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Row Your Boat: A Metaphor for Determining the Direction of Your Life

Row Your Boat: A Metaphor for Determining the Direction of Your Life


By Dr. Marie Gould Harper
Program Director, Management at American Public University

My local Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) TV station once ran a segment on Dr. Wayne Dyer, one of my favorite motivational speakers. Dr. Dyer uses a childhood nursery rhyme, “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” to reflect on how we should view our lives and pace ourselves. Blogger Daphne Shadows also sees the nursery rhyme as a positive metaphor for life.

Row, row, row your boat, gently down (not up) the stream.
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream.

According to Dr. Dyer, the boat is symbolic of your life. We go through life rowing upstream or downstream. Rowing represents the steps and pace we take to move from Point A to Point B.

Where Do You Want to Go in Your Life?

Although life inevitably throws us some curveballs, we have the ultimate choice to decide in which direction we want to go. As the nursery rhyme says, we can choose to go “gently down the stream” or we can take the tough row upstream.

Also, the first line of the nursery rhyme mentions “your” boat. What does that mean? It means stay in your lane and row your own boat, not someone else’s.

Focus on your personal journey. If you master this process, you can navigate through life peacefully as you arrive at your final destination, the realization of your dreams.

Also, don’t worry about what is going on in someone else’s boat. By allowing others to row their boats, you give them the opportunity to freely make their own life choices.

‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat’ Nursery Rhyme Provides Other Meaningful Metaphors

The boat is your life, and the stream is a metaphor for the passage of time. Time waits for no one.

“Gently” refers to how you ought to go through life. Life is not a race. Children always want to grow up fast, but the nursery rhyme reminds us that life is to be lived gently. Enjoy the trip and live now, instead of focusing on what’s around the bend in the stream.

“Merrily” in this nursery rhyme should stand for our attitude toward life. Are we positive or negative? Do we see the glass as half full or half empty?

“Life is but a dream” represents our outlook on life. Is our life a dream or a nightmare? Although we cannot control the outcome of our lives, we do have choices along the way. Who are we and how do we react to events on a daily basis? Do they make or break us?

“Gently down the stream” represents our passage through life. Challenges will occur. Why not go through them, rather than avoiding or attempting to go around them? Mastering the challenges of life builds character and prepares us for future obstacles we might face.

“Rowing your boat” is the work you put into your life. Are you willing to learn, develop and actively participate in the process of living a happy life?

If you don’t row, you are living a life that isn’t going anywhere. For example, where is your career going? What are you doing to make your career move forward? Are you waiting for someone else to “row your boat?”

Row with people, not against, ahead or behind them. Although each person has a different dream for his or her life, teamwork can be a positive experience. We can all work together for the good of a common goal – living life to the fullest.

About the Author

Dr. Marie Gould Harper is the Program Director of Management at American Public University. She holds an undergraduate degree in psychology from Wellesley College, a master’s degree in instructional systems from Pennsylvania State University and a doctorate in business from Capella University. She is a progressive coach, facilitator, writer, strategist and human resources/organizational development professional with more than 30 years of leadership, project management and administrative experience. Dr. Gould Harper has worked in both corporate and academic environments.

Dr. Gould Harper is an innovative thinker and strong leader, manifesting people skills, a methodical approach to problems, organizational vision and an ability to inspire followers. She is committed to continuous improvement in organizational effectiveness and human capital development, customer service and the development of future leaders.



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