Zero or One: An Overthinker’s Guide to Rafting and Life


“How’d it go for you?” Chan called across to my boat. “Ohhh,” I hedged, “I was a little farther left than I mea—”

“Zero or one?” Tanner emphatically interrupted. He was drifting between us in his Dagger RPM Max, long twin braids sticking out from the bottom of his helmet. “Huh?” I asked, confused.

“Zero or one. It’s binary. Which was it?”

Hesitantly I admitted, “A one?”

It felt foreign in my mouth. I was physically uncomfortable announcing my success in such a definitive way. I don’t think about success in a black-and-white way. I’m an overthinker, and I tend to subject even the good things I’ve done to the burden of my critique, twisting nuance or reflection to find where and how I could have—should have—done better.

“Darn right!” Tanner shouted before paddling off like the mystical (if slightly unhinged) sensei he would become.

I met Tanner five days before. He seemed normal when he showed up in my driveway in Boise. He was thoughtful and inquisitive on the drive to Flagstaff. When we got on the water, though, Tanner transformed. His boisterous personality eclipsed his 6’5” frame. On day two, he showed up at the chair circle wearing purple snake-skin dress shoes, a tie, and a tweed blazer. He even had a briefcase, which he clicked open to reveal a stash of Coors Banquets. I was never certain when he was joking; Tanner either had me staring in disbelief or in stitches.

In many ways, Tanner and I are opposites. To start, I’m only 5’4”, and costumes make me self-conscious. He embodies several characters, seamlessly interchanging between them. I am painfully myself. He is fun and funny. I am serious. Tanner is not worried about much. I am worried about everything. This is why, at the bottom of House Rock Rapid, the first major rapid on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, I was bent on a robust analysis of my line.

I had wanted my downstream ferry angle to slice our boat toward the right shore to avoid the chompy mess of hydraulics on the left. We did not come as close to the shore as I had optimistically hoped. Instead, we flirted with the waves coming off the hydraulics. We weren’t in danger of flipping, but it was the most on edge we’d been yet; my heart had lurched as we instinctively leaned toward the high side. After the rapid, I felt I had failed because it wasn’t perfect. With Tanner’s assessment strategy, it was. It was a one: a victory.

“I like that,” Hailey mused from the bow of my boat. “There’s no in-between. What counts as success suddenly gets a whole lot bigger.”

As I pondered this, my heart started to feel a little less tight. My brain wanted to replay the moment we rose up on our right edge. You could have pivoted your boat angle to the left, then we could have hit the wave straight, I thought.

Instead of detailing what went wrong, Tanner’s question forced me to look at the big picture. Was everybody safe? Yep. Were we upright? Sure were. So, what was I all bent out of shape about? What if going up on our edge and not flipping was fun instead of bad? I mean, at the very least, even my brain could admit it was exhilarating.

Changing how I measure success certainly isn’t a one-trip fix, but Tanner’s “Zero or One” paradigm planted the seeds for a significant reframe. Our 30-day trip offered ample time to practice.

Hailey, Courtney, and I shared my boat from Lee’s Ferry to Phantom Ranch. We were a boat full of high-achieving brainiacs who love to learn. Neither of them had been on a river trip before but were not strangers to analytical thinking—or overthinking. As they learned to row flatwater all the way up to Grand Canyon Class V rapids, the binary framework proved helpful.

Above Nankoweap, Courtney approached a partially submerged boulder. The current was piling up. She could either turn and pull away from the boulder or push and pivot off of it. As the boulder zoomed closer, her oars fluttered with indecision. She decided a little late, and we ended up lightly tapping the boulder with our stern.

Courtney let out a big sigh, “I should have piv–”

“Op!” Hailey interrupted, channeling Tanner, “Zero or one!”

“That was a one,” Hailey and I confirmed in unison.

During the 12 days we spent sharing the boat we ended up calling “The One,” we considered Tanner’s philosophy. Courtney reflected on how she constantly evaluates her actions (a notion that deeply resonated with Haley and me). “I am so focused on whether I did something ‘correctly’ that I often forget to enjoy the process and the smaller steps along the way,” she mused.

As we reinforced evaluating our successes with a pass/fail mentality, Haley noted, “Our anxious brains are inundated with racing, fragmented, and fleeting thoughts. This binary decision-making helps eliminate the distracting and unnecessary. It helps us redirect our energy and quiet the noise.”

