A few years back, my brother’s Christmas gift to me was the registration to an open water (outside) swim race he had discovered in Baltimore. I was touched that he was sharing his new interest with me and excited to try this two-mile swim in the northern reach of the Chesapeake Bay.
But first I needed to find out whether and how fast I could swim a mile. Because my training was going to take place in a pool, this entailed counting laps. I was in the long-time habit of swimming by time. I’d just look at the clock before I started, peek at it every now and then during the swim, and stop whenever my time was up.
Counting laps was unthinkable to me. I knew myself to have a scattered, forgetful mind, and it seemed impossible that I could ever keep track of a mile's worth of laps (66), let alone two miles’ worth. I couldn’t imagine anyone being able to do that. I felt if someone could keep track of that many laps of a pool, they were so different from me as to be almost another species. I’m not joking. That’s how foreign it felt.
I figured I’d try it, but I didn’t expect much. I knew I wasn’t someone who could count laps.
I came up with a few strategies to help me remembering my count. I began associating each lap number with something in my life: 9, both my husband’s and my day of birth. 23, the street number of my childhood house. 60, the year my parents got married. It not only helped me keep track of the laps, but the associations gave me something to think about during such a long swim.
Other times, I kept my brain busy by doing mental math problems about my progress. When will I be one-third finished? What about three-quarters? What percentage of the mile have I completed now? And now? This approach gave me fun puzzles to figure out and made the swim go faster.
To my utter amazement, counting laps started to get easier, and, after a while, it became so effortless that I didn’t even need my strategies anymore. I would just jump in and start counting. No big deal. When I occasionally forgot which lap I was on, I just rounded down and kept moving forward. No big deal.
Now? I’m totally someone who can count laps.
This experience taught me that just because I see myself one way with absolute certainty doesn’t mean it’s necessarily true or that it can’t change. And it’s the same for everyone, including you. Even if we’ve had a certain opinion of ourselves for a very long time, it’s still possible to take another look and discover new things about us. It takes these three things:
A willingness to try: This is the most important first step. It all begins with the tiniest opening of possibility, the thinnest sliver of curiosity. Even when we just know we won’t be able to do it, we’re still willing to see what happens. Even though we fully expect to fail, we see it through as an experiment in trying something new.
Creative thinking based on self-knowledge: My strategies to learn how to count laps were tailored to what I know about myself. I’ve never been one to do something just because. I need it to be meaningful and purposeful, or else it feels boring and excruciating to me. So associating the laps with important events and people in my life infused each lap with significance. I also really enjoy puzzles, so figuring out percentages and fractions was fun for me. (I know, I need to get out more.) Someone else might have had more luck with other methods, but these worked for me.
Stepping away from the vantage point from which we’re used to viewing ourselves: I call it shifting the lens on the kaleidoscope. A slight turn of the hand and everything looks different. Did I magically gain the ability to count laps once I decided to enter the open water swim race? Of course not. I was capable of doing so all along; I just hadn’t seen the possibility, so I had never asked it of myself before. I hadn’t allowed myself the opportunity to demonstrate all I could do.
My transformation into someone who effortlessly counts laps made me wonder in what other areas of my life I’m assuming something isn’t possible for me before I even try. What else am I dismissing as an option before even I consider it? I’m going to give it some thought.
What are you dismissing because it doesn’t fit with what you know about yourself?
Is there something that would get you where you want to go that you’re not doing because you just assume you can’t? Avenues it doesn’t even occur to you to consider taking? Options you dismiss out of hand without even a second’s worth of thought? What would it take for you to give it a try?
Was there something you assumed you couldn’t do, and then when you gave it a try, it turned out you could do it after all?
Please share. I’d love to hear from you!