Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Paddling Downstream

Today I kayaked the Los Angeles River for the second time this summer. I was anxious about the trip, and momentarily considered canceling it, because once again I was sleep-deprived and too exhausted to undertake the challenge of a tour double the length of the "short" course which had drained me back in July. I'd paddled so hard then, digging my oar into the upstream, slicing the water to navigate the turns, pushing myself off of rocks and the river bottom which I dragged along.



But today, when I got in the water, I felt lighter, motile. I glided along the water's surface with no effort at all, my paddle propped across my lap. When I finally dipped it into the river, I merely brushed at the surface, scooping water gently out of my way from side to side, propelling myself forward easily, quickly, silently.



"It feels a lot easier today than the last time," I told one of our guides. "Maybe I was just trying too hard last time." For a moment, I felt proud that I'd figured out the trick to effortless kayaking, and relieved that I wasn't so lacking in upper body strength.

"It's a lot easier going down river," he said. "You have to paddle pretty hard to go up."

Oh.

Hm.

Sometimes, when something is really important, when you're really worried about it, you try really hard. You work and lift and wince and groan and huff and sweat, just to do what you need to do, just to get where you're going.

But life doesn't always have to be so hard. I struggled through the wallet-stealing, subway-groping, sexual harrassing, pee-smelling culture of New York City for 14 years until I came to the realization that it's OK for some things come more easily.



Sometimes, you can glide downstream, and just let the current take you down while you take a moment to look all around you.



Throughout childhood, until I got to college, schoolwork came easily to me. I scrawled out lengthy essays at the last minute on Sunday nights. I rarely studied for tests. I barely read the novels or watched the movies. But I went to class, I paid attention, and I let the lessons wash over me, absorbing it all as my eyes peered out from behind my thick-lensed glasses, and my ears listened above their gold-hooped lobes.

My sister, on the other hand, agonized over her studies. She always seemed to have her nose wedged in a textbook, flanked by stacks of flash cards, pens, pencils, erasers, and highlighters. She worked hard, and she cared deeply.

We both graduated at the top of our respective classes.

My mother always criticized me for flying by the seat of my pants.

But would working harder, trying harder, have given me any more sense of accomplishment? Could I have accomplished anything more than the top percentile?

I think after a lifetime of trying to be the superlative of everything, I've learned that there's something to be said for exerting yourself just enough. Work as hard as your compensation commands. Set achievable goals. Identify actionable means of achieving them. Manage your own expectations. Avoid diminishing returns.

And for God's sake, try to enjoy yourself.

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