myself against others in order to feel successful at what I do best.
Measure yourself against yourself, not against others.
2) Our Perceptions Determine Our Success or Failure
All of us, whether we’re entrepreneurs or business leaders or just plain human beings, have the ability to choose how we perceive our circumstances. We can choose whether to focus on what we’re failing at or what we’re succeeding at.
If nothing else, if you’re reading this, then congratulations: you’ve succeeding at staying alive. That doesn’t mean, of course, that your life might not suck right now. Or that your business might not be facing challenges. Or that things couldn’t be better. Or that you shouldn’t strive to make things better, to improve your situation. It only means things could be much worse. (Spend five minutes reading the news if you don’t believe me.) And that you’re probably succeeding more than you give yourself credit for.
Getting back to thought #1, there’s always a chance you could be succeeding more if you stopped measuring yourself against others. It’s too easy to perceive yourself as a failure when you’re kneeling on the paddle board and somebody else is standing.
Modeling ourselves after those we respect or aspire to be like is great, and can certainly help energize and streamline our journey as entrepreneurs. But taken too far, it can also be a recipe for getting stuck in a rut and seeing ourselves as lesser than our heroes. By focusing too much on the successes of others, we may fail to see our own.
3) We All Get to Decide Where Our Story Goes
None of us gets to decide where our story begins. We are born when we are born, and where, and to whom, and under what circumstances.
At some point, though, as we get older, our stories become our own to tell. Often, we don’t even notice it when it happens. We get so caught up in the things we can’t control about our life that we lose sight of the thousand things we can.
A year and a half ago, I was miserable. I hated my job, in large part because I hated my manager, and had convinced myself I couldn’t do anything about it. I had a family to help support and bills to pay … and responsible people simply don’t quit a perfectly good job with benefits because their manager is a bully and a jerk.
Because I decided that no matter what my story was before, where it started, I wanted to write the remaining chapters. Did I want to be the guy who swallowed his stress and did what was expected of him and died of a heart attack in ten years? No. I wanted to be the happy guy who struck out on his own, started a successful business, and lived a long life never wondering, “What if I had done things differently?”
Every person, every business, gets to decide when it’s time to stop following the pack of wacky racers, dig their paddle into the water, and choose their own path. Maybe toward the middle of the lake. Maybe toward a different, undiscovered island.
The destination matters less than the intentionality of it. Making the choice. Writing our own story, rather than trying to live out somebody else’s.
Sometimes, of course, we need to better understand the story behind us before we can decide how to fill the empty pages ahead of us.
So if you need help telling your story, either the one behind or the one ahead, then feel free to pull up a paddle board (or kayak or rowboat or sailboard) and meet me in the middle of the lake.
I’ll be the one sitting yoga style with a smile on his face.