Shivering by the side of the pool, my seven-year-old-self did not want to jump into the water. The pool overwhelmed my senses; it was located in the cavernous basement of a 55-year-old YMCA (built in 1909). Kids’ voices echoed off the walls and the damp, rank air assaulted my nose. My sisters were already in the water, laughing and splashing with other kids. With my instructor’s encouragement, I reluctantly slid into the water and started to putter around. I managed to get through the class but did not enjoy it. Even in the shallow end, I could barely touch the bottom. Nothing came naturally. The Deep End was terrifying.
When I got home, I found my parents in the living room (where they retreated to read the paper and kids were not allowed to play … where serious conversations took place). I begged them not to make me go to any more swim lessons. Peering over their newspapers, they both answered, “You don’t have to sign up again, but you have to finish the lessons.”
The next week, I piled into the neighbor’s station wagon with a gaggle of other kids to carpool to swimming lessons. Class went a little better, and my mom picked us up. I think she may have softened a bit when she saw how challenging it was (not a kiddy pool!). While there was no shift in her resolve that I finish swim lessons, she seemed to understand my fear and that boosted my confidence.
I kept going—finished the Minnow Class and graduated to Tadpole—then signed up for more lessons. By the time I finished the series years later, the Deep End had shrunk. I easily swam the number of laps required to pass the Junior Lifesaving exam and “rescue” an instructor, who faked drowning. They also brought a canoe into the pool that we had to capsize wearing sweatshirts, jeans, and sneakers, then remove our clothing while treading water and swim the canoe into “shore.” Looking back to when I stood there shivering, hoping to be rescued from that ordeal, I never imagined that those skills were within my reach.
Persistence Might Pay Off
Sometimes it makes sense to redirect before completing what you originally set out to do. But before making that choice, it’s helpful to consider the value of sticking it out. Many challenges trigger the desire to give up. My parents’ unwavering insistence about “completing what I’d started” instilled a core value for me. Their firm resolve kept me from quitting downhill skiing, advanced math, Girl Scouts, and other youthful pursuits. I didn’t become a star in any of these endeavors but achieved a satisfying level of proficiency. Sometimes when I ponder the option of abandoning something, flashbacks to the Living Room remind me to keep going when I want to quit. Sometimes the decision to quit is the right one, but my lessons from swimming can help when weighing the options.
Face Fear—Scary, overwhelming, or discouraging circumstances feel catastrophic and ignite fight or flight. “I Quit!” feels like the safest path forward. Fears grow out of proportion to reality. They paralyze us from taking action on big decisions, such as tackling a lifestyle change;or leaving a safe, but boring job; as well as small things, like speaking up in a meeting or taking on a new project. List the fears that hold you back from what you want. Reframe these barriers:
- Change “should” to “could”
- Change “can’t” to “how”
- Add the word “yet” to what you think you can’t do
Build Muscle Memory—Once I overcame my fear and anxiety, going to weekly swim lesson faded into a regular routine. Through practice and repetition, what was scary became achievable and—over time—automatic. With muscle memory from swimming laps and practicing skills, the class learned to handle more complex tasks like stripping off clothing while treading water. Even skills that don’t come naturally often can be mastered with a lot of practice.
Find Satisfaction in Finishing—When I stood in the Living Room begging to quit swim lessons, I didn’t know what my parents knew: it feels great to finish. I’m grateful that they instilled this value because, over and over again, I’ve found that the reward of sticking with a challenge until it reaches a point of closure was always worth the pain. Even when the result is less exciting or profound than expected, completing the challenge is satisfying.
As Nelson Mandela said, “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.”