I often find myself thinking about the next thing, thinking about how far I have to go, rather than celebrating how far I’ve come. And it feels self-aggrandizing even to take a moment to celebrate something I’ve accomplished.
I take time with my clients to celebrate their accomplishments, so I’m going to take time to celebrate an accomplishment of mine here. As Labor Day is often considered the end of summer, I’m going to celebrate a challenge I took on in June, and tell you a few surprising things I learned.
In early June, I decided to learn to swim better. And I set a goal of swimming a mile. That’s 64 lengths of a 25 meter pool without stopping.
I’ve had a difficult history with swimming. I was five the first time I had a swim lesson. At the end of the lesson we were asked to jump off the diving board holding on to a pole. I was terrified and refused. No more lessons for me for more than a decade. I took lessons at the same YMCA so I could swim enough to pass PE in high school. But I hated every minute.
I returned to swimming in my late thirties when I decided I wanted to do a triathlon. I learned about something called Total Immersion Swimming (you can Google Tim Ferris taking about it if you’re curious) that was supposed to be a lot easier than traditional swimming. I even took a weekend workshop on the method and got to the point where I could (finally) swim a length of the pool comfortably. Sometimes I could even make it two lengths. I started going to another Y, in Bethesda, Maryland, to try to get better. But I don’t think I ever got past 4 lengths. And I quit, again. The triathlon never happened.
Now I’m 54 and returning to swimming (and a potential triathlon?) for a third time. And for the first time I’m really loving not only the sense of being and moving in the water, but also the process of learning. While there’s a lot of discomfort at the beginning, there’s also rapid progress.
I started swimming again at the local pool in June. My first workout, I swam for a total of 8 minutes. The most I could swim at a time was two lengths of a 25 meter pool. On August 28, less than three months later, I swam a mile in one workout, and the first 38 lengths of the pool were without any breaks. I have not met my goal of swimming a mile nonstop yet, but I have come a long way.
(I started to swim in a cloudy lake over the weekend and realized I now have a whole new set of mental challenges to overcome if I want to do a triathlon, which has open water swimming. I made it about twenty yards and when I realized I was literally in over my head, I panicked and turned back.)
The value of new challenges
This is one of the reasons I like to take on new challenges. This is one of the reasons I like my clients to take on new challenges. To have the feeling of discomfort at the beginning and to also the feel the rush of progress that happens when you have pushed through that discomfort. The confidence that comes from succeeding at new challenges seems to transfer to other life areas, too.
It’s a good way to experience beginner’s mind, and to practice the acceptance of not being an expert. I can have another swimmer blow past me in the next lane and admire that person rather than beat myself up (at least more than I used to!). This admiration of others and kindness to myself is new for me.
There’s another way that I’ve been surprised, too. In some important ways, learning to swim and learning to be a better leader are actually quite similar.
Change is uncomfortable. When you’re engaged in a physical pursuit like swimming you clearly feel discomfort in making your body do things that it’s not used to. But most people don’t see that leadership is an embodied practice, too. If you’re trying to be different as a leader, you will feel discomfort in your body. That’s actually the only place that discomfort can show up. You know on some level that what you are doing is different. Your body automatically resists new things by making you uncomfortable. It’s trying to protect you! You might feel a flutter in your stomach, a tightness in your chest or throat, or something other physical sensations that indicate you are outside of your comfort zone. These sensations will change as you get more and more comfortable with your new way of being.
Like any journey of mastery, no matter where you start from, you can always improve. I’ve talked to leaders, often longtime ones, who are always learning, and my swim coach says he’s still learning after swimming for more than 30 years. There’s a humility and respect for the process that seem to be necessary, and present both in the best and those aspiring to be the best.
The more awareness you have, the more rapidly you will progress. This includes getting feedback from others. A trusted observer is essential to progress, especially one who has been through the same journey you are going through. You can read about things but until you have a coach looking at you or you see yourself on video you might not have a clear perspective on how you are actually doing things and how that compares with what you’re trying to do. A change as simple as where you put your hands with you push off the wall can take seconds off your lap time. A change in how you hold your body as you ask for feedback can make a huge difference, too.
