“I only dog paddle!”

Starting early in my career, I developed a habit of saying yes to everything. Not because I didn’t have boundaries (although that may have also been true for a time), but because I genuinely wanted to do The Thing in question – all the things! I just might not have known how to do it yet…Apparently I’d been taking my cues from Sir Richard Branson who has said,

“If you don’t know how to do something, say yes and learn how to do it later.”

You don’t grow in your comfort zone, unfortunately. You have to take a leap of faith, push through that zone into that uncomfortable space where learning and growing and stretching take place. Just jump into the deep end. You’ll learn how to truly swim in the process. You can’t dog-paddle your way through life – it’s exhausting, gets you nowhere, and you’ll end up drowning anyway.

But…what if I jump in the deep end and I drown! What if I fail? That’s a real risk, too. You don’t want to jump into the deep end if you can’t at least tread water confidently. What skills do you have that can scaffold you until you are swimming competently? Make sure you are taking a calculated risk, not a foolhardy one. My toddler was confident that she could swim because she just wanted to so badly. Right up until she sunk like a stone and had to be fished out.

This metaphor is really working for me. But obviously what we are really talking about is professional growth. You cannot allow yourself to remain stagnant if you want to continue to succeed; and, while failure is part of the learning process, you also can’t allow yourself to fail too hard, fast, and frequently. There is a balance to be struck, and everyone is going to have a different fulcrum point when it comes to striking it. Where is yours? Are you a “fools-rush-in” type, or an “I only dog paddle” type?

How this intersects with the way you develop other people matters considerably. You may have a dog-paddler who needs to be encouraged to dip a toe into the learning zone (now I’m mixing my metaphors, bear with me!) – but if you just push them in, they’ll freak out and flounder. Or maybe you have an eager beaver who needs help seeing she’s out of her depth. How easily you can help others find this balance depends in part on how clearly you see yourself. Two “blind fools” are equally likely to drown each other as two dog-paddlers.

And say you find the perfect point – maybe my toes can just touch the bottom but I have to work to stay afloat – you work, you strive, you learn. That’s exhausting work, all that stretching and growing. If you climb out of the water just to rush off to find another deep pool to jump in, you’re not going to have the same resources for the next dive. You need to be cognizant of giving yourself and others time and space to recover, reflect, and really let the learning take root. People who are naturally inclined to take that leap are also likely going to be the people rushing on the the next big thing – this exacerbates the risk. I’m talking about your high potentials, your high-striving, ambitious talent. It can be irresistible in the face of their eagerness to want to develop them post haste, but they need the chance to catch their breath as much as the reluctant jumpers.

There are two other factors at play in this scene I want to explore later. What determines the faith that begets the leap? Why do some people believe that they’ll figure it out in the process, and why do some people worry that maybe they won’t? This issue of expectation is really at the root of a lot of behavioral patterns related to growth and development. As is the question of why? Why are they jumping or pausing? Toward what end? This latter issue speaks to bigger questions of purpose, identity, and values.

But for now, I will leave you with this: