Improving Performance: It’s good to take risks, but test the waters first

The winds on Lake Massabesic were blowing 10-20 mph out of the west with gusts to 30 or more. We were sailing back toward the club, when I noticed an overturned kayak and someone in the water. We quickly sailed over, as the kayaker struggled to get back aboard.

It wasn’t working, so I offered help. “Oh no, I’m fine! I don’t need any help,” said a woman’s voice. She was wearing a life preserver, so we politely sailed on by. She was in a lot of trouble and didn’t know it. Her kayak looked like a department store special that shouldn’t have been used in anything bigger than a swimming pool.

Already a few hundred yards from shore, the wind was blowing her further and further out. She had found it easy to get out here paddling with the wind; when she turned around to go back the trouble started. Now, she was trying to go against the wind and waves, a much tougher job, even if she hadn’t flipped over.

I watched three more failed attempts, each less energetic, and tacked to sail back towards her. There were a couple more even less energetic failed attempts, when I offered again. This time she wanted help.

I sailed as close as I could, put the bow into the wind, and tried to “hove to,” or stay as still as possible, a difficult task in gusty winds like these. We lowered our stern ladder, and let her use it to climb aboard her kayak. She said thank you, waved goodbye, and promptly flipped over again! This wasn’t going to work.

While she was climbing our ladder, I couldn’t help but notice she was perhaps 200 pounds or more. She had trouble climbing to the height of her kayak; climbing aboard the sailboat would be tougher, and she didn’t want to do it. I think she was embarrassed, so we offered to tow her in, and she gratefully accepted.

It took a while, but we got her in close enough for the trees to block the wind, and she swam the last few yards, towing her kayak as we stood by.

As I sailed for the club, I couldn’t help but reflect how similar this situation was to so many business and career situations. How many careers and/or businesses are in serious trouble, but no one realizes just how serious until it’s too late?

Practicing skills

Getting into trouble can be embarrassing, so we often avoid asking for help, and even refuse it when it’s offered. Perhaps few things get us into more trouble than our bravado.

Additionally, the kayak was woefully inadequate for her and this body of water. She kept trying to get back aboard, but it wasn’t working.

Have you ever found yourself repeatedly doing the same things over and over, even though they don’t work?

Admittedly, some skills require practice, and getting back into a kayak is probably one of them. The place to develop it is close to shore or in a swimming pool. Even so, some processes and kayaks are simply inadequate for their intended uses. A popular definition of insanity is to keep doing the same things over and over while hoping for a different result.

Many individuals and organizations fall into this trap. They can spend years trying to sell a product or service that just isn’t moving. Like the woman, they are wasting precious time and energy, and it won’t be long before just holding on would have been too much.

Another lesson — sometimes you just don’t have time for a meeting. I wanted to get her out of the water as quickly as possible, and trying to convince her to attempt coming aboard would just have wasted precious time. The water was cold and beginning to take its toll.

Of course, we should always be developing new skills, but it’s important to minimize the risks. For instance, that radical new technology may be just the thing to propel us into the stratosphere, but is there a way to try it in a controlled environment without betting the whole company?

Or perhaps we’d like to try something new or different in our careers. Can we do it part time, evenings and or weekends at first? Test the waters without betting your life and/or your livelihood.

But nothing is worse than taking no risk at all. Our kayaking friend may have gone a little too far, but at least she now knows what it feels like. Too many people would just spend their lives sitting on the beach wondering what it would be like.

Be a risk-taker, not unnecessarily foolhardy, but a reasonably controlled risk-taker. You never know when that new endeavor will change your life for the better.

If possible, get an objective third party to take a look at what you’re doing. He or she may see something that’s not obvious to you. nhbr

Ronald J. Bourque is a consultant and speaker from Windham. He has had engagements throughout the United States and in 12 countries in Europe and Asia. He can be reached at 898-1871; fax, 894-6539; e-mail,; Web site,

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