Let your overachieving spirit take a rest, so you can find your happiness. Rediscover the joy you had as a child by just having fun with no goal in sight. Average is the new perfect if you decide to aspire to mediocrity.
One of the things I’m most proud of as an adult is being a terrible swimmer.
It took months of hard work to get to that point. Although I took a few rounds of swim lessons as a child and practically lived at the pool every summer, I never really learned how to swim. I goofed off with my friends, played Marco Polo or underwater tea party. I used the breast stroke and doggie paddle to get around, and I completely forgot (or maybe never quite learned) the basic crawl.
When I decided I wanted to race a triathlon, the first task on my To Do List was learn how to swim. Luckily, I worked at a gym as a spin and yoga instructor at the time, so the pool manager was a friend of mine. I asked Marissa to create a workout for me and warned her of my complete lack of ability. On my first day I arrived to see a whiteboard detailing my workout at the edge of the pool. I couldn’t even complete the warm-up. I expected some hand-holding, but Marissa just told me to do my best. She didn’t even get in the pool with me! As I swam, she watched, offered tips and corrections, but nothing more. Her teaching style reminded me a lot of my yoga guru in India. I had to trust my teacher, and my teacher trusted me to figure it out on my own.
I hated it. Every minute I spent in the pool felt more like drowning practice than swim practice. I couldn’t get the breathing right. After years of vocal and yogic breathing lessons, I found it extremely difficult to release my well-honed breathing techniques and learn another. I plunged ahead, taking advantage of my ability to hold my breath for a long time. Midway down the lap lane, my blue face popped up gasping for air. I did this for forty-five minutes, three days a week, for over a month. Every second was pure misery, but one thought kept me going:
You hate swimming because you’re bad at it. Everybody hates doing something they’re bad at. People who know how to swim LOVE it, so you probably will to. As soon as you can swim for 30 minutes without stopping, you can decide to quit and never put on goggles again. But until you’re good at it, it doesn’t matter if you don’t like it.
One day, I suddenly learned how to breathe in the water. What was once a struggle became effortless. It was like getting a new body: one with fins and gills. One that could move in water with the same ease as it walked on land. I became an amphibian.
At first it was a rush. I was thrilled to finally enjoy my previous torture. I followed Marissa’s advice and improved my stroke. I challenged myself with workouts from triathlon training books. For the first time, my goal seemed not only plausible, but also tangible. And then…
it stopped being fun.
Once I started to focus on increasing my speed, I lost something I loved. But what could it be? I detested my earlier struggle, so why did getting better feel so bad?
It took me a while to realize: I enjoyed not being good at something. In that gym, I was normally an instructor. Every time I taught a spin class, members would fix their intentions on beating me during sprints. It was my job to win and keep dangling a carrot to motivate them. When I taught yoga, students would watch, emulate, and try to reach beyond me as well. There is nothing wrong with that; I did the same to my instructors. But it put a lot of pressure on me. I didn’t use the weight room, because again, I was a walking challenge to every member. Opening the door to the pool area opened a path to imperfection. I knew I wasn’t good and so did everyone else. A weight was lifted. Once I started improving, the pressure returned.
It wasn’t just pressure from being a fitness instructor. As an American woman with a strong perfectionist streak, I realized that I attempt to succeed at EVERYTHING I do. In many ways that ambition has served me well. I push myself to excellence and have achieved success. But there is a flip side to that: life always seemed like work. My relentless pursuit to do better and be better was exhausting and joy-sucking.
Learning how to swim reminded me of what it felt like when I first practiced yoga: a whole new world full of possibilities opened. Becoming an instructor was one of the best things I ever did, but it also took something away from me. My personal yoga practice now feeds my teaching, which is good and necessary, but also draining. I missed the time when yoga was only about me. Learning to swim awakened the beginner, the seeker, the empty vessel inside of me. Progress meant filling my vessel with knowledge, ability, skill and experience. Something inside of me resisted that. Part of me needed to remain empty.
I didn’t want to be better; I just wanted to be.
I stopped training, but kept swimming. I am the slowest swimmer in every pool I enter. I don’t push myself to be faster. The steady cadence of stroke and breath is pure meditation. In the silence of water, I hear my own voice. My writing often begins without a pen or computer, just an idea which elongates in the spaciousness found underwater. I enjoy not trying to be best at something. In fact, I relish my mediocrity. I swim because I like to swim, and that’s it. I’m no longer bad at it, but I’m not good either. In most aspects of my life I propel myself forwards, towards progress and the promise of perfection. In the eight years that I have been a swimmer, I have not improved at all. I am content to stay where I am and simply enjoy the feeling of my body gliding through water. Not forwards, not backwards. Just moving in place.
I believe they call that dancing.