Student Life

10 Life Lessons Learned from Rowing

Choppy waters are inevitable in life. Life gets wild, and things become overwhelming. But we get to choose our response, and the best response tends to be maintaining calmness, operating as if it were any other day, and knowing that the choppy waters will eventually settle.
Written by Drake Turnquist

A graduate degree at MIT consists of more than classes and assignments. It’s an opportunity to explore new things, pick up a new hobby, and learn a new skill outside your professional field.  

You have access to hundreds of clubs and student organizations, from sports to photography to space exploration. As I explored clubs before arriving at MIT, I decided I wanted to try rowing. In addition to being a great workout, rowing is a quintessential New England activity, and I wanted to take part in the history of rowing crews on the Charles River.

In September, I joined MIT’s rowing club in its Learn to Row program,  joining seven others who had never been on the water.

In the months since I began rowing, I’ve reflected on what the sport has taught me. Here are ten lessons I’ve learned from the water that translate to daily life.

Life Consists of Ratio Shifts 

There are two parts to a rowing stroke: the catch, in which you drive the oar through the water, and the recovery, in which the oar is out of the water while you prepare for the next stroke. 

In a regular stroke, the time spent on the catch and recovery is the same; it’s a 1:1 ratio. But often, we would do a ‘ratio shift,’ taking twice as long on the recovery and then accelerating through the catch with more speed and power. 

In life, there will always be some split between time spent resting or recovering and time of intense drive, whether professionally, socially, or athletically. The ratio will change based on the life season you are in. A 2:1 recovery-to-intensity ratio may be okay at the end of a long project but not during finals week.

There is a time for recovery and intense drive—the important thing is knowing the balance; too much of either and the boat won’t keep moving forward, and in life, you won’t keep moving toward your goals. 

Accelerate at the End

From the start to the end of the stroke, pressure from the water decreases as the boat is propelled forward. As the pressure decreases, there are two options for finishing the stroke: ease up to start your recovery or increase the power to finish strong. 

While seemingly insignificant, the acceleration at the end of the stroke, when done repeatedly, can significantly affect the boat’s speed. 

When a task or project nears its end, it’s easy to let up—the work is mostly done. But setting a standard of accelerating through the end of a project, task, or program will set you apart (it’s also a good reminder for me as I look to the last six weeks of our program).

The Team That’s Most Together Wins

Rowing is the ultimate team sport. The level of synchronization required to excel at rowing is more significant than any other sport I’ve experienced.

There is a multiplicative factor of everyone working together in unison. As eight oars catch and drive simultaneously, the boat builds momentum.

Similarly, project teams working on any task in total unison outperform a group of stronger individuals who aren’t in sync. While each person has a unique role, discussed next, everyone must be aligned and moving together toward the common goal.

Excel at Your Role and Try New Roles

Each seat in the boat has a specific job. The two in the front are setting the rhythm and stroke rate, ensuring a good rhythm. The two in the back ensure the boat is ‘set,’ not wobbling from side to side. The middle four are the ‘engine,’ focused on applying maximum pressure to drive the boat forward. 

The days I rowed in the first two seats weren’t the most fun. Instead of focusing on only rowing powerfully, I had to ensure the pace was correct and concentrate much more on stroke rate (strokes per minute) than pure power. But having a good stroke pace benefits the rest of the boat.

High-performing teams work the same way. There is trust in each member that they will perform their role to help the team excel. Sometimes, you may be on a team that requires you to sacrifice what you are best for a role that benefits the team. But think of this as part of your personal growth, developing skills outside your comfort zone.

Commit to Something Larger

There is a deep dedication to the other seven rowers in the boat. On the boat, you row for the others next to you, not yourself. Everyone must have the exact timing and pressure for every stroke. Relaxing for a stroke isn’t an option; you have seven other people you are accountable to.

Whether it’s family, a volunteer organization, or some other group, find something that requires deep commitment towards those around you. It’s a deeply fulfilling experience to be counted on and to count on others.   

Small Adjustments Make a Big Difference

Like a reinforcing feedback loop (which you learn all about in course 15.873—System Dynamics ), small changes can have significant positive or negative effects.

A slight adjustment in the placement of the oar can tip the boat to one side, causing ripple effects throughout the rest of the ship. A tiny shift from equilibrium can throw the whole boat off. 

When this happens, the answer isn’t to over adjust; it’s to make another small change to correct course. Overcorrecting pushes the boat further out of balance, creating more issues.

On the other hand, a few small positive changes can significantly improve the boat’s performance.

Life isn’t about grand life changes. It’s about the daily minor adjustments that, when made over a long period, accumulate to improve the quality of life.

Go Fast, But Be in Control

This is the key to rowing. Being fast and out of control is a recipe for disaster. But being fast, smooth, and in control is a recipe for beautiful rowing. 

The same can be said for many areas of life. Operate quickly and urgently, but maintain control; otherwise, you risk going off the rails.

Let the Water Move You – Go with the Flow

The boat has ‘run’ when you are recovering. It glides through the water as it naturally pulls you towards the front of the boat, preparing you for the next stroke.

When we tried to move ourselves up to the start of the following stroke rather than letting the boat’s movement naturally glide us up, we would struggle, and the ship would start rocking. 

Move with, rather than against, external or environmental factors. Don’t fight things outside your control; use them to your advantage. 

Be Calm in the Choppy Waters

At the beginning of learning to row, when the water got rough and choppy, we would get antsy and respond to every movement of the boat. 

But what’s the best response to choppy water? Nothing but calmness and rowing like its smooth water. 

On the days we rowed best, it was almost like we ignored the choppiness around us. We focused solely on our stroke, which bred calmness and confidence in operating under chaotic situations. 

Choppy waters are inevitable in life. Life gets wild, and things become overwhelming. But we get to choose our response, and the best response tends to be maintaining calmness, operating as if it were any other day, and knowing that the choppy waters will eventually settle.

Discipline Pays Off 

Waking up at 5:30 a.m. to walk to the boat house in the darkness and cold New England weather isn’t always fun. It takes discipline and a commitment to becoming a little better every day.

But it’s worth it. The discipline pays off tenfold, on and off the water, molding you into someone who chooses to pursue excellence in whatever endeavor you undertake.

Plus, you get to see some incredible sunrises from the water.