The second time around, did I learn my lesson and begin the next race differently? Yes, I did.
And so did the start of the second race go perfectly? Well, not exactly.
Once I entered the water, I found that, even though I hadn’t overdone my wading like the previous year and even though I had trained for this race, I still felt ill-prepared and overwhelmed. I wasn’t comfortable leaving my face in the water long enough to breathe the way I was used to in the pool. I couldn’t get enough air in. I couldn’t find a good rhythm. The bay water smelled briny and unpleasant. My strokes felt asymmetrical, inefficient, and slow. I was worried about getting too far off course, but sighting (picking my head out of the water to look) broke any momentum I had gained. I was distracted trying not to whack or get whacked by the other swimmers close all around me. The buoys that marked the course looked impossibly far away.
In other words, it sucked. And it continued to suck for what felt like a long time. I wondered what on earth I had been thinking to sign up for the race. I started thinking that open water swimming wasn’t for me, after all. After a while, though, my senses got used to the course environment, and I became more willing to apply the techniques I’d learned in training and less concerned about the other swimmers. A while later, I realized that I was moving along with a good rhythm, feeling strong and swift. I had moved into a comfortable mental space without even realizing it.
When I finished, I felt exhilarated, proud, and eager for the next race.
What did this experience teach me about leadership? Two things:
- First, sometimes starting something new sucks, and at least at first there’s not much we can do about it. It’s disorienting, and while we’re in that mental space, it’s hard to imagine getting into a groove or having momentum. The unfamiliar experiences are coming at us so fast that we don’t have adequate time to process them, let alone come up with a plan to deal with them. The key is to stop trying to figure out how to make it feel more comfortable and just accept that it’s going to feel weird at first. After a while, often without noticing it happen, we’ll realize it has become familiar. In other words, the best way to get through the initial discomfort of starting something new is to just ride it out.
- Second, even when we do our best to plan for a new endeavor, it usually unfolds differently than we imagined and feels more daunting and overwhelming. No matter how experienced we are, we may feel tempted to beat ourselves up for not being more capable and confident. Or we may begin regretting our decision to start in the first place. A good way to avoid these limiting and energy-wasting reactions is to anticipate feeling a little shaky at first. When we consciously and deliberately expect to feel disoriented and unsure, we won’t waste mental energy doubting our abilities and decisions.