Forcing yourself to swim

When you first learn the fundamentals of swimming, you’re in the shallow end.  It’s scary at first because of how new the sensation is, but you get comfortable eventually.  You know it’s safe.

Let’s say you get out of the pool one day and accidentally slip and fall into the deep end.  Naturally, you freak out.  Everything you’ve been taught is instantly forgotten and you kick and flail on instinct.  You start to sink.  Someone rescues you, but your fear of the deep end is heightened for years.  “Wow, it’s pretty obvious that I’m not cut out for the deep end.  It’s probably best to just stay in my comfort zone.”

Contrast this with someone who gets out of the pool, stares intensely at the deep end, thinks over their game plan, then jumps in.  They’re scared, but they know what they have to do: stick with what they’ve learned.  They go through the motions they’ve been using in the shallow end (maybe a bit more frantically and with some degree of improvisation) and they stay afloat.  They force themselves to swim.

I think it’s actually hugely beneficial to do this to yourself in any area of your life where you’re looking to grow.  Once you’ve learned enough about something at a lower level, you will eventually reach a plateau in your growth and become very bored.  You’re a big fish in a small pond.  You’ve gone through the motions so many times that nothing that comes your way is a challenge.  So you need to jump out and find the deep end.

How do you know when you’re in “the deep end”?

You’re acutely aware that you’re outside of your comfort zone and playing above your level.  You’re scared that, as soon as you start swimming, people will be able to see that you’re an amateur.

“I should have prepared more!  What the hell am I doing here?  I can’t do this like they can!  They can see right through me, and they know I suck.”

These thoughts usually trigger the make-or-break point.  It’s where you decide to either stick with it, or quit.  Most people quit.  But the more you find yourself in these circumstances, the more comfortable you’ll get in those deep ends.  And pretty soon, they’ll start to feel like shallow ends and you’ll have to go searching for even bigger pools.

The people I know who have grown and reached amazing professional levels for their age have all used this tactic. They force themselves into uncomfortable situations, raise their heart rate all day long, then breathe a huge sigh of relief when they get to go home.  On the surface, they seem poised.  But then you’ll hear them make admissions like, “I was freaking out!  I had no idea what I was doing, but I just ran with it and figured things out on the fly.”

But the truth is that they all know what they are doing to an extent; they’re just playing outside of their comfort zone.  They don’t immediately know the answers, but they have the necessary background knowledge to find those answers.  They have enough experience to barely scrape by, and they can adapt to intense new environments very rapidly.  If they don’t know what step to take, they pause, reflect, and figure it out in a matter of seconds.  And when they make a mistake and find themselves backed into a corner, they don’t quit — they improvise.

That voice in their head that tells them they suck?  It’s on mute.  Anxiety is coursing through them, but it’s not paralyzing.

That’s the difference between people who stagnate in complacency, and people who grow.  The former avoid playing above their level, while the latter embrace it.

No matter how painful it seems.

EDIT: If this post seems a bit hollow, I listed a couple of examples below in the comments.

5 comments on “Forcing yourself to swim

  1. Ahh, but your falling into the “write a generic inspiring but impossible to disagree with blogpost” trap.

    Everybody knows that you should test yourself and shoot for the deep end. What we need is practical, literal solutions to the fact that doing that is hard and uncomfortable and scary. Otherwise we’re treading on familiar, well-established ground.

    Unless a metaphor is followed by an application, it’s just worthsmithing.

  2. Fair enough.

    The reason I did this post was because I’d been talking to a few friends of mine who’d said that phrase (“I had no idea what I was doing, but figured it out”) to me recently. One guy built and sustained a ~500 member forum all by himself, having never done it before. He was freaking out when he accepted the job, yet he did it WAY better than anyone expected.

    On a personal note, I recently took on a heavy duty solo assignment that involves video work that I’m pretty uncomfortable doing. It’s more advanced than what I’m used to, and there’s a lot of money at stake. It really freaked me out initially that I accepted the job because I felt like it was way too much to handle. But I know just enough to be able to pull it off and can fill any knowledge gaps pretty quickly. I’m nervous about the results, but also know that it will push me to a higher level once it’s finished.

  3. I just realized I didn’t really answer Ryan’s initial argument. He pointed out that we need solutions to the fear and discomfort we feel when jumping into the deep end.

    The solution, I think (and this is clumsy speculation), lies in simply recognizing that point when you’re bored and comfortable. When everything you do in your profession becomes easy and mindless, when you dominate without even trying… it’s time to step up your game.

    Again, tying back to my experience with video, I’ve realized that I have been WAY too comfortable with my level of video editing. I should have taken things to the next level years ago, but never did until recently. I dominate in iMovie and know every facet of it, but it’s rookie stuff. My ability to use Final Cut is severely crippled because of it. And I’m working to fix that, even though it makes me mad that I now suck at something I’m used to being good at.

  4. I think the long-term solution lies in reaching a point where the challenge is a continuation, avoiding the “comfort zone” all together. When you stop recognizing (because you don’t need to), and you’re still actively improving, you’re there.

    I suppose that’s where we’d all like to get to though, and it begins with being aware of the zone you are speaking about. Gotta start somewhere.

  5. You forgot the metaphorical lifeguard telling you it’s adult swim.

    The flip side of “taking the plunge” is the crowd of naysayers laughing and telling you that if you jump in the deep end, you’re taking a stupid risk. Furthermore, they will laugh at your necessary initial failures.

    Doing what you describe here requires a storehouse of unshakable self-confidence. If you take the opinions of others too seriously, you’re never going to make it.

    That having been said, it helps if your coach has your back. Finding a mentor who you respect and identify with can make or break your effort.

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