The lifeguard is there to protect us. That is what we believe. The lifeguard is there to bail us out when we get into trouble, when we move beyond our capabilities. The lifeguard is the assurance that someone will take care of us when the swimming gets to be difficult or we grow tired. But the lifeguard is not always there, and the lifeguard is not always fast enough to save you.
Let’s begin by saying a thing that should go without saying: this is not actual swimming advice; this is what we call figurative language. Swim at your own risk.
Safety limits progress.
Like most of our reassurances, lifeguards hold us back. They keep us comfortable in the knowledge that someone else is taking care of us. They allow us to believe that everything will be fine as long as they are there.
But that isn’t a great way to push your limits. It actually prevents you from knowing where your limits are. And until you know that, you won’t be able to stretch them. It is important to know we were are nearing exhaustion. It’s important to know that we can go a little further if we have to. There is a huge difference between “I’m too tired to swim anymore, but the lifeguard will save me.” and “I’m too tired to swim anymore, but if I don’t I will drown.” The path will be hard, there will be obstacles, and we need to practice overcoming those without relying on someone else to save us right before we do.
When I was in school, I was often writing for the class, for the workshop. I was writing because I had assignments. This is not a sustainable model unless you are always in school, always under someone else’s direction. Our motivation has to come from within. We write because we enjoy writing, because we appreciate what writing does for us, because we are good at it. At least, we should. If we write because someone tells us to, because someone is looking over our shoulder requiring a certain number of stories or pages, we will stop writing when that person isn’t there. I have done this too many times to list. The more you can rely on internal motivation, however, the more you can swim without supervision, the more you will grow.
Safety limits opportunity.
Some of the best places to swim, some of the best times to swim, do not have lifeguards. Nightswimming, secluded beaches, private pools. When you rely on the lifeguard for safety, you limit your exposure to new experiences. If instead, you rely on your swimming skills, and you know your limits, you can swim comfortably without the lifeguard there. That is freeing.
When we are looking to take risks, we often want someone there to tell us it will be alright. We want someone to reassure us that we are making the right decision. I often experience this feeling in the middle of a project. After I’ve had the idea and made the first few attempts at it, I begin to doubt myself. I begin to reach out to find examples of other people who have written about my topic, or written in the style that I’m attempting. Or, I seek advice. I am searching for reassurance. I’m looking for the lifeguard.
But if we are really wanting to create something new, we won’t find the lifeguards. We won’t find the examples that tell us it’s possible. We can’t expect greatness to come from the water where everyone else is comfortably swimming. We have to try, and we have to fail. That’s how we learn; that’s how we stumble onto something new.
Safety limits invention.
Lifeguards have whistles and rules and strict ideas about running around the pool. They have to because they are GUARDING LIVES. They are there to ensure no one gets hurt. Or, in the case of many swimming pools, they are there to ensure that the pool owners liability is limited in case of injury or death. But we’re there to learn how to swim; we’re there to have fun; we’re there to explore. And we can’t do that very well when someone’s constantly blowing a whistle and saying “don’t.”
Running around the pool can lead to serious injury, but it can also teach you how slick the pool deck is. Diving in the shallow end might result in some scrapes and bruises (or concussion), but it can also show you the mechanics of the dive, the way your body moves through water. We have to risk injury to find new ways to have fun, to play. Great ideas, great writing often come from play. They come when we don’t expect because we’ve allowed our minds to focus on the fun.
What is your lifeguard?
Find a way to identify and remove one of your creative lifeguards. When you write, do you hear the lifeguard blowing the whistle, telling you no? (Hint: we all do.) Those warnings often keep us from something great. Try silencing them, or at least turning down the volume. I had to do that a few times with this post. I heard my lifeguard saying, “You can’t write that. You’re a father.” or “Good god, man, think of the children!” Maybe it wasn’t that clear or dramatic, but you get the idea.
Channel your childhood self, the mischievous one who enjoyed pushing the limits, who would dive in from the side of the pool when the lifeguard wasn’t looking. I realize that could just be my personality. Not everyone had this instinct as a child. Maybe you followed the rules even when no one was around. If you did, then this is probably even more important for you. So channel the kid who did. You know who that was. Get inside his/her head and cause a little ruckus.
Try writing in a different genre without first trying to learn all the rules. Maybe you were beaten over the head with, “NEVER START A SENTENCE WITH A CONJUNCTION.” So start every sentence with a conjunction. Or try the George Constanza method of doing the opposite of every instinct you have. You probably won’t write something great, but you might learn something. Have fun taking small risks so you’ll be more comfortable taking bigger ones later.
I want to hear about your lifeguards, about the rules that prompt whistle blowing for you. Leave a comment below and maybe we can find a way to push your limits.
Disclaimer Two: I appreciate lifeguards, and I am very glad that they work hard to save lives and protect people.