Floating the Career River: A Cautionary Tale

A couple summers ago, Chris and I went to float the Sandy river with a big group of people. It was a hot, dry day - perfect weather for a float. We picked up some cheap “river rat” tubes from Fred Meyer, got on the party bus, and were ready to go.

Everyone blew up their various floating devices riverside and started getting into the water. As with big floats like this, little pods of people started to form, and soon enough, we were tying rafts and floaties together with the thin ropes people brought.

If you’re an experienced river floater, there are probably alarm bells going off in your head. I’ve floated the river almost every summer since I was a little girl, but never with a group this big, and never with so many people who wanted to stay connected. I didn’t want to be left out, so Chris and I tied our tubes onto someone else’s raft and went along for the ride.

If you were up in the sky looking down on us, you would’ve seen 8-12 tubes and rafts all messily tied together, floating down the Sandy river like one of those big floating landfills in the ocean (except much more attractive, obviously).

So there we are, floating along, taking in the incomparable beauty of the Oregon summer, and someone points out that there are some not-tiny rapids ahead. No big deal, I think - I’ve tubed through plenty of rough patches on a river before.

But I’ve never gone through rapids while tied to 10 other tubes.

We’re very lucky to have a positive ending to this story, but I still shudder when I think about the people who fell off of their rafts and got tied up in the network of ropes. Chris and I weren’t thrown from our tubes, but those who were could have drowned or been badly hurt because it was such a gnarled mess of ropes above water and logs below.

After we accounted for everyone and patched up those who’d been scraped up, we all agreed to cut every tie and float the rest of the way on our own. Whatever couldn’t be untied got cut off with a knife someone brought.

In the online workshop I’m facilitating, Should I Stay or Should I Go?, we’ll talk about the internal and external factors that we account for when we’re thinking about making a career change.

Some of these factors are helpful and really should be taken into account - for example, if you really value your family time and are looking at a job that demands you work 50+ hours/week, that’s something to consider.

But many of the things that we take into account are like dangerous ropes and rafts that we get tied to upriver. We wade in, all excited to float with ease, and then Pressure to Make Money asks if he can tie on. We say “Sure, the water’s fine!” Then a few paces down, Societal Expectations is like, “Hey, let me hook up with you guys!,” so you let her. Before you know it, you’re part of a floating mess of ties and connections that are going to endanger your well-being when you get to the rough part of the river.

I’ve done a few rookie whitewater rafting trips, and paradoxically, the place where you paddle hardest is actually through the fastest part of the river. One of the most dangerous things you can do while rafting is lose control of the boat and let it get tossed around in the rapids. It’s much, much harder to control a boat that’s tied to anything else or that has loose pieces that could get caught on a rock or a stick.

The safest way to get through turbulence on the river is to be free of messy connections and dead weight.

Imagine you’re facing a set of rapids in your career: a difficult conversation with someone, a choice you have to make, or the risk of speaking up and getting fired.

Picture yourself on a raft by yourself, prepared to paddle through and guide your boat safely through to the other side quickly and gracefully.

Now picture yourself in that raft but with all the limiting beliefs and pressure you place on yourself tied on as well. How can you dart through narrow channels and avoid the big rocks with all that mess around you?

You can’t.

The only three things I advise people to take into consideration when they’re facing the rapids are:

1. Does this decision align with my values? If you’re facing a choice and one of the options doesn’t obviously support the things that really matter to you, your values, that’s the option to ditch. We have to do work that’s in alignment with the things that motivate and fulfill us.

2. How does this decision support my career goals? This one is okay to leave on the shore if you want to, because I think there’s already too much pressure to have five-year plans and goals and all that. If you know you eventually want to get to a place where you’re, say, running your own company or working in a certain type of organization, then consider this, but if you don’t have a clear goal in mind, just stick to the values alignment.

3. How will this decision impact the system I’m a part of, and am I okay with it? Even if you’re on your own raft on the river, you’re still part of a system - one that doesn’t like change, like I talked about in a recent post. The key is to ask yourself, “How will this impact my family/friends/co-workers and am I okay with that?” Your co-workers might hate that you leave, or take a promotion, and your family might be disappointed that you dropped out of graduate school. You will disrupt the system somehow, and all you can do is come to terms with that in a way that feels right to you.

Other than safely securing those three things in your raft, you shouldn’t have anything else tied on as you float down the career river.

I know that’s easier said than done - even after years of working through this, I know I’ve still got some stragglers hanging onto my raft, some that I’m not even aware of - but it’s the only way to get down the river safely and gracefully.

What needs to get cut off from your raft today?

What limiting thoughts or social pressures are dead weight that will get you caught in the rapids?