This pandemic is a time for new things. Whether it’s chosen or not, everyone is having new experiences in this unprecedented time. As someone who used to fly monthly for business and personal reasons, the pandemic changed my life a lot. All of a sudden I was home every day and thinking about how to learn and grow in new ways. What was something I could do that required me to do something new, but also to stay safe while the coronavirus raged on? It’s been learning to swim.
Growing up I didn’t have access to pools, and the few swim lessons I had as an adult didn’t stick. Over the years, I developed a healthy fear of swimming. When swimming came up in conversation with others, I had to manage others’ expectations (even though many people, primarily minorities in America, don’t know how to swim), and unnecessary advice that it was a good idea to learn for safety reasons (yes, we non-swimmers know). I explained that it would be hard for me to learn as I would have to commit to being in a pool very regularly to overcome the fear.
In innovation work and leadership development I talk to clients and leaders about “beginner’s mind” and how important it is to understand what it’s like to not know things, in order to support others who are learning and come up with new ideas. I even did a juggling session with leaders at Nordstrom to get them into an empathetic learner mindset. Being in the pool at age 48, I was thrust into a completely foreign world, and flooded with long unfamiliar feelings of fear, inadequacy, and doubt.
My experience of being able to continue to learn despite the fears has been so profound for me that I wanted to share the techniques that have helped me–so that I could potentially help others as we all continue to face new challenges during this time.
- Positive self-talk focused on showing up and on practice (not on progress). I had an idea in my head that I’d learn in a few months, and if I didn’t make tangible progress every lesson, I felt like I’d failed. With something scary and new I’ve learned that the most important thing is to just show up, and that’s the marker of success. Progress is a bonus, and setbacks are a result of trying. In professional organizing we talk to clients about “backsliding” and how to expect that and it’s okay, because they’re learning new skills. I had to learn to do this for myself, and give myself credit for just trying.
- Repetition. It’s been a long time since I’ve done an entirely new skill, and I forgot how much repetition helps. Like learning a language, I need to do stuff in the pool again and again in order to build muscle memory and the comfort that will allow me to move forward. This also shows up in my organizing and coaching practice. During sessions I repeat key messages, and clients engage in new practices between sessions, so they can learn new behaviors.
- Breaking it down, with a guide. What the instructors at Swim Guru do so well is identify the components of swimming, and then they work with the student to train and put the skills together. It’s been so critical to have a guide who can tee up scoped activities that I can learn. When I work with organizing clients I do a similar thing. For organizing I break down going through stuff into manageable tasks so it’s not completely overwhelming, and for coaching I piece apart the specific challenges and offer solutions bit by bit.
- Being in the moment and not overthinking. From the working world I’ve gotten used to planning things out, and thinking things through, in order to lead successful projects, workshops, and meetings. While I think preparation is key, too much thinking in the moment when swimming can increase the nervousness. You can prepare, but in the moment, you need to be ready to just do. Similar to leading work sessions, preparation is required, but after that it’s critical to be in the room (not your head or your presentation deck), and respond to what’s happening.
- Breathing. Remembering to breathe is advice I’ve heard in so many realms for quelling anxiety. Breathing calms your nervous system and can provide instant relief. When that anxious moment is happening, take a big breath (and in the pool it happens to also inflate your lungs–a huge bonus!). When I meet new clients I am always a tad nervous, so before I get to their front door or hop on Zoom, I try to remember to take a few good breaths.
So for all of you out there handling new challenges show up, take a breath, dive in, give yourself credit for trying, and keep going. I certainly need to because my swimming is still a work in progress!