A lot of the fundamentals are counterintuitive
Three areas of swimming struck me has having very distinct parallels to leadership, in that the thing that works is actually opposite of what most people instinctively try.
The quieter you are, the more effective you will be. In swimming, you see a lot of beginners kicking and splashing as hard as they can as they move up the pool. Like me, they are exhausted by the time they have completed a length or two. But look at an expert, especially an expert distance swimmer, and you will see very little splash. You will hear very little noise. You barely see their heads when they breathe.
What does this look like in leadership? We all know the classic leader who pounds his (and it is almost always a he) fist on the podium, exhorting his people to greater effort. Whoever came up with that t-shirt that says, “The beatings will continue until morale improves” was thinking of this kind of leader. This can work. For a little while.
But the most effective leaders over the long term are often the ones who don’t make a fuss. Who rarely raise their voices. They focus on connecting with their people rather than being in the spotlight. And not only do their people take ownership, the leader is happy to give them credit for their success.
It’s more effective to reduce resistance than it is to increase effort. In swimming, you see a lot of people kicking a lot at first. This is a terrible way to move through the water. Generally speaking, the reason that people are kicking is that they have their heads too high—they want to have access to air! They have to kick to stay afloat because their heads are so far out of the water that it pushes their legs down. But when they lower their heads, when they rotate to the air instead of lifting, their legs magically pop to the surface. And they discover that gliding is a lot easier (and faster!) than kicking.
Lowering resistance is something that you used to see in Washington. Back when I was a child, there were lawmakers who worked diligently, across the aisle, seeing how to get a deal done, seeing how they could improve things for the most people. They lowered the resistance of those on the other side by seeing what could work for everyone. These days, a willingness to compromise is often seen as a negative. The effort is there—politicians on both sides tirelessly declare that they have a monopoly on truth and pledge to their base that their view will prevail—but resistance to actual progress (however defined) has increased rather than decreased.
The folks who get things done, whether in politics or business, are often the ones who are working with those with differently perspectives to see what is possible. They are willing to move a little at a time toward their goal rather than making an all-or-nothing effort and failing over and over. And because of that, they go a lot further over time.
You can control the commitment, and the goal, but not the timing. I decided to commit to learning to swim better. I set a specific goal of swimming a mile at the pool. At that point, though, from what I can tell, I was no longer in control.
When I’m committed to a goal, I usually meet it. But I often have no idea how long it will take to meet that goal, especially if it’s something I’ve never done before. I could not have told you if it would take a month, or three months, or two years to get to the point where I could swim a mile. And while I am close to swimming a mile without stopping, the local pool is now closed and I will have to move to an indoor pool in the next town, which will not open for winter for another week. Sometimes things happen that are outside of our control.
In swimming, when I got that first rush of progress I started looking for triathlons that I could do this year. I even found one in southern Utah at the end of October. But my coach pointed out that the process is supposed to be fun! How easy it is to forget that! It was a big learning for me to realize that I actually wanted to enjoy the journey, and that I would enjoy it more if I thought about a triathlon next summer rather than a couple of months from now.
In business, you see deadline-based goals all the time. In fact, Wall Street often demands them. But, especially when it is something that hasn’t been done before, it’s almost impossible to predict timing. I had all kinds of overachiever ideas around how quickly I could build my business. My ego was strong enough that I decided that I would take the time it typically takes a successful coach to establish their practice and halve it. And then I beat myself up for not meeting that. Being hard on myself didn’t do anything other than make me feel bad. Things went a lot better when I accepting that I could only control my commitment, my goal, and the actions I was taking toward it. Not the results of those actions or the growth rate of the business.
Making the commitment
Have you beat yourself up for not being able to change? Maybe you want a different role, or to take your business to the next level. If you’re clear on your goal, commit to it! But don’t get too attached to how or when you get results. You’re doing your best, and learning to enjoy the process of change is a practice in and of itself. You may find, as I have, that life has an even better plan for you than you do. And that you will be pleasantly surprised from what you learn along the way.