Want to Be Successful? Move Beyond the Reef.

What entrepreneurs can learn from Moana’s adventure to restore the heart of Te Fiti

Want to Be Successful? Move Beyond the Reef.
Photos by Evan Brockett on Unsplash and Disney; Edited by the author.

I walked into the living room the other day, and my wife was asleep on the couch. Moana, a 2016 movie we’ve seen a million times, was playing in the background. I sat down on the sofa for a round of sudoku but was quickly captivated by the charming film.

Moana is the daughter of a tribal chief on a remote island. Her village never ventures beyond the reef because of the inherent danger of the ocean. However, the island is dying, and the only solution requires venturing across the sea. Moana, defying her father, heads out in search of a solution.

Along her journey, Moana encounters the demigod, Maui. The two learn from each other as they sail to save the world. While rewatching the film the other day, one particular lesson struck a chord.

Maui is teaching Moana the art of wayfinding — using the stars and currents to navigate her boat. “Seeing where you’re going in your mind,” Maui explains. “Knowing where you are by knowing where you’ve been.”

Fellow entrepreneurs, we have much to learn from Maui’s wayfinding instructions.

Five years ago, my wife told me I had the potential to be a full-time writer. For five years, she encouraged, prodded, and suggested I take the plunge. I didn’t listen. Even last spring, when I chose growth over fear and left a 15-year career, I still didn’t take my wife’s advice.

I was stuck behind the reef, afraid to move out into the ocean. I didn’t realize I was stuck, of course — you never do at the moment. The unknown was terrifying. The fear of failure abundant.

Many of us get stuck behind the reef, held back by the fear of possibility. Thankfully, it’s possible to learn from Moana and venture past the reef. And, when we start exploring, the possibilities are endless.

Last November, I launched my writing company, Eat Your Words. On January 1, I ventured past the reef and became a full-time freelance writer. Here’s what I learned it takes to get off the island and move into the ocean of possibility.


Moana’s village was not apt to move beyond the reef. The few times they attempted to do so brought pain and loss. They were perfectly content on their island. It was familiar. Safe.

Moana wanted something more. The ocean did not scare her but leaving behind the familiar and defying her father was not something she encountered lightly. Taking a small boat and crossing the reef took great courage, as did the rest of her journey.

Courage is one of the hardest things to muster, especially when talking about making a drastic change to our livelihoods. Yet, without courage, we tread in the same waters our whole lives. For some people, that’s perfectly fine. For others, there’s a possibility for more beyond the reef.

The notion of “scared money” explains we are more likely to stick with what is safe because the risk is low. This time last year, I had a great job. It was the safe island I knew. The problem? I wasn’t happy. Choosing to leave meant required generating courage to put down scared money.

When I did muster the courage to leave, a global pandemic arrived. I sought the safe waters of what I knew and moved back toward scared money. I found another job with a great company. It turns out I traded one island for another. The itch of life beyond the reef beckoned more than ever before. After some financial planning and a whole lot of courage, I finally ventured beyond the reef.

The first step to finding success is building courage. What courage do you need? What step will help you move beyond the reef?


Once you’ve mustered the courage, it’s essential not to let anything stop your progress into the ocean.

Moana was not taking no for an answer. To save her island, she had to sail across the ocean and restore the Heart of Te Fiti.

Along the way, Moana runs into all sorts of trouble. She fights monsters and vicious coconuts. She even suffers defeats and setbacks. Despite all this, there was no option for Moana other than success. Even when Maui, her demigod accomplice, was ready to call it quits, Moana pressed onward.

Managing a business requires determination. Every client, every project, every invoice is up to me. Since this is my full-time career, like Moana, my only path is forward.

I’ve consulted with numerous nonprofit businesses. I shared with board members and founders the importance of a clear plan of action. Running a nonprofit requires a clear fundraising strategy that accounts for ups and downs. There is no silver bullet to success, be it for-profit or nonprofit. The key is drive and determination always to press onward.

