The TV show GamesMaster used to make my stomach churn. We’d watch it every Tuesday evening before swimming. I liked to swim but I hated going to those group swimming lessons. There were so many kids, most of whom I didn’t know, the teachers spent the whole time screaming in an attempt to keep this bobbing mass of youngsters under control, and I was in a different set from my brothers.
Once you graduated from the children’s pool the main pool was divided into three areas. The shallow end, the middle and the deep end. I was in the shallow end set and I was just about comfortable with that. I could poke my nose above water if I stood on my tip toes and if it was a stroke I wasn’t sure about I could stick to the edge of the pool.
One night when I was 7 or 8 one of the teachers – we called her Squeak on account of her particular brand of high pitched voice when squealing instructions – pulled me out of the pool. “You’re moving up to the next set tonight. You don’t need to be in the first group anymore.”
As she motioned to the teacher leading the middle set I was panic stricken and immediately started to cry. In the middle set I wouldn’t be able to touch the bottom of the pool. And there was no side to hold onto. I’d be out in open ocean and I was afraid I might not be a strong enough swimmer for that.
When Squeak saw my tears she said, “It’s ok. You don’t have to move up if you don’t want to. Do you want to stay where you are?” I nodded my head, hoped no one was looking and got back into the shallow end.
The next day on the playground a girl from the year below me came over. “You were the wee girl crying at swimming last night, weren’t you? Did you not want to move up? My big sister’s in the middle set.” I was hit by a wave of emotions that were confusing to me at the time but now I can name every flavour. Fear, shame, inadequacy, humiliation, judgment – a heady brew.
I’ve felt that same cocktail of emotions on numerous occasions throughout my life. Not least in the world of business. Being part of particular professional groups or business networks is a lot like being part of that heaving mass of kids at swimming. It’s very easy to look around at what everyone else is doing and compare yourself to them and the progress they’re making. And there’s usually a fair amount of ego and bravado on display. People preach mantras like “take massive action,” “just fucking do it,” and “stop waiting for permission.” Each of these things have their place and there is a time for repeated and consistent massive action even when you don’t feel ready. But there is also a time for admitting that you’re not ready and allowing yourself to stay in the incubator a little longer.
We all have times where we’ve stepped back when the world was screaming at us to step forward. We all have opportunities we’ve let slip through our fingers because we were scared or overwhelmed or felt like a fraud. We don’t have to feel ashamed of it or judge ourselves or others for needing a little longer in the shallow end. It’s all part of the process.
I don’t remember the exact progression but it wasn’t long before I would go to the pool and jump straight in at the deep end.