I’m at the pool and my kiddo bounds out of his swim lesson and begs to show me his new tricks. I stand poolside while he jumps in and sets himself up to push off the edge and do something awesome. His feet slip all over and he can’t seem to get his footing without his face plunging under water. Face back out, he takes a breath and loses his feet. He tries again. And again. Thrashing and plunging, then stabilizing. Over and over. He’s not getting it. I’m standing there, patiently amused, enjoying how adorable he is in one of those freeze frame moments. As he dunks down, pops up gasping and squiggles around like a drunk little octopus, I think to myself ‘man, he is totally sucking at this.’
I keep expecting him to get frustrated. There’s certainly been some head-exploding frustrations roll through our household. But he just keeps looking up, making sure I’m still watching, an earnest smile plastered across his face. Then he gets it. Front roll in the water. Then back to square one. Suck-suck-sucking. Failed attempt after failed attempt until he gets it again. And again. And again.
When he climbs out of the pool he’s beaming with pride and satisfaction. Pride typically comes with a job well done, but in my experience, satisfaction is far deeper when you have to work something out in order to get there. I got the advice early on to always praise qualities over achievement. I look at him with wide-eyed wonder and say “dude, how ‘bout that perseverance!? You just stayed with it and stayed with it. Do you know that lots of adults have a hard time trying something difficult over and over like that?” He does his little shock and surprise head waggle and breaks a smile. “Seriously buddy, keep that up and you’ll totally be the person you want to be.”
Somewhere in the middle of the eight years I ran my salon for, we expanded into a day spa. It totally failed. When I sent out the newsletter announcing the closure, I included the Winston Churchill quote “Success is moving from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” That’s what happened in the pool. So what lesson can we take from this little guy who’s schooling me daily?
Your project is not who you are: Next time you want to do something, consider: “I’m just doing tricks in the pool of life.” Who you are and your self-worth as a person has nothing to do with how this goes. You might get knocked around, lose your footing and gasp for air. But that’s just part of getting where you’re going.
Each attempt shows you something new: If I move a bit more this way, or lift up a bit more that way, this could work. Course correction and applied wisdom helps you get better with the next throw. Capacity and confidence grow through doing.
The effort is probably worth more than the outcome: Like I said about the satisfaction with effort. That front roll was a fleeting outcome. Great to get to, no doubt. But the next time you want to pull something off, it’s not your past achievements that will get you there, it’s the qualities and capacities that you brought to those achievements and the ones that haven’t yet emerged.
Have a loving witness: Tell your closest people what you’re attempting. Show them along the way. Be vulnerable and brave enough to invite them in to witness your failures. Scary at first, but having loving attention, unwavering support and ‘you’ve got this, keep going’ shouted at you are very stabilizing and energizing.
All in commitment: There was no “let me try and see if I can pull off these tricks.” He was showing me his tricks. Stand there getting cold until I do it, mom. When you’re waiting to see if it’s going to work, you’ll respond very differently to challenges than you will if you know you’re going to find the way to make it work.
Appreciate your new edges: These were new tricks. He didn’t expect perfection, that’s absurd in uncharted territory. Every time you take on something new, something that matters, there are new edges. If you’re clumsy, wobbly, awkward or moving like a drunk octopus, cut yourself some slack and keep moving.
It’s an art, throwing yourself so earnestly and fully into something, giving it the best of you as though your life depends on it, while simultaneously letting go into utter insignificance. It’s an art that both creates great work and helps to keep us sane, centered and able to view failure as progress. Which it is.