Franklin Roosevelt said, “A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor.” This is one of my all-time favorite sayings, and living on the downeast coast of Maine, near the incredibly dynamic seas off Campobello Island where Roosevelt sailed in his youth, I understand what he was talking about.  The tides rise fast and fall fast here, with 20-foot swings being normal.  The waters are dark and deep and cold. The currents are swift and one of the largest whirlpools in the world is located right here.

And fog.  The fog can be thick and can come in fast.  A few years ago I was having lunch with my brother-in-law from Texas.  We were at a wharf-side restaurant  enjoying the sun; I had my back to the water and he was looking out at the islands.  After about 10 minutes, he got a concerned look on his face and pointed towards an island and asked, “What’s happening there?”  The fog had rolled in and had completely obscured the island.  If you’re not used to it, it can be a sight to see, and unsettling.

It’s ironic that although my family has lived in this particular remote corner of Maine for around 200 years we have never been sea-faring people.  We have preferred working in the dirt as farmers, or in the woods.  Even family members that serve in the Navy return home to farm.  The draw of the sea is strong, but the security of solid land has kept us ashore.

Back to  Roosevelt and the sea.

The sea and sailing make good metaphors for the business world and life in general. Conditions change fast, fog obscures the facts, and being nimble and reactive can make the difference between success or sinking.

We learn more by navigating challenges than we do if things are always good, the water always calm.  It’s life’s “bumps in the road” and how we deal with them that build our character and create the capacity to work through challenges yet to come. It’s difficult to recognize in the midst of a crisis that you are gaining skill and building capacity, but you are.

Standing back and thinking about what we learn by navigating life’s rough seas is critical.  Only by identifying (self-debriefing) what we did well and what could be improved can we work towards future growth. Without improvement, we stagnate, and stagnation is the opposite of progress.

Let’s trim our sails for progress.


This post originally appeared on LinkedIn on July 1, 2016

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