Swimming in the Deep End

Lance Fear, Leadership Leave a Comment

Recently, a friend of mine made a pretty significant career move, leaving a place known well for a long time for a new, completely different work environment. During a conversation, I asked how the transition was going, having walked that particular road myself. The response was what you might expect from an experienced professional in a brand new place:

It’s good! Trying to swim fast without knowing how deep the water is.

Again, a very common sentiment, but it got me thinking. Here’s the thing about swimming: it’s the same principle regardless of the depth of the water:

  • Relax — trust the natural buoyancy of the human body to float
  • Keep your head above water — not even all the time, just enough of the time to breathe!
  • Propel yourself forward with your arms and/or legs — elegance isn’t required

What makes the notion of swimming in new waters of unknown depth a daunting prospect is Fear — fear of what will happen if you suddenly fail at swimming. Because, at the end of it all, being able to touch the bottom or not only becomes relevant if you find yourself failing at any of the above three steps. If you know how to swim, the distance between your toes and the bottom ceases to be relevant. It’s no different than walking a tight rope: the basic mechanics of focus and balance are no more difficult at one foot above the ground as at 100 feet. The difference is in the psychology of handling the elevated costs of failure.

As you move into the deep end of a a new area of challenge, whether it is a new project, a new role, or a new career entirely, understand the basic fundamentals that helped you swim like a dolphin and trust them. If you have the self-awareness to know what you know and what you don’t, the humility to acknowledge these things openly, and the appetite to learn both rapidly and deeply, then you will do fine in your new, deeper waters. You might make a bunch of noise splashing around, and nobody will mistake your form for the natural grace and efficiency of Katie Ledecky at first … but you won’t drown.

  • Forget the bottom
  • Ignore the Fear
  • Just swim