Paul Buffalo and the Lake

Life wisdom from a Chippewa Indian

I grew up on an Indian reservation in the lake country of northern Minnesota, not too far from the Canadian border. In a land of “10,000 lakes,” our county alone accounted for 1,000 of them. Seriously. Its a geological bog, and up there, one will find more water than land. The headwaters of the Mississippi River are not too far from where I grew up, and you can actually step across the small stream of the headwaters as it exits Lake Itasca on its long journey to the Gulf of Mexico. That small trickle, however, turns into a quarter-mile wide river by the time it runs by my hometown.

As I was growing up, one of the only remaining chiefs of the Ojibwa (Chippewa) Indian tribe, Paul Buffalo, used to counsel me about life. He was ancient. No one-not even Paul-knew exactly how old he was. We figured that he must have been close to a hundred years old. He used to just hang-out and trade stories for burgers at our family restaurant where I worked as a teenager. I remember how he would point toward the river and deliver bits of Indian wisdom that went way over my young head.  It was as if he was planting seeds that would sprout just when I needed them in order to get through certain stages of life. The one I remember most vividly was when Paul compared the Mississippi river to the journey of life.

“When you are young,” he said, “you are like a river that moves fast and reckless, but has little depth. You don’t realize that the reason you feel so strong, focused, and full of energy is because the river banks are high and narrow, keeping the water rushing in one direction. But, later on in life, you will eventually empty into the lake. When that happens, you will slow down as the water moves around the edge of the lake and eventually swirls somewhere into the middle, almost motionless, and without direction. You will seem to be stuck in a deep body of water, sitting almost motionless, for what seems like forever. But, in your own time, you will slowly start to pick up speed, moving with a sense of force and direction as you exit the other side of the lake, once again becoming a rushing river.”

The Lake of Transition

Paul wanted me to understand (between bites of food) that the very same river water that emptied into the lake earlier will once again begin moving. It didn’t disappear. It just slowed down and “went deep” for a period of time. It must have been the look on my 16 year old face, because Paul said, “You’re not getting this, are you? Look. Life will, when you least expect or want it to, empty you into the lake. It will feel like you are lost, swirling, and without direction. But don’t worry because, just like the river, you will start moving again. Not a drop of water will be lost. Even though it will feel like a crisis or something weird, its not. It’s a natural time of transition in life and everyone goes through it, but not everyone understands it (evidently, Indians understood it pretty well). Here’s the deal. If you get spooked and make knee-jerk decisions during the “lake” times in your life, you will miss one of life’s great opportunities. Even more confused, I said, “Let’s see if I understand this (since I had just learned about “metaphors” in English, I was pretty sure I was on to something here), I’m like the river and for a period of time in my life (probably while I’m young) I will feel pretty focused and productive. Then one day, when I’m not expecting it (probably when I’m my father’s age) I will lose motivation, energy, and feel lost? How can that be one of life’s “great opportunities?!?”

Lake Opportunity

Paul was a pretty patient guy. Most Chippewa’s were. Besides that, he was retired and had nothing else to do but fish and eat burgers at our restaurant. He lowered his cup of coffee, looked at me and said, “You won’t get this for another 40 years, but when you get dumped into one of life’s lakes, you will have an opportunity to reinvent yourself. The lake experience is a time of reevaluating your past, present and future, and deciding what you want to be different. If you didn’t get dumped into the lake once in awhile, you wouldn’t take the time to evaluate where your life is going and if you wanted to change directions. You would just keep flowing like a river until you get to the end of your life and then wonder if things could have been different. By that time its too late. That’s why the “lake” experience is a good thing, because it makes you stronger and wiser.” It was good advice.

As I have grown older, I have not found myself remembering the wisdom of graduate school professors, but more often, reviving wisdom from an ancient Chippewa Indian chief who shared burgers with me as a kid. It’s the kind of wisdom leaders need today as we approach the various “lakes of transition” in our lives. If you are a leader who is between the age of 45 and 60, I’d like get your attention for a few minutes, because many of us are about to be emptied into a huge lake and we need to be  prepared for it.

The Big Lake that’s coming

In the next twenty years 75 million people born between the years of 1946 and 1964 could find themselves drifting into their own personal version of the “lake.” and  feel the need to reinvent or reorganize themselves for the second half of their adult lives. They might feel adrift as if their lives have become meaningless, bored, and without direction. But they will also realize that they are no where close to wanting to either retire or close down the shop. They will be in the lake that Paul Buffalo was talking about. If you are a man or woman who is between 45 and 60 years of age and are in reasonably good health, your chance of living to the ages of 85-90 is very good. Today’s nutritional and medical technologies are 100 times more effective than that of your parents. If your parents have lived past 75, they are one of the lucky ones. Barring some sort of accident, if you die at 75, you will be one of the unlucky ones. What this means is this: God willing and a willingness on your part to take care of your health, you could easily have another 25 (if you are 60) or 40 (if you are 50) years of life ahead of you. Did you get that? I you are like most of our clients, it takes a moment for the significance of this to settle in.

Okay. Think back 25 years. How old were you? Where did you live? What was life like? What were your dreams, philosophy of life, and major goals? If you are having a hard time remembering “that far back,” then you are starting to get a picture of just how much life you have yet to live! That’s probably how long you have already been working in your career. That’s also enough time for another career. If any of this is making sense, then you are probably getting it. If you are somewhere in your late forties to late fifties, you are only somewhere around the half-way point in your life, and if you are thinking about that magic age of 65 as the time of life where you are going to kick-back and do “nothing,” you will be doing “nothing” for about 20 to 30 years!  If you’re cool with that, then I hope you are both financially good for another two decades or more, and not easily bored.

Let’s say, though, that Paul Buffalo was right, and that this mid-life lake we are headed for is really an opportunity and not a crisis. I think old Paul would ask this question: “Since you have enough time ahead of you for another career, and you are a darn-site smarter now than you were when you entered your first career, how would you like to reinvent yourself for the most productive years of your life?” This is an interesting thought: “I have the opportunity to reinvent myself; and the years that are coming up could be the most productive years of my life!”  This is the time to do what you have always wanted to do, to re-discover your passion, establish a new mission, and cast a new vision for the second half of your life. Have fun!

Steve Johnson, The True North Group, Puget Sound