Fast Water

You don’t hit fast water on The River just one time. It happens over and over in your life. In a very real way, history will repeat itself—rapids appear, appear again, and on and on. This is the sort of repetition that is unavoidable as you move from past to present to future. It’s simply called “living.”

So am I saying that no fast water is ever truly new to you? Are all rapids just a rehash of old precedents in your life?

No and no. 

I suggest this: about 80% of the fast water you face at any particular point will look like fast water you’ve encountered before. That leaves roughly 20% of it as totally new to your experience.

What that means is the rapids around you—splashing water into your canoe, jostling you from side to side, challenging you and demanding a reaction this very second—are both a form of continuity (the 80%) and a form of change (the 20%). But to you, in the moment, the most compelling feature is the change by itself. That overwhelms any sense, or most of the sense, you could feel in reliving again what you’ve already lived through before.

And by either refusing to understand the continuity or by not having the time to reflect because of the demands of the moment, you are effectively surrendering 80% of your overall experience—the accumulation of knowledge, actions, and more—and narrowing the resources you might have used in navigating the rocks, snags, and spraying water ahead.

Let’s look at George Marshall as an example.



In 1917 Marshall is a young officer in the U.S. Army. The prior year he was so disgruntled that he considered resigning and entering civilian life. Instead, with the onset of American entry into the Great War (as World War I was called then), Marshall experienced a rapid ascent in his military career.

Part of that ascent involved gaining amazing skills and experience at working with partner-nations on the highest levels of military policy. Marshall’s role as a key aide to the commander of the American Expeditionay Force (the AEF) exposed him to the realities of dealing with generals and politicians in both France and Great Britain. He also saw the difficulties in forging and executing strategy that required multiple partners to execute.

These were fast waters of the toughest sort.

Go twenty years into the future, twenty years Down River in George Marshall’s life. By the late 1930s he’s still in the U.S. Army and has just received the biggest promotion and responsibility of his life, as President Franklin Roosevelt’s chief military advisor in the Army. And once more, the prospect of a multi-national coalition fighting a German-led enemy alliance has reared its ugly head.

Fast waters are back again. 80% like before with essentially the same sides squared off against each other, the presence of representative democracies, and the return to old locales from the earlier war. 20% new because of advancements in weaponry, the decisions and approaches of German leaders, and mountain-sized economic depression and public suspicion toward international wars.

In navigating the fast water of World War II, George Marshall drew on his experience of 1917-1918. He also devised new techniques and methods for 1941-1945 that he hadn’t considered two decades before.

He emerged from World War II as one of the most respected and revered figures of what would later be called the Greatest Generation.

The fast water in your life will almost certainly stand among your strongest memories. Make sure that you take the time to remember them the next time you see a rapids in the distance. Both points are true—you’ve been here before, and you’ll see something new.