Too afraid to learn
“If only I had learned swimming as a child! Now I am too old and it is too late for me to learn.”
As children, we are able to learn almost anything super fast. We can learn languages, pick up new sports (e.g. learn swimming), make new friends. The world seems like an ocean of opportunity for us.
As life goes on, our enthusiasm and adaptability to learn new things decreases. We become more set in our own ways and ways of thinking. We find it immensely difficult to start something new. Swimming is a prime example — the younger you are, the easier it is for you to learn swimming. The older we get, the more difficult it becomes to learn swimming.
Swimming is just a case in point. There can be plenty of other things that we, as adults, might feel like learning e.g.
- Learning how to play the guitar (so what that you weren’t the cool dude in college? There’s still time to Rock On!)
- Learning a new language
- Learning how to start your own business (maybe your family has never been into doing business, but you have the urge for it)
- Learning a new programming language, or any technical skill outside of work
- Bringing a change in your daily schedule that you have been following for years in order to accommodate a new activity
- etc. etc. etc.
The secret to learning something new
But we are either too afraid to learn the new thing, or we feel, after a few tries, that we are just not good enough at it.
Here’s where the secret to overcoming fear and learning something new comes in handy.
The secret recipe is simple — the most important thing is to SHOW UP. This means that we need to come back again and again to whatever it is that we want to learn and master.
The learning might take days or months, but spend enough time, and you WILL succeed.
The importance of showing up
This is not just me saying something on a whim. Here are some other people who spoke about the importance of “showing up”:
- In this TED talk (one of the most highly viewed talks at TED.com), Elizabeth Gilbert talks about the importance of “showing up”.
- This CNN article describes how repeated “showing up” was instrumental in the successes of Tiger Woods and Warren Buffet
- This New York Times bestseller “repeatedly mentions the ‘10,000-Hour Rule’, claiming that the key to success in any field is, to a large extent, a matter of practicing a specific task for a total of around 10,000 hours.” [Source: Wikipedia]
Of course, there are other aspects than just showing up e.g. continuous improvement and adjustment over time. But when it comes to overcoming the initial entry barrier in learning something, nothing helps more than diligently showing up again and again.
Why I started writing this post
Read the excerpt below from her book to find out… The excerpt is a bit long, so read it when you have the time. But I guarantee that it will be a good usage of your time. The piece is beautifully written and I am sure all of us “grown-ups” can learn a lesson or two from this.
Why Do I Swim?
[Excerpt from ‘Back to Pavilion‘ by Poonam Mulherkar]
It is almost summer time in Gandhinagar. Every morning at around 6 a.m., I am awakened by my ambitiously set morning alarm. As my body drifts into this partially awake state, for a blissful few seconds I feel only the joy of beginning a new day. And then suddenly it hits me, a sense of foreboding, a dread which makes my heart heavy as lead, and for some time I wonder what is it that I have to do today that makes my body react this way. Then it occurs to me. Of course, I have signed up to learn swimming this month. I am committed. I have paid the fees and there is no turning back. As the thought slowly percolates in, I force myself to sleep some more. After all I am going to need all my strength for this dreaded activity.
I could probably write a thesis titled ‘The 1001 merits of swimming and why one should do it’.
It is the beginning of summer in Gandhinagar and depending on how patronly the sun feels towards the residents of Gandhinagar, the peak temperature can be a moderate 40°C to a scorching 45°C. As we spend the day sampling any respite available — from drinking cool desi drinks like nimbu pani, panha, taak to material comforts like AC in every nook and corner possible — a long dip in the water probably provides the best way to thumb down the sun. Not only is it healthy for the body, it provides long lasting comfort without burning a hole in the already gaping ozone layer. I could probably write a thesis titled ‘The 1001 merits of swimming and why one should do it’. I write a chapter each morning, mentally, as my holier than thou ‘good’ mind battles over my chicken hearted ‘weak’ one.
I let them fight like this as I take care of my morning routine: a walk with Jaideep, making tea, packing Anand’s lunch box, getting him ready for school. All the time, my eyes sneaking up to the wall clock as it inches closer to the 9 a.m. start time for the class. An hour into this debate, and my weak mind has taken control of my body. My legs alternate between being sore in mysterious places to feeling numb.
… my mind and body go on a panic drive, seizing any excuse that is available.
‘Maybe I am coming down with something,’ I think hopefully, knowing very well that I am as fit as a fiddle. ‘Is Anand looking unwell today?’ I think guiltily, ashamed at how I can rope my poor son in to escape this. By the time it is 8.30 a.m., my mind and body go on a panic drive, seizing any excuse that is available. Is it too cold today to swim (even though the newspaper predicted another day of 43°C)? Or is it too hot (I could get a heat stroke, after all 9 am maybe too late to swim)? I vacillate like this as I mechanically do all the things I have to do: pack my swimming bag, wake up Siddharth who goes swimming with me as his summer vacation has started early.
Siddharth swims in water like he walks on land. He cannot understand why mom has this big phobia about swimming. ‘But it is fun, right mamma?’ he asks me quizzically observing my tense face as I hand him his breakfast. ‘Kinda,’ I say joking in a pseudo American accent. ‘If you like the idea of mental suicide every morning,’ I mutter under my breath. Meanwhile panic has gripped my throat and I don’t trust myself to talk much.
I recall how when we were in the U.S., Siddharth’s friend and his mom couldn’t believe that I couldn’t swim.