This doesn’t mean the sailing is always smooth. There are hiccups along the way. In the last few months as a business owner, I’ve decided what bills to pay, waiting (hoping) clients pay their invoices. Plus, there’s the whole finding clients requirement. Life as an entrepreneur is not easy, but it is exciting and worth the challenges.

Despite the obstacles and setbacks, my determination is sound. I will cross the ocean of doubt, ensuring my business thrives.

The second step to finding success requires determination. How will you remain determined despite obstacles? What step will ensure your resolution?

Understanding Where You’ve Been

Maui tells Moana wayfinding is the art of knowing where you are by knowing where you’ve been. For her navigation, knowing where Moana’s been is essential. For entrepreneurs, where we’ve been is bigger and shapes who we are today.

This was the hardest lesson for me to learn. It took me years to build courage and determination to leave the reef because I didn’t feel qualified or exceptionally skilled to venture out independently. This, of course, was all in my brain mainly because I wasn’t acknowledging where I’d been.

Our past shapes and defines who we are today. It helps us understand ourselves. Each choice we make in life helps build our character and skills.

I’ve been a writer for as long as I can remember. My first published byline was as a freelance columnist in the Orlando Sentinel while I was in high school and college. My college degree is in entrepreneurship and small business management. Seven years ago, I helped form The Writing Cooperative providing advice to writers. I’ve written multiple business/strategic plans, countless marketing messages, built websites, written curriculum, technical manuals, and long-form content. I’m incredibly versed in all the pieces necessary to manage my own writing business. So why didn’t I put the pieces together?

For my wife, these pieces were abundantly clear. It’s why she’s been encouraging me to launch the business for years. For me, I was too close to the puzzle. I wasn’t seeing the entire picture, just the individual pieces.

It wasn’t until I decided to move past the reef and launched my business that the entire picture became clear. I finally acknowledged my past brought me to this point. I was well-versed in skill and education, all the things necessary to succeed.

The third step to finding success is understanding where you’ve been. What pieces of your past bring clarity for today’s opportunities? What past skills and traits do you need to acknowledge?

A Vision For Where You’re Going

Knowing where we are and where we come from are crucial steps, but they are lost without knowing where we’re going. Maui’s first wayfinding instruction to Moana is seeing where you’re going in your mind.

A vision is vital for any business. Over the years, I’ve crafted many different vision statements for programs, businesses, and organizations. Why didn’t I consider one for myself?

“Where do you see yourself in five years” is a cliched question. It’s used as a punchline and to highlight bad interviews in movies. Yet, the question is fundamental. Running any business, let alone our own requires a clear vision of where we’re heading.

A clear vision defines where we’re going, our goal, and the outcomes we want to achieve. It doesn’t explain how we’ll get there because we can’t foresee every obstacle. Vision focuses on the destination.

Moana’s destination was incredibly clear from the beginning of the film. She even practiced reciting her vision over and over, building her courage and confidence. Moana was determined to sail across the ocean and restore the Heart of Te Fiti. She didn’t know what that entailed or what obstacles laid in her way, but she knew that was her destination.

As entrepreneurs, we must set a vision for where we’re heading. For me, that’s a monthly income level generated from my freelance business. I have a general idea of the path, but I’m sure there will be obstacles and detours along the way. So long as I keep the destination clear in my head, I’ll continue pointing the boat in that direction.

The fourth step to finding success is having a vision for where you’re going. What is your destination? What’s the first step you can take to head that way?

Conclusion: Move Beyond The Reef

Moana is a children’s movie, but it contains a treasure trove of advice for entrepreneurs. Running a business requires courage, determination, knowing where we’ve come from, and visualizing where we’re going. Without these elements, we’re ill-equipped for the journey. Are you ready to cross the reef?

Justin Cox Justin Cox

Justin Cox is a donut-loving, word-writing, nonprofit consultant based in Orlando. He also runs The Writing Cooperative on Medium. Come say hello!