Practices for Growth, Part One: Let Water off The Boat

By Michaela O’Donnell

August 31, 2020

De Pree Journal

When my son was two months old, we had a friend temporarily move in with us. She was in a bad place and needed somewhere to land. Nearly every day, I’d sit holding and feeding my baby while I listened to my friend talk about overwhelmingly hard things.  After many days of this rhythm, I sort of broke down. I was already tired from mothering my two small children and as badly as I wanted to be the best friend my friend needed, I was running out of capacity to do much of anything.

So, I called my mom who always listens to me for as long as I need to be heard. I asked her how I could be both a good mother and a good friend and also good to myself in this stretch. She spoke over me a truth I have echoed to countless people since, “You’re taking in a lot of water. And, in order to not drown, you’ve got to intentionally let water off your boat.” If you’ve ever been in a boat, a raft, or a kayak, you know that taking on water is less than ideal.

We all take on water. It’s part of the tough news of what it means to be human, especially in an era of accelerated change. But, my word has 2020 taken it up a notch! It feels like a season of collectively taking on more in a condensed period of time.

Let me be clear upfront that the goal of our lives is not to avoid taking on water all together. Yes, there are certain situations we want to have less exposure to, i.e.: a toxic colleague or a racist boss. But, other times, what we feel when we take on water has something to teach us. Take for example when we start to uncover our own toxicity or ways we perpetuate systems of inequity in our work.

It helps me to think about taking on water as a form of grief. In today’s world, our lives are marked by this kind of grief. The question is: Will we make space for grief in our work? Will we commit to engage grief for the sake of the common good?  When we’re taking on water, how do we become more able to see a path through chaos and pain? How might we grow in our attunement that we have taken on water and need to be intentional about letting it off? In my ongoing research, I am captivated by these kinds of questions and the types of people who can show us the way forward.

So much of how we show up in our work reflects the internal work we are willing to do. Are we willing to pay attention to ourselves? Our experiences? Our relationships? What voices shape us? How do we benefit from and how might we call out systems we live and work in? At the heart of God’s invitation to inner work is this: are we willing to come to know more about ourselves so that God might ever-transform us into the person we’re called to be?

Let Water Off the Boat is an exercise that invites you into your own inner work. The goal is for you to identify when you take on water and how you most naturally let it off as you see fit.

Materials Needed: Journal and a writing utensil

You’re going to make two lists: One to identify where you take on water and one to identify how you let water off the boat. Note that in this exercise, we’re not yet trying to avoid taking on water—instead starting with the premise that we inevitably take some on.

Identify where you take on water and how you let it off your boat:

  1. Reflect on your life and work over the past few months. It might help you to actually look back over your calendar or your to-do list to get a sense of the people you engaged with or projects you worked on. If your work has regular rhythms to it, think about the regular tasks you do and people you engage with.
  2. Make a list of when you felt like you were taking on water—when you felt overwhelmed or stressed or just too full. Taking on water can come from external forces or from within. Try to be specific. Examples might include: every time I talk to Jim at work all he does is complain. I leave feeling overwhelmed. Or, I took on water when I had to do those financial reports in a new way—that just doesn’t feel like my sweet spot. Or, we’ve got so many changing protocols at work and I’m expected to lead people through them when I don’t even understand them myself. Or, I’m learning more and more that my boss is racist, but I don’t know what to do. HR doesn’t seem like an option because people in power always win. It all leaves me feeling anxious and like I’ve taken on water.
  3. Now, reflect on the past month or so in your life beyond your work. Again, it might help to actually look back over your calendar or make a list of all the things you’ve spent your time doing, places you’ve been, or people you’ve seen.
  4. Again, make a list of when you felt like you were taking on water—when you felt overwhelmed or stressed or just too full. Try to be specific. Examples might include: I feel like I’m taking on water when I read election news or when I talk with a friend who lost his job. I feel like I’m taking on water when I see everyone in face masks. I know it’s the right thing, but it’s just so overwhelming.
  5. Now, make a list of actual things you do that help you feel like you’re getting water off the boat. These should be things you do that help you let go of feeling overwhelmed, de-stress, and center your focus. These can be habitual practices or things you do more sporadically. Examples might include: going for a jog, cooking a meal, talking with a friend, engaging in a 15-minute prayer meditation, or reading before bed.
  6. Compare your different lists. Are there themes in regards to what causes you to feel like you’re taking on water? Write these down and give them some space. Spend some time asking God to help you understand yourself better. Are there themes that emerge in regards to what helps you feel like you’re letting water off the boat? If it helps, talk this list through with a friend.
  7. Highlight or circle what feel like the three most pressing places you’re taking water on—whether in your work or personal life. Then, highlight or circle what feel like the three most effective ways you let water off your boat.
  8. Finally, commit to pair up ONE area where you’re taking on water with ONE area where you might let water off the boat. Examples might include: when I have a difficult conversation with a co-worker, I’ll go on a 15-minute walk with my headphones in to let water off the boat. Or, when I read the news and I’m discouraged, I’ll pray for what I read as a way to let it pass. Or, when I spend a frustrating day learning a new skill, I’ll have a mini dance party with my kids. Record your commitment and experiment with putting it into practice this week.
  9. Come back after a week and reflect on what happened. How might you modify what you did? What other places might you focus on next?

If you’re interested in going deeper with your internal work, consider applying for one of our Road Ahead cohorts where we create space for you to make spiritual sense of the season of work you’re in and discern next steps on the road ahead. At the heart of what this cohort invites you to do is consider the internal work God is calling you to do.

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Interested in other experiences that help cultivate inner work? Check out our Road Ahead groups by clicking the link below!

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Michaela O’Donnell

Mary and Dale Andringa Executive Director

Michaela is the Mary and Dale Andringa Executive Director Chair at the Max De Pree Center for Leadership. She is also an assistant professor of marketplace leadership and the lead professor for Fuller Seminary’s Doctor of Global Leadership, Redemptive Imagination in the Marketplace progr...

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