Tuesday, August 11, 2015

It ain't luck - it's hard work.

I read a comment the other day directed at a friend of mine. He’s a full-time professional kayak instructor, something I used to be (I only teach part-time these days). It was meant as a compliment and went something like this: ‘you’re so lucky – you get paid to play in boats all day’. It’s a sentiment I’ve heard many times, and while I know it’s always coming from someone trying to be appreciative and nice, it never sits well with me. It often comes with a follow-up sigh and 'I wish I could do that' - suggesting they have too many responsibilities or lack the 'luck' needed to enjoy what they do for a living.

First, not even professional kayakers get paid for paddling. They get paid to film their exploits, to talk about their sponsors, to show up at events and perform well. Instructors get paid to teach. On the same stretch of water over and over again, always holding themselves back so others can play. Skipping that play wave because the students aren't ready for it, staying away from that pourover because it's too intimidating. In advanced classes they might get to let loose a little, but the consequences are more severe and it requires an even keener attention to safety.

I’m not saying they don’t enjoy it. They most certainly do. But teaching is a lot of responsibility. They’re looking after the safety of their students, often in very dynamic and challenging environments. They’re watching everybody and everything, and have to deal with frightened newbies, over-confident intermediates, outside boat traffic, changing weather conditions, physical injuries, and a myriad of other considerations that affect the day. They’re doing their best to read the emotions and responses of their class and adapt their game plan to best achieve the desired result: happy students.

And that’s the fun part of the job. Because if they’re making a living doing that, whether it’s running their own kayak school or working full time for someone else, they have to be doing a lot of work behind the scenes. The money might exchange hands during the class, but what they’re getting paid for includes web design, boat repairs, location permit applications, class scheduling, curriculum design, marketing and advertising, and all the little things that add up to a ton of work to run a successful business. They don’t have an off-season, they have an off-the-water season.

And you could do it too if you wanted. That's the other part that rubs me wrong: the idea that us instructors were either blessed with some rare gift to be able to teach or made some choice to abandon their normal responsibilities to live a care-free existence on the water. It often comes from those who have high-paying jobs that they complain about. There's a hint of jealousy in their voice. But those who say it have a life filled with choices and opportunities, so to suggest that someone else has something you want, and they're lucky for having it, when you could have the same if you were willing to work as hard as they did, comes off as a little dismissive.

I know a lot of professional instructors. Some of the best in the business. There aren’t really that many of them because it’s a very difficult thing to make a living at. I can tell you for certain that none of them got where they are today through luck. Maybe they got some lucky breaks in life – we all do – but to get to the point where you can earn a living through teaching kayaking takes years of hard work and dedication. They've earned their job.

And I’m not talking about kayaking skills. It does take time and effort to get those too, but that is the fun part. I know a lot more expert kayakers than professional instructors, and both groups deserve credit for developing their skills to a point where they can kayak hard rivers or play big in the ocean. But most of those paddlers don’t have the skills to be great instructors. They might have the abilities, they often have the potential, but you only get to be a great instructor by working very hard at the quite separate skills that go into teaching as opposed to kayaking.

The great instructors you know have taken classes on how to teach. They’ve spent years and often lots of money acquiring high levels of certification. They think about how to improve while they’re off the water and talk about it with other instructors. Most importantly, they’ve taken time away from going out kayaking ‘for fun’ to teach other people how to kayak. Teaching certainly can be as fun and rewarding as kayaking, but it's in a different way. The joy of paddling is a very personal thing you experience through your own actions. The joy of teaching comes from your students. You can teach the hell out of a subject, nail all your demos and find the perfect venue for a skill – but none of that matters if your students aren't enjoying themselves and learning.

Luck isn’t what gets you to that point. It takes a conscious decision to dedicate yourself to helping others learn about the sport. Turning down fun paddling trips because you have a job to do. Paddling more class II than any beginner ever has and spending countless hours paddling painfully slow on flat water so the students can keep up. Not to mention the time spent in cold water demo-ing rescues or helping braces. Lifting boats, attaining up-river, sharing your gear, and smiling at the end of a twelve hour day. No one wins the instructor-lottery and is instantly handed the tools and desire it requires to inspire other people and safely introduce them to our wonderful sport.

Most people are kind and genuinely want to compliment their instructors. They do see the skills and are thankful for the help and effort that instructors put in. So the next time you’re taking a class from one of these hard-working and generous individuals, feel free show your appreciation. Tell them they have a great website. Help them unload gear. Make sure to return that beanie you borrowed when you got cold. Maybe compliment the choices they’ve made in their life to get to that point. Don't confuse what they do with playing around. Don’t tell them they’re lucky - they already know that.


  1. My wife and I were discussing what it will be like in in heaven the other day. We have a deep Christian faith. She thinks we will have to work in heaven doing things we enjoy. As an artist she said, "I will be painting and you will be loading kayaks."