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“Row the Boat”: A Philosophy for Living

While at a conference in Minnesota this week, my husband spotted a series of inspiring posters entitled “Row the Boat.” Of course, he snapped photos and sent them to me. Curious, I discovered that the act of rowing, the power of the oar, and paddling backward into an unknown future are all part of how P.J. Fleck, football coach for the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers began approaching life after the death of a newborn son in 2011.

P J. Fleck/Star Tribune

“Row the Boat,” Fleck later told the Twin Cities Pioneer Press, is “a never-give-up mantra….Your back is to the future, which is something you cannot control..You don’t know if there’s rocks, water falls, stormy seas, you don’t know what’s ahead of you. You’re rowing in the present, which is the only thing you can actually control, and the only thing you can actually have an impact on. You either choose to take your oars and put them back in the boat and stop, or you put them back in the water and continue to go.”

There’s more to his philosophy, some of which is spelled out on the posters. The oar, for instance, he calls your strength, your energy. the thing that moves you forward. With others in your life’s boat, the power of many is greater than the power of one.

The power of many oars is more than the power of one.

“Row your Boat” and the ideas behind it, are so compelling that when Fleck introduced it as coach at Western Michigan U. eight years ago, the university copyrighted it. But Fleck felt so strongly about the phrase and what it stood for that he spent $50,000 of his own money to retrieve the rights. Now, at Minnesota, images of boats and oars and the words “Row the Boat” have made it to Gopher helmets, t-shirts, coffee mugs, lapel pins, sweatshirts, and flags not to mention the posters my husband saw at the University of Minnesota Children’s Masonic Hospital on its Row the Boat wall. Launched with fanfare a year ago, the wall reflects the Gophers’ involvement with the children being cared for there and their shared spirit of determination.

“When I unveiled it,” Fleck said, “people kind of made fun of it, and people still do. But at the end of the day that’s always going to happen when you say here I am as a person and you share yourself with other people.”