According to a study published in APS journal Psychological Science, after receiving an unappealing prize for hard work, a six-year-old kid will hold on to it. Whereas a four-year-old kid who works hard for an unappealing reward will detach themselves from that reward by giving it away. The six-year-old, says the study, “tend to employ a cognitive strategy to accommodate the knowledge that they worked hard to earn an unattractive reward.” They revalue the reward based on how difficult it was to earn it. The four-year-old doesn’t perform that metal jump and sees the prize as it is: not worth it. In this way, six-year-old kids function more like adults, and for the three years I ran a sea kayak guiding business I was like the six-year-old.
It was the perfect job. The second summer I lived in Grand Marais, I got a job guiding sea kayaking. I would wake up in the morning, head to work, haul kayaks to the beach, give a quick lesson to 8 to 10 people and then we’d go out paddling. We’d either explore small sea caves and go to a rock that looked like George Washington’s profile or we’d paddle to a replica, albeit tiny, Statue of Liberty. After landing on the beach, I’d clean the wetsuits, haul kayaks up to the racks and call the day.
During that time, I earned my ACA Level 2 Coast Kayaking Instructor Certification. The company I worked for only paid for Level 1, but the Instructor Trainer recognized that my skills were higher than that and said he would have liked to give me a Level 3, but he couldn’t because the course wasn’t long enough. Of course, this was before there were levels in the ACA system.
I paddled five days a week for work and then paddled on days off. When the surf was up, we’d cancel trips and head to the river mouth at the resort for some surfing. We called it “professional development.” It felt more like fun when trying paddlefloat rescues in 3-foot surf and catching waves. We had many adventures, such as when the 11-year-old girl, whose parents lied about her age shouted at the top of her lungs, “Daddy. Daddy. My legs are asleep make me a doctors appointment.” We had “epic” fun such as when on a two-guide tour with 10 boats on the water, we had four capsizes all at once, then a tow and a capsized tow. We got to watch yard-sale surf landings. We met many people who said the highlight of their trips was kayaking on Lake Superior. We also encouraged people to take up kayaking. One of my students eventually became an instructor. For years, my summers were perfect. I wasn’t earning much money guiding (and the tips at the resort which gave away the trips to their guest for free were absolutely pathetic — I made much, much more guiding trips when people paid for their trips), but I also wasn’t 100% dependent on a guiding job for income so the lack of good pay didn’t detract from the experience and fun.
Eventually, after leaving for an expedition, I realized that maybe I needed to make more money and the resort and I couldn’t come up with a good salary for me, so I left. I got a job offer to set up a new store in town, took it and then quit after the owner yelled at me for not doing someone else’s job in his other business while pounding his fist and saying, “I pay your checks.” I told him to shove his check up his ass. Later, he was arrested for prostitution, so I was glad to have left when I did. After that I figured I was out of the sea kayaking business for good. It had been 15 years either selling sea kayaks and outdoor gear or guiding trips. I figured that was a good run.
But, I had this idea floating around in my head from years back that I should start a sea kayaking business that was trailer based, operated by meeting the paddlers at the destination’s launch point, and maybe had beach space in the harbor. Low overhead. Low work. High fun! A year later, I started my own sea kayak guiding company.
With only $250 spent on advertisement and equipment bought with money from my savings account (actually made over several years from affiliate links and advertising on this website, so thanks!), I launched the season. I rented beach space and had a good season. I paid off the equipment and ended the season with more money in the bank that I had put into the business. I didn’t really need a paycheck because photography was paying my bills, so I didn’t draw any money.
The next year, I sold off the unstable boats, bought new equipment, an extra trailer and hired two contract employees — and good friends. We had a good year. I paid off all the equipment, had money left over in the bank, paid my contractors and and significantly expanded the business while only spending $100 on advertisement. On a personal level, I felt my skills grow and mature. And I earned my ACA L4 Open Water Coastal Kayaking Instructor certification.
Year three started off with a bang. I hired one of my contractors as a full-time employee. She guided almost five days a week and I guided almost five days a week. And my better half helped out when we needed her to. We had two trailers and were always running trips. Some of the trips were large, but I had purchased a bunch of tandems to handle the expected increase. Each trailer could handle 8 participants and I rented kayaks from a friendly outfitter in town when I needed more. Money was pouring in, things were paid off and there was money in the bank. I still hadn’t taken a draw because I didn’t need it.
At the end of that summer, I was exhausted and wanted nothing to do with sea kayaking. The business was growing and for the fourth year could have supported two full-time employees plus myself. I’d need to buy a new vehicle and trailer and more kayaks to meet the expected demand. And it seemed like our multi-day trips were about to take off based on the number of emails I fielded, so I’d need to find a person who could take off to guide week-long trips.
But, there were downsides. The work was extremely hard. I was routinely working 12 to 14 hour days, 7 days a week. The reservations were ringing the phone off the hook, so if I guided a tour, I’d have five or so calls to return at the end of the day. Cleaning and organizing equipment fell on my shoulders, and because we were trying to get by with one vehicle (two now and then), I’d have to move the trailer for the other guide before doing my trip and haul it off the beach at the end of the day. And don’t get me started on the accounting and payroll paperwork. Even though I used an online payroll service, keeping track of everything that the government(s) required and wanted and the surveys they send out randomly was overwhelming for someone trying to do it on his own. Paperwork was calf high and piling up. There would have been enough money to hire an accounting company the following year, but that was taking a cut. And while there was money to spare, I wasn’t sure it would be worth it. I’m not even going to mention all the harassment I received from my old boss. I never knew what my former boss was going to pull next, so it was stressful.
I spent the winter between year three and what would be year four debating whether or not to continue. But, I had worked so hard that I decided I should soldier on. And I almost did…
But I decided to get out of the business.
After I got out of the business, people would ask me why, and I’d say because my photography business was making more money (which it was), that I lost money in photography because of the kayaking (which I did), that I could increase my photography business by more than I would lose from getting rid of the kayaking business (which was true), that I had a house to remodel (which I still do), that I wanted to spend time with my newly born kid (and I’m so glad that I have the extra time with him while he grows up). All were 100% true, but I had a realization that made me get out of the business.
I realized that holding on to something only because I had worked so hard at it in the past made no sense for the future when the overall reward wasn’t high. While there were plenty of great times, the work was disproportionate to the reward, and it seemed that the more the company grew and the more money it made, the less rewarding it was to me. And what reward was there wasn’t all that desirable. Before I gave it up, I was like the six-year-old in the cited study. I was hanging on to something with little value only because I had put so much work into building it.
Luckily, I had an easy way out. If I wasn’t a photographer, I would have had to continue on with the sea kayaking business. I have a friend who did that even when it didn’t seem enjoyable to him. He eventually went bankrupt and is now enjoying life.
If the reward isn’t worthwhile even though it took hard work to get it, it’s best to think like a four-year-old and get out.
And now I get to paddle solely for fun again. It has been a blast!