This is the story of how learning to swim in my mid-20s has changed my thinking and probably my life.
I have always been brilliant, naturally: at the things I choose to be good at. Or rather, at the things I want to pay attention to. When I was younger, in my formative years, I was generally at the top of the class up until college. My termly reports always read something along the lines of “brilliant, excellent but uncontrollably chatty and misbehaved”.
The high school I attended was concerningly competitive. It was a high-performing Catholic school where discipline was one of its core values. So we had year-wide exams every 3 months for every subject, and the results were plastered in the school corridor for everyone to see. As was the year groups’ rank order, from student number 1 – to student number 140. They then divided us up into classes and sets in light of this rank order. The rank order stayed up for 3 months up until the next set of exams.
I’m sure that this rank order was the cause of a lot of students’ anxiety and overinflated and/or underwhelming sense of self. Generally, for the 5 years of high school, I routinely landed between number 4 and number 8. I was naturally bright, and creative and knew how to learn/retain new information well. I think this is where I began to notice my initial feelings of performance-based anxiety, fear of failure and overall lethargy in stretching myself mentally.
In Primary school, I was naturally quick-witted, smart and bright. I wrote books, read long, older novels and caught onto things quite well. I was very good at art and English. My undiagnosed behavioural tendencies meant that although I was very bright for my age, my behaviour was interpreted as nothing short of terrible or rebellious. I was always outside the Headteacher’s office, always in trouble and the staff faculty had a loathing towards me (and I, them).
In year 3 (I was 7 or 8, I think) we started taking mandatory swimming classes every Wednesday. I hated them with my life, I couldn’t grasp the concept, I was afraid of water and a class of 30 is hardly a good number for 1:1 attention. In my 4th or 5th swimming lesson I drowned and with my parents’ permission, I stopped coming to the lessons. Teachers then began to really label me as rebellious and uncooperative. That became an insidious pattern throughout my life, if I didn’t grasp something new the first time or even the third time; I would equate the failed attempts to failure and stop pursuing that thing altogether, (perhaps coupled with a fear of being misunderstood as a result) unless I knew that I was “naturally gifted” at that thing. This was a dangerous mindset to adopt because; like with most things, it creeps into the very stitching of the embroidery that forms our adult lives.
College – free from the rank order that my mind had been conditioned to affirm my sense of self – was a challenge. All of a sudden it didn’t matter where I landed in the year group because I was no longer required to manipulate my natural ability to prove to others that I was competent. This was an internal shock. I was free: I had no one to prove anything to! Including myself. Safe to say my first year of college I repeatedly got E and U grades, I found it hard to understand my classes (English Literature, Biology, History and Chemistry), the bare minimum wasn’t good enough anymore, nor could I rely on my “natural ability” to coast me through. And with some vague hopes of becoming a doctor, my future was not looking promising. So I drowned and half of me stopped trying. I got through college and finished with grades ABB after a lot of hard work. And repeated the same drowning, coasting, avoidant, giving up patterns/behaviours in university, throughout my master’s degree, in my personal life, within my friendships, mentally, and in my career. I constantly felt overwhelmed, not deserving, not good enough and not in control.
I did identify that equating my sense of self to my ability to do things is a problematic thought process, but it became a natural pattern hard to shake out of. It was natural for me to stick to the things that I was naturally good at and ignore the things I wasn’t so good at, which meant that at any given time there was a mountain of things that I should have done, but hadn’t done.
Going into 2022 something just changed for me. I was tired of doing the same things and had this intense feeling of wanting to be stimulated. I was particularly tired of saying I would exercise, then giving up; saying I would eat well, then giving up; telling myself I would do the things I wanted and then fearfully back away.
So I started swimming lessons. I wanted to learn something new that couldn’t be monetised, and that I could also look forward to weekly. I figured it would be a step in the right direction, end my feelings of complacency and would hopefully give me the boost of confidence I needed to tackle all the other outstanding things that I wanted to get started on in my life.
In the first lesson, I just had to start to unlearn my fear of drowning and the water. I was surprised to learn that this thing I had mentally built up to be so hard, just wasn’t? Being surrounded by other beginners like me was reassuring too. In the second lesson I actually moved a few feet in the water albeit chaotically, I still moved. Fast forward to the 5th lesson and I was swimming half a length. I felt confused but so good about myself. I was improving my stamina, committing to something hard, showing up weekly and I was actually kind of- good? Getting better at it weekly and seeing progress!
What happened after this was mind-blowing, I just started doing things that I had either given up on or was putting off due to lethargy or fear of failure. Things that made me happy, confident or a better person. I was disciplined, I was meal-prepping, going to the gym, doing things I had wanted to do for years, investing in my appearance, and doing everything I said that I wanted to do. Whether that was moving into a new apartment, cutting my hair short, or dressing how I wanted to. Feeling the fear and doing it anyway. The pendulum in my mind swung from “I can’t do that” to “I’ll try my best and get better”.
This new way of thinking and living spread from my personal life into my career. I finally decided to make sure my brand looked and functioned how I had always envisioned it to be from the start: ignoring the fear of resources, time, and inaccessibility to what I needed.
I took the first step in the right direction in November 2021. 8 months later, now we are at the cusp of unveiling the end-product of that first step. 4 years of thinking, finally actualised within 8 months and now being regarded as “the best thing we have ever done for the brand to date”.
Typing this out, it reads a bit less incredible than what it actually is, but nonetheless, it is a lesson on unlearning and relearning that has borne great results for me over the past 6 months. I feel like my life has fast-tracked more in this time than it has in years, just because I decided to try a bit harder and keep trying until I see results.
I stopped taking failure too personally. I swim very well now, and whenever I drown in life: I try again when I am ready and see mistakes as my mind learning what not to do. Which sometimes is just as important as knowing what to do.
This is the story of how learning to swim in my mid-20s changed my thinking and probably my life.