The mantra permeated our thinking beyond the river as we shared about our lives, too. When I told stories from teaching and ended them by saying, “I wish I would have….” or “In hindsight…”, they reminded me I didn’t need to solve every problem public schools face to have been a successful teacher. They mirrored back details from my stories, saying, “Those sound like ones.” When any amount of overthinking, anxiety, or self-criticism seeped into a discussion, someone inevitably freed the other with a gentle reminder, “Zero or one?”

We found the paradigm was helpful from the significant to the mundane. Did I burn the potatoes a little? Yeah, maybe. But I got breakfast made, and people happily ate it. Sounds like a one. Did I facilitate that group activity with as much poise as I wanted? Definitely not. But I did it, and people had fun. One.

This isn’t to say there aren’t varying degrees of success. We know what it’s like to absolutely nail a line. To feel your blades get perfect purchase on green glass, to propel yourself over the crest of a wave and powerfully cruise downstream. There’s ecstasy in placing your boat right on the green seam.

A Zero or One philosophy doesn’t take away this joy or minimize those golden moments of perfection, it just means that the absence of total perfection is no longer a failure. It is an unequivocal success.

After Haley and Courtney hiked out, I tried to channel their voices. Their support had given me the freedom to accept my actions and the outcomes. While scouting Upset, I felt my brain revert to overthinking each possibility for failure. I wanted to go right. I’ve always gone right. I felt safer going right; you can see the line from the scout, while the left is difficult to see from shore.

“Which way you going, Jazz?” Tanner asked me. He is not about the right line; he loves going left.

I hemmed and hawed. “I don’t know!” I agonized, feeling torn. He’d been trying to sell me on the left line since our drive to Flagstaff.  “What do you like about the left line?” I asked.

“It’s fun,” he said simply.

I stopped short. Boating is rarely pure fun for me. I’m not sure when it stopped being that way, when the pressure to prove myself and the pressure of achieving the aforementioned “total perfection” took priority over the search for pure joy.

I asked myself, “What happens if I go left?” Under Sensi Tanner’s rules, it would either be a zero or a one. Most likely, it’d be a one.

I went left. I have no idea if I found the slot or if I rode the seam exactly how I wanted. But it was splashy, and Fiona whooped in the bow of my boat. I smiled as adrenaline poured through me. “It’s a one, it’s a one, it’s a one,” I reminded myself through the tail waves.

Downstream, I ended up center when the burble line above Lava Falls had less right momentum than I anticipated. A hole I hadn’t meant to be near stripped my oar from my left hand. Somehow, it ended up under my leg with upward momentum, which catapulted me off my seat. I caught actual air. It certainly wasn’t my cleanest run through Lava, but that was no longer part of my assessment. It was pass/fail and I had passed. I laughed because it was silly. And because I had fun.

After the trip, Courtney told me, “As a complete newcomer to rafting, evaluating every little move I made was pointless. The reality was that none of the moves I made were perfect. Yet that was ok. Despite finding myself stuck in yet another eddy, with a zero or one mentality, I could still find the beauty in the canyon and the joy of being with friends.”

There is beauty and joy in the canyon—and life; how wonderful to revel in it.

At times, Tanner might have been a bit of a loose cannon (skipping scouts and shouting “five minutes to groove” before breakfast), but he reveled in the fun. He taught me to allow myself success. Haley and Courtney helped me to rejoice in those successes. I haven’t fully mastered it (something tells me I’ll never feel like I have), but it’s worth the practice. With those little successes, I watched as Haley and Courtney’s confidence on the oars grew, my grin mirroring Tanner’s as we celebrated ourselves without the need to qualify our joy.

If you ever find yourself pulled into analysis or worry, try to ask yourself instead: was it a zero or a one? Try to eliminate the noise. Redirect your focus onto what matters. Let go of perfection. Because when you stop overthinking, it creates the conditions for fun to flourish.

Oh, and don’t forget to surround yourself with friends who will tell you with love and certainty, “That was a one.”


Photos courtesy of Claire Keeler, David Chan, Erik Carlson, Courtney Ngai, Beau Fitzke, Casey Pagels and Jasmine Wilhelm.