I was terrified to enter high school. I wasn’t afraid of the upperclassmen, nor was I concerned that I was coming to a new school. I was scared because the freshman gym class had a mandatory swimming unit.
In the first few weeks of class, I prayed that the rumors weren’t true or that the unit would get cancelled due to cold weather (despite the pool being indoors). Then, on a Friday midway through the semester, our teacher made the announcement: the swimming unit would begin the following Monday. My heart sank, and my mind started coming up with ways to escape showing up to class for the next few weeks. I knew deep down that I must go to class, and my weekend was thus ruined by the looming embarrassment waiting for me in the pool on Monday.
For fifteen years, I successfully hid my inability to swim from my friends. Beach days and hotel pools were colossal fears because I felt forced to conjure up lies about why I wasn’t joining everyone else in the water. “I’m too tired.” “I don’t want to have to shower later.” “Lake water grosses me out.” No matter the lie, my reason for not going in was the same: my inability was an insecurity. I was terrified that friends would find out and never let me hear the end of it.
Monday came, and sure enough, my propensity for drowning was exposed when we were directed to swim across the pool. Others in the class were surprised and found the situation to be rather funny. I dreaded going to school each day for the two weeks that the swimming unit lasted, knowing that I would have to face the only real bully I’ve ever encountered: a five-foot deep pool. During this time, I was on the receiving end of a lot of harmless jokes from friends, and it was a humiliating time in my life, but it is also the basis of two central takeaways.
First, I learned that other people don’t care as much about my life as my thoughts suggest. To me, my inability to swim and the corresponding insecurity seemed like an issue that would hang over my head until I had become the best swimmer at my high school. I didn’t realize at the time how little my peers cared about my swimming ability. It was funny to them that I couldn’t swim because they assumed otherwise, so they laughed about it a bit. Yet, I expected everyone I saw in the hallways to come up to me and discuss it to my peril, but few people outside of my class ever learned about my inability because few people in my gym class cared enough to talk about it when I wasn’t around. In psychological research this is known as the “Spotlight Effect” which highlights that individuals overestimate how much their peers think about them. In short, most people are too caught up in their own lives to spend much time thinking about other individuals’ weaknesses.
The humiliation of my freshman year experience also revealed the complexity to creating sustainable habits. In the following years, I tried and failed many times to improve my swimming ability. Between the ages of 15 and 20, I committed myself to learning how to swim one to two times each year. Yet, my mind always found a justification to stop my pursuit before I could become a decent swimmer. Each attempt to improve followed roughly the same trajectory. First, I’d get motivated to finally tackle this glaring insecurity and tell myself that this would be the time I see the process all the way through to the end. Next, I’d set goals for when I want to be able to swim 5 laps continuously and sub-goals for how much I planned to swim for each workout, usually about two weeks and 25 laps, respectively. These figures were unrealistic when considering my stroke, and they overlooked the panic that surfaced each time I entered the water. My far-fetched goals were the reason I never stuck with the plan to the end. I’d go to the pool planning to swim 25 laps, swim one length (i.e. 1/2 lap), and gasp for air as the mind ran through the usual excuses to get out of the water. I’d end up swimming about 5 laps (each separated by about 5 minutes of frantic breathing) before getting out and calling it a day. The mind successfully convinced me to give up the practice about as soon as I had started because I was terrified of the water and my goals did not account for my discomfort.
I have recently undertaken swimming again, and this time it has been successful. Advice from friends and strangers has been helpful, but that has been a constant over the past six years, so that is not why the habit is sticking this time. My goals reflect my skill level and are thus laughably simple. For the first few sessions, my goal was simply to enter the pool. My mind needed to get used to the fact that I was getting in the pool whether it wanted to or not. I could get out shortly after if I wanted to and the day’s efforts still counted as a success. This never happened though because I always figured that I might as well practice a bit if I’m already in the pool. I’d then stay in the pool until I could feel the mental discomfort of being in water creeping up. Over time, my goals expanded as I got used to the water: 20 minutes in the pool became 30 minutes, which became 30+ minutes. The gaps between time extensions were long, ensuring that I never rushed into a longer time commitment than my mind was comfortable with. I usually stay in the pool past the minimum goal because having met the day’s goal makes me want to keep going. This approach allows me to continually achieve success by setting low but attainable goals, and my swimming has improved substantially as a result.
Not long ago, I daydreamed about the excitement of hopefully swimming 3 consecutive laps for the first time in the next few months. Two half-hour sessions later, I effortlessly swam 6 consecutive laps. Swimming 6 laps is nothing to write home about, but an overly-simple approach has been the key to achieving the sustainable growth I was seeking in all of my previous attempts. There is still a lot of practice to come and improvement to be had, but the 21-year process of learning how to swim has finally come to an end, and it has prepared me to successfully tend to other personal incompetencies.