I have a wee secret to tell. I used to lie on the forms. Those health and safety forms for joining students on a school trip asking for my level of swimming ability. Out of four options: can’t swim; beginner; competent; advanced - I would select beginner. And it was a lie. I could not swim at all. Not even a single stroke. I just couldn’t bring myself to admit I was not able to swim. If I did, I imagined people whispering: Where has he been? What planet has he been on? At over forty years of age, surely he can swim - just a little bit!
Here’s the thing: my assumptions about my past restricted my future. I believed I was never going to be able to swim. Period. That I had the “no can swim gene”. That for some reason I was endowed with plenty of positive traits, but that for some reason or other I was never going to be able to swim. That was me sorted.
Then I began reading about the Growth Mindset. I discovered the latest neuroscience research which reveals that the brain is not a fixed entity, but plastic, malleable, able to be changed. That as we practice something new over and over again, we make and reinforce neuronal connections in the brain. Put simply:
All very well and good I thought, but maybe there are some things that can’t be changed. Like my “no swimming” gene. Or not… I decided to go on a mission to find out.
I took up swimming classes as an adult beginner. I was petrified! I didn’t want to get in the pool! I didn’t want to put my head under. I wanted to be anywhere but at that first lesson. But I turned up and gave it may all and swum my very first strokes that day. There was an awful lot of gulping of water and gasping for breath and I probably swam all of a metre. But my learning journey had begun.
Over the next year, I kept attending swimming lessons once a week. On many occasions I really didn’t want to go. I came up with all sorts of excuses: I’m too tired, I’ve got a sore throat, I’m too busy, etc etc. Yet I kept turning up week after week. Some days I felt I was making progress. Other days I felt like I was stalling or going backwards. It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t pretty. A lot of time it was hard - really hard. And I often didn’t want to do it.
At the end of my fourth term of taking beginner swimming lessons, we had a test swim - as many lengths of the pool as possible in half an hour. I swam 36 lengths! Yes, from 0 to 36 in four terms!
I didn’t manage to achieve this because I had some hidden “swimmers gene” I didn’t know about. Nor did I achieve it because I became obsessed with swimming and spent hours practising each day. I just showed up. Every week. Without fail.
Here's what I learnt: The discipline of regular practice week after week enabled me to change my own brain.
So this week when I was asked to complete the trip form I selected something different: not can't swim, not beginner, but competent. And this time it’s not a lie. I have changed my brain so I can now swim with competence. If I could go back in time, would I change my selection on the form so I was not telling a white lie? Yes I would. But more than that. I’d select can’t swim and then I’d add another word beside it : Yet. And as time would tell, the yet makes all the difference.
What is your next big learning challenge or stretch assignment?
What assumptions are worth shedding to give new meaning to your past experiences and open up opportunities for learning in the future?
What is the next yet for you?