Challenge = growth


When was the last time you really challenged yourself? That thought hit me last weekend, as I was about to get into a sea kayak and paddle across the rolling waves of Lake Superior to camp on an island seven miles away. Six of us novice paddlers had signed up for this in the dead of winter—and it had seemed like a good idea at the time.

But now, facing turbulent water and an island with a recent bear problem, some of us wondered what we had been thinking… All strangers when we started, we would soon learn about one another’s fears, persistence and degree of team commitment. It’s an interesting metaphor that translates to the workplace. 

Each of us had to pass safety training before our guide could let us venture out. I am an adventurous spirit by nature but I must admit to a case of nerves when it was my turn to roll my kayak, unhook my kayak “skirt” underwater, slip out into the cold water and then maneuver my way back into my tippy kayak. Looking back it was similar to the nerves I experienced early in my career when I first began speaking to public audiences. But over time, the nerves diminished—over time, they would diminish on this trip, too. If you don’t challenge yourself, you miss opportunities.   

One of the group panicked when it was his turn to roll. He had been very quiet and we soon saw why. He was terrified of the water and had been dragged to this trip by his more adventurous friend. He is a successful IT pro, but this was clearly out of his comfort zone. He flipped but then surfaced and clung to the instructor and the kayak, unwilling to let go. Looking back, he realized he had on a wet suit and life jacket but his brain had flipped an irrational switch—just like many of us do when we are thrust into an unfamiliar situation at work. To his credit, he gathered his wits and completed the task. Afterward his friend told us he had been “this close” to quitting and checking into a hotel. But he didn’t. 

Another couple had signed up because they wanted to challenge themselves and try something they had never done before. They were given the tandem kayak. We all laughed about how this could be a test of their partnership as the paddles flailed and the kayak went in circles, as they tried to follow the complexities of steering and turning. “He keeps telling me what to do!” she complained good naturedly. “But I have to! You can’t see what I am doing and you’re going in the opposite direction.” They listened to each other and persisted and soon they were in sync. 

The group successfully made the crossing and we came upon some magnificent sea caves, which is one of the things the Apostle Islands are known for. Paddling into the tunnels and caverns was almost a mystical experience. All of us were in the moment with wonder. This was the reward…this was worth the exertion. You can’t see this from anywhere but the water. 

But now there were the bears…We’re used to being on the top of the food chain but tonight we were on their turf. They made the rules and the rules dictated that we put everything, including toothpaste and bug repellent into a “bear bag” to be hung in a tree.  

Although the area had been monitored and cleared for two weeks before, the two reticent members of our group retreated to their tent, skipped the sunset, and stayed up most of the night listening for noises. The rest of us gloried in the majestic spectacle of sunset and stars, telling tales around the campfire. We didn’t focus on what could go wrong; we looked instead for everything that was right. The others missed the best part; the camaraderie of a fledgling team, who had tested themselves mentally and physically, and gloried in their small accomplishment under a canopy of stars.  

At the end of the trip, after a long paddle over rolling waves and stiff wind, our guide asked us what we liked most, what was the toughest thing, and what we would take back to our real lives; not unlike the teambuilding questions I’ve often asked on a retreat with executives. The answers were funny and revealing: “I learned a lot about teamwork—and our marriage,” “I learned I could do more than I thought I could,” “I have new confidence to try more adventures,”  “I liked the last 50 feet!” A little life lesson in how challenge can cause us to grow in ways we can only see when we look back to shore to see how far we’ve come.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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