I recall how when we were in the U.S., Siddharth’s friend and his mom couldn’t believe that I couldn’t swim. They wanted to invite us for a pool party, and I had to confess that I couldn’t swim in a pool if it was even an inch deeper than my height. The mom sized me up at my 4’11” and realized there wasn’t much hope. Nevertheless she persisted, ‘You just kind of…’ and she showed me the free-style arm action, as if to say ‘well that’s all it takes to swim really, that and flapping your legs.’ She was well meaning and had this sincere incredulous expression like one would have when explaining how to walk to an able-bodied person.
Oh, how do I explain the numbness in my body as I approach the blue expanse of water
Oh, how do I explain the numbness in my body as I approach the blue expanse of water, the smell of chlorine and the shower which sends shivers down my spine, the disheartening feeling of shame as you see kids 1/5-th your age jumping gleefully in water. And it is not that I haven’t tried! Since the delicate age of 13, I have been learning to swim. Apart from the summers where I was too busy with life — working on my graduate degree, finding a job, getting married, having and raising kids — I have pushed down this dread, found a swimming pool and a teacher and ferreted out my old swimming costume. Only to be aghast that I could fit into this the last time I had been brave enough to swim! A new costume would be my good luck charm; I would hopefully believe and persist.
Over the years I have added a few paraphernalia which I would like to believe has contributed to my meagre progress in the pool.
‘A swimming cap really helps in streamlining your body. All that hair flying around is probably making it harder for you to keep afloat,’ advises a well wisher. Though I can think of many other parts of my body which need to streamlined, I get myself a sleek black one with a Nike logo, hoping their ‘Just do it’ will encourage me to take the plunge.
What you need Poonam is a pair of good swimming goggles
‘What you need Poonam is a pair of good swimming goggles. You are probably claustrophobic when you can’t open your eyes under water. This will help you see exactly where you are. Remember, awareness is strength,’ opined another friend.
As a result, every time I get into the pool, With my new lucky costume, my NIKE swimming cap, my cool swimming goggles I look like I might be giving some serious competition to Michael Phelps, or at least a state or district level swimmer!
While I flail about in the 4 feet pool, or during my short forays on the deep end of the pool, I have oft wondered of the sorry figure I cut. A middle aged woman (mind you, I don’t think of myself as the 37 year old the calendar puts me at) trying and failing at something which most folks say is really not that difficult.
But do I really cut a sorry figure?
But do I really cut a sorry figure? I have seen the envy of men and women younger than me who have confessed to the desire to swim along with the fear of deep water. How good it would be in this sweltering Indian summer to just take a soak in water. But then they convince themselves otherwise. It would take too much time, or Bunty’s xyz class is right around the same time, or the pool doesn’t have a separate time for women, or a common one for women is that a swimming costume is not flattering to their figure. To which I say, do the men in the pool have perfect James Bond V shaped bodies with rippling muscles. They get in, paunches and all, don’t they?
But I understand. I am, after all, the queen of excuses myself. At least I recognize them as excuses and get on with what I have to do. I smile at this thought as our car nears the swimming pool. My body works like an automaton now, signing in, taking a shower, warming up, but my mind is in overdrive. I am, what I tell Siddharth, mentally swimming, practicing my arm movements that are supposed to slice the water like a dagger, my kicks which should be evenly paced and straight, blowing bubbles out in the water, turning my head at the appropriate angle to take a breath in. Siddharth knows not to talk to me at such times. He is quietly supportive of my struggle with this fear. As I get into the pool for another foray into this water world I tell myself that today is a new day. I am inching closer to the ambition of swimming without fear, and kudos Poonam for trying again.
‘Aap ko pahunchne ki bahut jaldi hai (You are always in a hurry to reach the end)’
I ask myself some days why do I need to wage this mental war within? Can I not just put my arms down and concede to this overpowering fear that sometimes grips me? What do I gain from this struggle? A surprising lesson came from a frequent swimmer who witnesses my progress every day. ‘Aap ko pahunchne ki bahut jaldi hai (You are always in a hurry to reach the end)’, he said. ‘You speed up and lose the efficiency of each stroke. Then you get tired and more inefficient, and then it is a vicious cycle. The key is to just focus on 4 strokes and a breath. Make them the best they can be and forget about what the future holds. Apne aap pahunch jaoge jahan jaana hai (You will automatically reach where you have to go).
Why, that was a valuable nugget for life! If only I could enjoy each stroke, each day as it comes, give it my best, and not worry about what tomorrow brings. That is the exact same message, albeit in different words, I got when I learnt the Sudarshan kriya at the Art of Living Centre. Through the years I have collected many such nuggets of life as I slowly struggle forward, learning a bit more about myself every day.
I secretly hope that the quiet Siddharth, who has swum 20 laps in half the time I took to swim 2, who waits patiently as I start each plunge in the pool with a mental review of my swimming concepts (yes I am nerdish that way), and a quick prayer to the god of swimming (with 33 crore deities in the Hindu mythology, I am sure there is one for this), is learning some implicit lessons along with mom. That it is ok to keep trying for something you really, really want. That adults get scared of small things too, but to pick yourself up with whatever little you have, and start walking (or swimming) towards where you want to go, to acknowledge the fears within but not get bullied by them, that is when you can call yourself a grown up. And that, ultimately, is why I swim.
Poonam Mulherkar is a biomedical engineer by training and a first time writer. ‘Back to Pavilion’ is loosely based on what she and her family experienced as they started their journey of settling back in India (after living for many years in USA). [Adapted from the back cover of ‘Back to Pavilion’]
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[Featured image credits: Krissy.Venosdale]