When I was seven years old, I stood on the edge of the pool with my swim instructor in the water, beckoning me to jump in. I was frozen. Paralyzed. My toes curled tightly trying to grip the concrete beneath me. In the end, I couldn’t do it. I cried and ran off, looking for my mom to console me.
Fear is a necessary emotion. It was designed to help us survive dangerous or life-threatening situations. Somewhere along the path of human evolution, we started to apply fear to less critical decisions in our lives.
I can’t speak for you, but I’ve let fear prevent me from pursuing a wide range of opportunities in my life, and I’m not just talking about the seven-year-old me who was afraid to jump into the abyss. As a husband and father, I’ve let fear tell me that I can’t afford to take risks because I am one of the providers for my family. That failure is not an option because I have too much at stake.
I’ve struggled with that voice in my head telling me “things are good right now, don’t rock the boat!” You know the one. The voice that rationalizes that any step backward or potential stumble is catastrophic. Unrecoverable.
Recently, I began to ask myself why. When did it become NOT ok to fail? The truth is that for me it was a gradual process. When I had little, I didn’t have much to lose. The more things I acquired; a family, a house, material possessions, career titles, larger salaries, etc.; the more I had to lose.
The voices and the signals were not only internal. The world around me also told me that I didn’t have what it takes. I don’t look like what successful people look like. I didn’t go to the right schools. I don’t have the right education. I have the wrong skin… the wrong hair. It’s not in my DNA.
For the longest time I listened, content to be told what my limits were. But now I’m tired. Tired of the voices. Tired of other people’s definitions of who I am, or what I’m supposed to be. I’m tired of limiting myself. I realize that the only voice that is stopping me, is the one in my head. I know it seems simple and obvious, but for me getting to this point has been a battle. Finally, the voices in my head are overwhelmingly telling me that never trying at all is much worse than trying and failing.
I finally learned to swim, though it wasn’t how I pictured it. Instead of lessons at a public pool with an instructor, I learned in the backyard pool of one of my best friends. He and his entire family worked together to teach me how to swim. I was eleven. Reflecting on that experience, I’ve realized a few things about fear.
The how is less important than the what
I never imagined that I would be taught to swim by my best friend and his family, but I did have a dream that I would swim one day. Ultimately I realized that dream even though it was four years later. I never gave up on my what.
There is power in community
Lots of people are taught to swim by a single instructor. For me, it took the support and encouragement of an entire family. I now realize that I need to surround myself with the right people. People that have both the expertise and experience to teach me, but also the desire to see me succeed.
Turn fear into exhilaration
When I finally learned to swim, I was still afraid, but my fear was outweighed by my excitement. Even as I write this, my heart is pounding a little as I think about the first time I paddled from one side of the pool to the other unassisted. I can change the impact that fear has, by changing how I perceive it. Instead of allowing it to convince me to turn tail and run, I can use the excitement of what lies beyond that fear to encourage myself to leap. I know there is something better waiting on the other side.
Progress over perfection
It took me four years to learn to swim, but I learned in a single day. I wasn’t the greatest swimmer at the end of that day, but I could swim! That hot humid summer in Houston, TX we swam in my friend’s backyard almost every day. Each time, I got more comfortable with the idea of being in the water. As I got more comfortable, I got more confident. As I got more confident, I got better. It is foolish to think that I’m going to be an expert the first time I try something new, but I can still be successful. I just need to change my definition of success to be more appropriate for my situation. Expertise will come with time, repetition and experience, but I have to get in the water.
I’m not where I want to be today, but I have what I need to start my journey. I have my dream. Today is year four and I’m finally ready to learn how to swim. I’m ready to wade into the water. If you are ready too, come take my hand and be a part of my community. The journey may not look how we envisioned it, but it’s ok, we can encourage and support each other. We’ll take it a day at a time.
Is your heart pounding too? Can you feel the excitement? Are you imagining what’s on the other side? Let’s not wait until the new year to talk about what we will do.
Let’s just do it.
Let’s start today.