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The Whitewaters of Your Life

by Leslie Yerkes

It's called the Yock, short for the Youghaghenny River. When people talk about the Yock, they're talking about whitewater rafting.

Ever since I was 11 years old, I have loved whitewater rafting. I'm a big risk-taker, so rafting is something I really enjoy.

When you go whitewater rafting, it's more fun to go with people you know and like. While it's happening, you're sharing it, and once it's over, you have a common bond.

Once you have passed your first rapid, the look on every face says they're thrilled to have made it. But there's also the realization that this will be more work than they thought; that we would all be a lot better off if we practiced our strokes, took stock of our skills and changed assignments.

Some in the front discover we don't like being the first to face danger, while some in the back realize we're not really strong enough to do the work, and some of us find we would really rather be at lunch.

But regardless of how we rearrange and how much we practice, the next rapids come, followed by a stretch of calm water. Then more rapids and calm. And more rapids and calm. And so on until the entire trip down the Yock is part of our memory bank.

Our whitewater adventure is a microcosm of life. Before we started our journey, we had ample opportunity to learn from others. We declined.

When we found ourselves in the midst of chaos, we vowed to learn more and practice and be better prepared the next time. And when the next spate of clear water came, practice we did. By the end of the journey, some of us had fallen out, some of us had vowed never to do this again, and some of us had become expert and looked forward to another experience.

Those of us who planned to traverse more rapids made a few changes. These changes work not only for whitewater rapids, but also for our business and personal lives.

First, Choose Your Partners Well
Every raft, like every business, needs one person to sit' in the front and lead through the obstacles, someone to sit in the back and do the heavy work, and people on all sides helping fend off the rocks. A raft-load of only one kind of person is not as effective or efficient as one with the right person for the right job.

Second, Take Along an Appropriate Travel Kit
My kit for the whitewater adventures of life includes these items:

1. A Map (a plan). If you do not know where you're going, you won't know when you've arrived or if you're lost. The more often you check your map, the closer to your course you will stay.

2. A Mirror (feedback). If you do not look at yourself and at your surroundings, if you do not listen to opinions and advice of those doing the tasks you are not doing, you will only have one opinion and you will surely not see the truth of reality.

3. A Compass (values). If you do not constantly measure the rightness of your direction, you may stray off course. In rafting, if you choose to skirt the rapids, your journey will take longer. By not experiencing the rapids, your skills will not improve and you will probably find yourself in a situation where there is no easy way out and no personal experience to help you through.

4. A Life Jacket (alternate plan). If you find yourself in extremely rough waters, like I did in the Colorado River, you just might need something to keep your head above water. Even if you don't actually need it, just knowing you have a life jacket can sometimes be all you need to get you through a difficult situation.

5. A Bailer (courage to change). Regardless of how good a rafter you are, or how many times you have traveled the same course, you will find water in your raft and you will have to get rid of it.

In business, you need the courage to get the water out of your company, to remove the excess baggage, to make your system run better even though you could probably get by without doing a thing.

And Third, Pay Attention to Your Guides
Business has become so advanced, and so hectic, that the journey is almost always 100 percent whitewater, with little or no stretches of calm in which to collect your thoughts. It becomes ever more important, therefore, to heed the advice of your guides before you set off. There is little or no chance to practice along the way.

When you are properly prepared, you will find that the trips you make through whitewater can be exhilarating and will give new meaning to life itself. Bon voyage.

Leslie Yerkes is President of Catalyst Consulting Group, a change-management company specializing in training, personnel motivation and organizational development. She can be reached by phone at 216-241-3939

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