What Does Paddle Your Own Canoe Mean?

Paddle Your Own Canoe Meaning

Definition: Make your own decisions and do things for yourself; be independent.

Origin of Paddle Your Own Canoe

The analogy in this phrase is to steer one’s own ship. In other words, it is a message of self-reliance and independence. This idea is quite old and predates the English translation.

In the play Cyclops (440 B.C.), Euripides expressed a similar idea.

The English version finds its origins in 19th-century America. It first started appearing in print in the early 1800s. An early printed source occurs in Frederick’s Marryat’s 1840 Settlers in Canada. Harper’s Monthly, an influential American magazine, used the phrase in a May 1854 article.

  • Voyager upon life’s sea, to yourself be true, And whate’er your lot may be, paddle your own canoe.

As one can logically conclude, the expression of self-reliance comes from the literal meaning. If another person is paddling your canoe, that person is controlling where the canoe is going. To have independence and self-determination, one must do things on their own.

Examples of Paddle Your Own Canoe

Define paddle your own canoeThis example shows two college students discussing their parents’ expectations.

Frank: I love studying history, but my parents keep pressuring me to change my major to pre-med.

Karl: But you faint at the sight of blood. That wouldn’t make any sense. You’d have to dissect cadavers and stuff. You’d throw up and then run away.

Frank: I know. I don’t know what to do.

Karl: I think you need to tell your parents that it’s time for you to paddle your own canoe. You have to be master of your own destiny! You are going to decide for yourself what is best for your future.

Frank: Nah. They’ll just yell at me.

Paddling your own canoe meaningIn this example, two friends are choosing what to eat for dinner.

Lily: What do you want for dinner?

Grace: I don’t know. What about you?

Lily: I always decide. It’s your turn. I’ve literally chosen the last dozen times or more.

Grace: I hate choosing. I don’t like making decisions.

Lily: That’s ridiculous. You need to paddle your own canoe. We’ll start small. You choose what to eat for dinner, or we aren’t eating anything at all.

Grace: That seems silly.

Lily: We’ll work up to bigger things. Soon you’ll be making huge decisions like which house to buy.

Grace: I hate this paddle-your-own-canoe idea.

More Examples

The excerpt below is about a consumer who bought some products because of a specific promotion. However, the store failed to apply that promotion.

  • Ranta is slowly transition to life off the water. He plans to remain in Nova Scotia for the next week, sharing his story with school groups. Mostly, he wants to reinforce the three tenets he lives by: Stay strong, stay true and paddle your own canoe. “If kids grow up with these values, they can accomplish anything,” he says. –Canoe & Kayak

This quote is from a chef, who applies the expression to how he lives his life.

  • Love all, trust few, always paddle your own canoe. That was given to me by my mother. It’s been quite amazing advice and I’ve used it in everything I’ve ever done. –Belfast Telegraph


The phrase paddle your own canoe emphasizes the importance of self-determination and self-reliance.