Recently I went swimming for the first time in 14 years. I’m not talking about the leisurely swimming that involves slides, games and general fun. I’ve done that plenty of times. No, I’m talking about the kind of swimming where you swim lengths of the pool…or attempt to, in my case. When I was 9, I was a very good swimmer. At 23, not so much. Here are a few of my thoughts from my time in the pool:
1. Know when to breathe.
My biggest problem is that I just can’t get my breathing right. It’s infuriating! Despite trying to coordinate each breath with my arm strokes, by the end of each length I still find myself gasping for breath. This is something that I need to tackle if I want to consider swimming any remotely significant distances. It doesn’t matter how strong or fast I am, if I can’t learn to breathe properly it’s fairly useless.
In life and leadership, we need to learn how to breathe properly. If we don’t know how to catch our breath or relax, no amount of ability or strength will get us to where we want to be. We’ll end up gasping for breath and burning out long before we get there. Practically, this might mean switching off those emails during the weekend or choosing to make sure there is actually a day where we rest in order to find ourselves rejuvanated for the next distance.
2. I’m not Michael Phelps just yet.
In sport this is so obvious. I’ve just started swimming again after 14 years – there is no way that I’m going to be as good at swimming as Michael Phelps. His strength, stamina and technique far exceeds mine. It would be foolish for me to feel frustrated because I’m simply not at his level.
Similarly, one of my biggest bugbears are songwriters who are just starting out and feel frustrated because they can’t write songs at the calibre of geniuses like John Mayer, Ryan Tedder, Gary Barlow, Alicia Keys or Stevie Wonder. Of course you can’t! It would be like trying to race Mo Farah in the 5000m having jogged to your local shops a few times. It takes practice and dedication! Just like the instrument you want to write songs with, you have to practice in order to improve. Expecting instant virtuosity is ludicrous! It makes me sad because so many people write themselves off as songwriters simply because they aren’t great straight away.
I think as leaders, we are even more susceptible to ignoring this crucial fact. It’s so easy to see phenomenal leaders and expect to be as wise, thoughtful and inspirational as them. We assume that it’s natural; you either have it, or you don’t. But whilst leadership, like most other things can start with talent, it can only be improved with hard work, practice and experience. Bill Hybels, Senior Pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago is the inspirational leader he is because of a lifetime of practice. There is no way that at 23, I could possibly expect to lead like him. And that’s ok!
3. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
The truth is that there is no way I will improve my technique without help. I lack the knowledge and insight required to improve properly – yes, I will probably get fitter but that doesn’t solve my breathing problem totally…it will just make it more bearable. During that swim, I very quickly came to the realisation that I was going to need help. It looks very much like that will have to come in the form of swimming lessons. Or…I could carry on as I am to save the embarrassment of asking for lessons as a fully-grown adult. This isn’t an option really though – I want to get better in order to actually get fitter. To do that, I need to ask for help.
How often do we meander through life refusing the vastly beneficial help of others simply because we’re too proud to come out and ask for it? You might be pretty good at your chosen field but that doesn’t mean you can’t improve further. Why choose to ignore the wisdom of people that have walked this road before us when with their help, we could be far greater people as a result. We could do far greater things with the knowledge that others have gleaned over many years. Don’t let pride be a barrier to being the best that you can be.
– Know when to breathe / when to catch your breath. In order to live life as effectively as possible, we need to know when to rest.
– Don’t expect to be the best straight away. The people you aspire to be like got there with lots of practice.
– Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Pride can stop us from benefitting from the vast knowledge of others.