Editor’s Note: “I don’t know what I’m good at.” or “I have no talent!”
Ever thought of that? I know I have. In this essay, Max shares his experience of how he found (or rather pushed to try) what he’s good at – that eventually became his passion.
Some five years ago I found myself in an extremely narrow, highly unstable, one man boat wedged up against an abutment of a highway bridge crossing over the Passaic River. A crew team coach sitting in a skiff downstream was calling instructions on the proper method to utilize (utilization of) my right oar to push off against the concrete understructure without tipping over.
At that time the only things I knew about the Passaic were that the river was polluted and that occasionally dead bodies washed up onto its shores. As each minor motion of my hands was magnified into the uncontrolled rolling of the “single” I became more accepting of the probability that I would capsize, flail about, and be saved by anchoring myself to a partially decomposed corpse floating nearby just below the surface.
I was there because of Plato. Yes, that Plato. My father had recently acquainted himself with that philosopher’s notions on telos, or purpose, and being favorably impressed, decided it had application to my life.
His modern interpretation of the concept was that each person has a duty to seek out by experimentation those activities at which they have natural abilities, devote their efforts to developing the same, and that through the benefits of inherent success find a purpose in life. Experiment being called for; why not try something previously unimagined. Why not try rowing!
So, there I was, bullied into a molded piece of fiberglass floating on filthy water at the mercy of the current and my inability to coordinate the use of two exceedingly long oars by the musings of an ancient Greek and my father’s need to apply every wise thought to the betterment of his son.
What undiscovered characteristic did I possess that was going to mix with what unknown aspect of rowing to ever get me back in that boat?
A half-decade of dedicating a minimum of 20 hours a week to training for and competing in regattas provides an answer. Small boat rowing demands a unique ability to progress toward the finish with your back facing forward and without help.
Focusing downriver over a shoulder will throw off form causing the craft to founder, along with a particularly poor performance and unhappy ride home. The only clues available to maintain a true course are fading away behind the boat. A rower can attempt to align the vortexes, referred to as “puddles,” created on the surface of the water by the force of the oars passing underneath.
On a race course the spaced buoys that appear from behind and pass by on both sides can be used to middle the lane.
This technique is analogous to an airplane pilot setting up his landing approach by looking over the tail wing at the runway lights disappearing in the distance. I have been trained to keep an unwavering sightline over the stern to a feature on the receding horizon. Visually paste the tip of the boat to a building or tower on the far shoreline, concentrate on the rhythm of the stroke, keep the proper body posture, and win.
Consistently, the best part of my day is spent on the water. Hard work, endlessly ruptured blisters, and the rigging and de-rigging of boats are an irrelevance. Ingrained in me, somewhere, is the desire to go blindly backwards. I can do that and do it well.
The only concern I have now is that my father has started reading Sun Tzu.