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You Have to Be First at the River to Get a Drink

While on vacation in the Serengeti Plains of Africa, I sat on a riverbank for three hours watching a herd of wildebeest (or gnu) build up the courage to drink from the water. This herd was part of the Great Migration that happens like clockwork every summer. More than 1,000,000 wildebeest move northward from the arid Serengeti into the wetlands of the Masai Mara.

The migration is a long, dry and arduous journey. Frequently the only available water is the Grumeti River. Crisscrossing the wildebeest migration route through the Serengeti, the Grumeti represents both life and death to the herds. Unlike some creatures that can take their moisture from the grass they eat, the wildebeest must drink from the river to live. Although they can survive up to five days without water, they try to drink twice a day.

The Life-or-Death Challenge of the Great Migration

Hot from the sun, thirsty from the effort and dry from the dust, the animals arrive at the river. They must drink to survive. Yet the river supports other life, such as scrub brush, trees and fresh, sweet grass along its banks. Some of that life such as the brush provides cover for predators that present a danger to the wildebeest.

Lions wait until the herd is stretched thin, then charge, trapping a gnu with its back to the river. The other wildebeest stampede, raising a dust cloud that obscures the view of those closest to the lions. A kill is almost guaranteed.

Where the water is still enough to form drinking pools, large crocodiles lurk just beneath the surface or sun themselves on the approaches. One day I watched 28 crocodiles feast on an unlucky gnu. Another day a gnu escaped the crocodiles with only lacerations and a broken leg – probably to fall victim to lions later that evening.

Sometimes the rushing water itself presents the danger. The massive weight of the herd may push the leading animals into the current, where they drown or get swept into the jaws of a crocodile.

To Drink or Not to Drink – The Dance of the River Crossing

The wildebeest seem to be aware of these horrific possibilities as they approach a low spot, ideal for crossing or drinking. Animals at the leading edge of the herd inch up to the bank. Individual gnus step forward tentatively, sniff the air, make their distinctive, plaintive “gnu” sound and step back. This dance continues for hours. The herd, smelling water, bunches up behind these “leaders,” gradually nudging them toward the water, whether they want to go or not. If it’s been a long time since the herd last drank, you feel their desperation. Yet the dance goes on.

On the day I watched for three hours, a young gnu finally stepped ahead of the herd and started drinking. Was it innocence and ignorance of the danger that moved this young gnu into the water or was it simply thirst?

The fearful adults held back until the herd pushed them forward and a number of them began drinking. Moments later the surging masses shoved one gnu further into the water than it was willing to go. It panicked and in turn panicked the others. They all retreated quickly from the water and returned to the migration. Only those that had been brave enough to be at the leading edge of the herd in the first place got a drink. The others, more fearful or perhaps simply mired in the pack, went thirsty.

What kept the rest of the gnus from drinking? Did they know too much? Were they too afraid? Or were they simply too comfortable in the relative safety of the middle of the herd? Whatever the answer, only a few animals got to drink at that crossing.

In ritualistic fashion twice each day the wildebeest line up at the nearest river crossing to start the process all over again. Another afternoon I watched a smaller herd stand on a cliff 30 feet above the river. The vertical drop kept them from reaching their goal. But just 100 yards upstream lay a shallow crossing they could have easily reached. Instead of moving toward their goal, they stood on the cliff, moaning and bleating over the water they couldn’t reach.

Lessons from the Wildebeest – Take a Risk to Satisfy Your Thirst

Are you kin to the wildebeest? What keeps you bound to the herd and thirsty for the water of success? Is it fear of the unknown, what might be in the bushes? Or are you lulled by meaningless daily rituals that take you no further toward your life or career goals?

Successful people are risk-takers. They are the ones who get to the river, drink and, admittedly, sometimes get eaten. All of life is risk. When you drive onto the freeway, step into your facility, enter a grocery store or eat in the hospital cafeteria, you face a risk that you won’t return home. In the words of T.S. Eliot, “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find how far one can go.”

Lots of people want to get their lives back and do something different. Instead, they stand just out of reach of the water of success, watching others drink while they go thirsty.

Don’t let your fears hold you back. Don’t wait for the momentum of others to push you forward. You must commit to act. The consequences of your action or inaction are in your hands. Only you have the power to start your new life. One of my favorite quotes is from Katherine Mansfield: “Risk! Risk anything! Care no more for the opinion of others, for those voices. Do the hardest thing on earth for you. Act for yourself.” Take a risk – take a drink today and you’ll never be thirsty another day in your life.

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