This is the second of three sponsor content blog posts featuring the adventures of Columbia’s Directors of Toughness, writer Lauren Steele and photographer Zach Doleac. See more photos from this story in a takeover on our @natgeoadventure Instagram feed.
Our guide, Vernie, specifically told me, “When I say ‘forward’, paddle ahead and don’t stop, no matter what the rapids do.” Just then the raft dipped into a swirling whirlpool of angry mud and water. Our bow pointed into the gutter of the river below and I heard “FORWARD.” I went blank. I stopped paddling. I looked straight down into the choppy spray, afraid that I couldn’t paddle through it. So I did nothing. Well, that’s only partially true. I did something. I fell.
When I bailed into the swampy bath, I lost all control of my ability to go forward. I was going wherever that water pushed me, and I couldn’t get myself out of it. When I cropped up to the surface, Vernie and Zach pulled me back into the boat. They handed me my paddle. I put it in the water and I pushed forward. Every rapid after that dunk, I kept pushing forward. Sometimes I paddled weakly, and sometimes I paddled hard. On an inflatable packraft on the rapids of the Pacuare River, I learned what it felt like to fail. It was chilling and wet and turbulent and frightening. But when I kept on paddling, we kept on moving forward. And that was the only way we were going to get to where we were going.
There is only one way to fail. It’s to stop paddling. So many times, we bunch up in the fear of failure and stumble into inaction—because we believe that if we do nothing, we can’t fail. But inaction is the only way to truly fail. It puts you into the spot where you pass by the opportunity to take action and ease involuntarily into the coulda-woulda-shoulda-zone. It’s much better to do what you believe, to carry out and chance an unforeseen consequence than to never know. To never know is to rob yourself out of a learning lesson, a victory, a wisdom, or a success. It’s better to find values in lessons or victories (or cold water) than it is to wonder in regret. When you’re afraid to fail, it’s courageous to act despite the fear. To keep paddling.
When I was first named a Director of Toughness alongside Zach, I was afraid that maybe I wasn’t a good enough writer to convey my thoughts to the Columbia audience. Maybe I was better at writing news and the stories of others, not the stories of myself. Maybe if I tried to explain my thoughts on failing and courage and living a fulfilling life, no one would be interested.
But here I am, with the opportunity to write to you. To every other girl who has or will grow up on a little farm in the Midwest, to anyone who wonders what it would look like at the top of a mountain, or what it feels like to go ice climbing for the first time or get on a plane to a place they’ve never been before. And at some point in the future, I would regret not giving my thoughts on failing and the courage of living a fulfilling life, whether they resonate or not. So here it is, the tumble out of a pack raft. Because to share our stories and our thoughts is to move forward. And sometimes you just need to paddle to get where you’re going.