What getting stuck can teach you about moving forward

Paolo P. Mangahas

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'It’s oftentimes easy to get stuck after years of working in the same set-up. And it’s also easy to ignore this in most cases, primarily because you feel safe.'

Daylight was beginning to break into the horizon when I got out of bed. I was woken by the appetizing smell of toast, omelet, and smoked fish mixing with the sea breeze.

It was our first morning aboard the MV Navorca, WWF-Philippines’ research vessel, bobbing atop the renowned UNESCO World Heritage Site—Tubbataha Reefs. 

We spent around 10 hours the previous night traveling under a full moon from Puerto Princesa, Palawan to the middle of the Sulu Sea, where our floating home would stay anchored for the next two days. By this time, I had gotten used to the steady drone of the boat’s engine, which seemed to have lulled my colleagues into a deep slumber. I appreciated the solace nevertheless. It was a time to reflect. And so reflect I did. 

Doing this in the middle of the Coral Triangle and in one of the most successful marine protected areas celebrating its 25th year made it even more significant for me.

Embracing change

My colleagues and I were together for our annual team retreat to discuss the next phase of the WWF Coral Triangle program—an exercise I’ve taken with a bit of trepidation, not knowing what “next” would really mean or look like. Over the past several months, there have been talks about how our program would evolve into something different. But how different, no one really knew for sure.

Quite naturally, many practical questions were brewing in my head: Will we have the same team? Will I have the same boss? Will I have the same job? Will I live in the same country? What will I wear on the boat? Okay, maybe that last one wasn’t as hard-hitting as the rest, but this whole business of change was just completely knocking me off balance.

I’ve always been somewhat uneasy with change—the big ones at least. Uncertainty can be quite unnerving and can leave me feeling restless at times. I like being planned and strategic and knowing what to expect. I don’t mean to say, however, that I don’t welcome change because I do (and I have on countless occasions). Nonetheless, it doesn’t erase the fact that it can feel quite uncomfortable, which in essence is what change is really all about: taking a step out of one’s comfort zone and leaping into the unknown.

“That’s why we’re all going through this, to plot our next course and chart our future,” my intrepid boss assured me during one of our calls prior to this boat trip. “No one really knows what the future holds, so it’s up to us to shape it,” she stressed.

TEMPORARY HOME. The MV Navorca is home at sea. All photos by Paolo Mangahas

I mulled over this fact of life as I took in the first rays of light while the rest of the boat slept soundly.

“Okay, fine. I will once again embrace change and move on to the next adventure,” I told myself as I entered the rickety bathroom to take a shower before the day started with serious meetings and fun dives.  

Getting stuck

After getting dressed, I pulled the bathroom door but it wouldn’t swing open. I tried to pull harder, but it still wouldn’t budge. I then realized that the lever, which is used to keep the door from swinging open during rough seas, must have accidentally locked the door from the outside, trapping me inside the small bathroom.

“Holy Mother of Mercy,” I thought to myself as a chill went down my spine, realizing how I could be trapped in there for hours until one of my colleagues woke up—and that is, if they decided to take a shower in the first place (the toilet and shower were in separate stalls). The odds grew even slimmer as I also realized that it had to be a male person to take a shower, because the girl’s bathroom was on the other side.

Judging from the way the men on the boat slept and their seeming disinterest in fresh morning showers, I knew I was going to die, trapped in the shower stall forever, till my bones turned to dust. No one knew where I was. All I had was a small window to look out from and count the remaining years of my life through sunsets.

So there I was, contemplating about moving on to the next phase of my WWF career and yet I was physically trapped in the bathroom of a small boat in the middle of the Sulu Sea. Perfect.

I was literally stuck between a closed door and the deep blue sea. How’s that for a life metaphor?

God was obviously telling me something, but whatever it was, I couldn’t hear it because of the loud engine that drowned all my attempts to scream for help.

Leaping into the unknown

I had to quickly think of a solution (with the MacGyver theme song playing in my head). Should I wave my towel from out the window and call the attention of a patrol boat to signal our captain to come and get me? Should I ram the bathroom door? Should I figure out how to make a bomb out of soap and water? Should I keep shouting for help? Should I shampoo my hair again?

After singing a few renditions of Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” (the bathroom had great acoustics), I then decided to do the dangerous and unthinkable. I squeezed myself out of the small bathroom window and found myself dangling on the side of a fast-moving boat in shark-infested waters.

I couldn’t believe this was all happening to me before breakfast.

WINDOW TO FREEDOM. A view of the sea and freedom.

I climbed out of the window and balanced on the narrow ledge that lined the side of the boat. I then slowly inched my way from below the shower stall window, passing the toilet stall window, until I reached the hallway where I was finally able to climb back into the boat.

The whole time I was thinking that I probably looked like an illegal wildlife trader out to steal goods from a WWF vessel and was half expecting the Tubbataha Rangers to come and apprehend me. 

“Goodbye comfort zone,” I aptly told myself. It seemed like the adventure had already begun before I even knew it.

PERIL. Balancing on the ledge of the boat spells risk.

Taking the hard way out

It’s oftentimes easy to get stuck after years of working in the same set-up. And it’s also easy to ignore this in most cases, primarily because you feel safe. That is, until something incredible comes along and pushes you out of your rut whether you like it or not. And not very far from my own bathroom epiphany, sometimes we do need to take the hard way out to appreciate the many exciting opportunities that await us.

Whatever uncertainties I was grappling with at the beginning of this boat trip somehow got washed away by the tides, filling me instead with a deep sense of peace, knowing that all will be well no matter what happens.

Much like the WWF Coral Triangle program, I’m now ready to evolve into something even better.

And for safety’s sake, I sure hope it will never again involve dangling on the side of a speeding boat out in the open sea. –


This piece first appeared on on June 8, 2013. Paolo Mangahas is a Filipino writer who has published several essays on food, lifestyle, fashion, and social and environmental development in various publications in the Philippines and abroad. He currently resides in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, managing communications for a regional marine conservation program. Follow him on Twitter:

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