One of my favorite stories is a lesson about taking responsibility for our own lives. It is about learning to respond rather than react when we are confronted by “life”. I heard this simple Buddhist story many years ago, and it goes like this:
A young farmer paddled his boat vigorously up river. He was covered with sweat as he paddled his boat upstream to deliver his produce to the village. It was a hot day, and he wanted to make his delivery and get home before dark. As he looked ahead, he spied another vessel, heading rapidly downstream toward his boat. He rowed furiously to get out of the way, but it didn’t seem to help.
He shouted, “Change direction! You are going to hit me!” The boat came straight towards him anyway. It hit his boat with a violent thud. The young man cried out, “You idiot! How could you manage to hit my boat in the middle of this wide river?”
As he glared into the boat, seeking out the individual responsible for the accident, he realized that there was no one. He had been screaming at an empty boat that had broken free of its moorings and was floating downstream with the current.
The interesting thing is that we behave one way when we believe that there is another person at the helm. We blame that stupid, uncaring person for our misfortune. We get angry, act out, assign fault, and play the victim. In other words, we are not engaged in a positive way for ourselves, but in a negative and defensive way that makes nothing better!
We behave more calmly when we know that what is coming towards us is an empty boat. With no available scapegoat, we don’t get upset. We make peace with the fact that our misfortune was the result of fate or bad luck and we do our best to rectify the situation. We may even laugh at the absurdity of a random unmanned boat finding a way to collide with us in a vast body of water.
The challenge for all of us is to recognize that there’s never really anyone in the other boat. We are always screaming at an empty vessel. An empty boat isn’t targeting us. And neither are all the people creating the sour notes in the soundtrack of our day. If we start treating all boats as empty, we will have no other choice but to 1) accept what is and 2) change what we can change.
It is up to us to choose how we react to the empty boats in our lives. We can either yell and scream at the empty boats and endure the collision or choose to get out of the way the best we can, accepting what happens, and do our best to continue on our way along the river.
This article is authored by Dr. Marshall Goldsmith. Dr Marshall Goldsmith is a world authority in helping successful leaders achieve positive, lasting change in behaviour: for themselves, their people and their teams. He is the million-selling author or editor of 31 books, including the New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestsellers, Mojo and What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.