Autonomy and resilience are important parts of good leadership and self-awareness.
Every day, we encounter things that impact us, events that are controllable, and others that are uncontrollable. By becoming aware of our strengths and weaknesses, we can evaluate these positive and negative forces and choose how we respond. We can realize that we have autonomy and resilience in dealing with daily situations.
One way we can do that is with the sailboat exercise.
The sailboat exercise
The idea of the sailboat exercise* is to help you develop more autonomy and realize that you are “the captain of your own ship.” The exercise can help you see that you alone control your thoughts, your beliefs, and your actions and reactions. You alone can change your behavior. You can find your course and how you react to life’s changes and stresses. You can choose how to behave in a way that supports your personal values.
Effective coping is like a sailboat that stays on course despite stormy weather, or one that gets back on course after high winds. Dwelling on the past and on negative situations is like looking at the wake behind the boat rather than what’s ahead.
Sailing your boat
- Think about a sailboat sailing on the Chesapeake Bay. There are many elements. The sails, the compass, the water, the weather, other boats, the steering wheel, and the destination. Some of these are external to us (the water, the weather, and other boats). Others are internal.
- Imagine the water as life. You’re sailing along. Fierce winds come up. What do you do? How do you steer the boat and react to those strong winds? Do you change course entirely or remain calm and make small adjustments to be sure you’re headed the way you want to go? How can you keep on course, work towards what is personally meaningful in your life, and live your values?
- Are there any leaks in your boat, any factors that are hindering your goal achievement and well-being? This might include patterns of negative thinking that produce feelings of fear, anxiety and stress. They might be factors that de-energize you, resulting in mediocre performance and feelings of negativity and disengagement. The leaks get in the way of your thriving.
- How are the sails? These are your personal strengths that increase your well-being and goal achievement. They are your positive traits, behaviors, thoughts, and feelings that are authentic, affirming, and energizing. Examples include effective coping strategies, optimism, acceptance, and enthusiasm.
- The compass is used for navigation and shows us our direction relative to the environment. It supplies information and feedback on where we’re headed. It might show us that we’re reaching the edge of our comfort zone.
- The weather is an outside force that we cannot control, just like positive and negative events in our life. Although some circumstances are completely beyond our control, they can have a significant impact on our well-being, depending on how we deal with them.
- The water is influenced by circumstances around us, many of which are uncontrollable. Events we cannot control, and the negative influences of other people can affect us. The waters can become rough. But, we can choose to sail in a different direction and choose to live in alignment with our values. We can deliberately alter the course of our boat which will be like sailing into new waters.
- Other boats can be the people that surround us, our social network. Others can influence us in both positive and negative ways. It’s important that we consider how we can stay true to our own values and direction, rather than allowing others to control our course.
Ingredients for well-being
For your well-being to increase, you need to do more than just understand the parts of the boat metaphor. If you become aware that your boat is sailing in a direction that does not support and enhance your personal well-being, you must act and turn the wheel in a different direction.
Becoming aware of your strengths is important, but it’s not enough to improve your life. You must commit to behavioral changes that allow your strengths to shine. What change in your thinking or behavior can you make tomorrow that will have a positive impact on your life? It might be rethinking your commitment to a personal relationship or choosing to act differently in your work.
All the elements of the boat require attention. If you find a leak that’s causing damage to your boat, and you repair it, that leak area may still be under pressure. It will require attention. You’ll need to check it and make sure the seal is holding. In life, you’ll have to reflect and continue to work on your weaknesses. It’s not just one patch and it’s done.
Through effort, challenging yourself, working on your strengths, dealing with failures, and taking risks, you can increase your well-being and your boat can sail faster and further.
Spend your time and effort on elements you can control and learn how to better deal with the uncontrollable and painful elements. It’s worth your time and effort.
Find a lighthouse
We all need a wider viewpoint at some moments in life, a way to see beyond our current circumstances and help us build awareness.
Find someone you trust to serve as your lighthouse—-such as a good friend, mentor, or coach—who can aid you in your navigation. This person can help you achieve your aspirations, increase awareness of your strengths, avoid potential pitfalls, and be a temporary aid and chief encourager as you work through your life’s journey.
*Alberts, H.J.E.M. (2016). The Sailboat. Maastricht: Positive Psychology Program.