How swimming with sharks helped me find focus and face my fears

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Life begins at the end of your comfort zone

~ Neale Donald Walsh

I’m probably not telling you anything new there, am I?

Most of us, though, are staying well within our comfort zone, because it is, well – comfortable. I think we should leave that bubble for a bit and go exploring to see what else life has to offer.

The stuff that scares us is often exactly what we should be doing more of. And it feels rewarding when we’ve accomplished it, be it public speaking, applying for a new job, learning a new skill, talking to strangers, going down a challenging ski slope, telling your crush how you feel about them, asking your boss for a raise, telling your mother in law that you know quite well how to clean windows or travelling around South East Asia by yourself.

Ask yourself this question

Typically when I find myself looking at a scary challenge, I assess whether it is a sensible thing to do by asking myself this one question:

What is the worst thing that can happen?

If the answer is ‘death’ then I’ll probably rethink it, at least to minimise the chance of finding an untimely end at the edges of my comfort zone.

If death is very unlikely, then I’m very likely to do it. That’s because I don’t want to die but I want to experience as much as I possibly can in this life on earth.

So what about those sharks?

(Mum, please stop reading here)

IMG_0004.jpgI’m currently in Manly, New South Wales, a suburb of Sydney that is famous for its spectacular beach and the pleasant ferry ride it takes to get here from the city. The people of Sydney (at least in the areas where I used to live and work) are obsessed with sports, fitness and being outside, on land an in the water, and Manly is certainly no exception.

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From about 5.30am you will find runners and surfers, cyclists and yogi, swarming around the beach, the side streets and in the waves. You will see groups of people on the grass areas along the beach as well as on the sand, boxing, doing push ups, situps, beach sprints and just generally exhausting themselves in the pursuit of health, fitness and a fine physique.

 

 

 

The Bold and Beautiful

And then there are the swimmers. Every morning at 6am, 6.30am and 7am you can join the ‘Bold and Beautiful’, a social swim group that swims from the south end of Manly Beach to Shelley Beach, about 750m one way, before turning around to get back to the start.
IMG_0139You can join them free of charge and it’s a social and fun swim out and a bit of a race back. These guys swim all year ’round. Some would say they’re mad, I think they’re commendable.

I had heard about this swim when we lived here, but because we were in the city, it was impossible to turn up on time, so I never joined. But now that we’re staying here I decided to give it a go.

What’s the worst that can happen, right?

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So on Tuesday I joined the 7am group, together with my swim buddy Vincent and around 600 other people (including, as it turned out later, our friend Jacques). It was a public holiday, so the group was rather large, but apparently those numbers are not out of the ordinary.

The swim was truly awesome. The water was nice at 21C (70F) and the sun was shining down on us. We headed out from the beach, passing the surf and staying clear of the rocks.

Then came the moment when, for the first time in my life, I saw a shark. Below me. It was alive and swimming. It wasn’t a great white shark, and at about 2 feet long it certainly wasn’t big. But it scared the shit out of me and I wasn’t quite sure what to do next. Turn around?
I figured that among the 600 other people surely there would be someone slower and tastier than me, so I kept swimming. A couple of minutes later I spotted the next shark. This wasn’t so fun anymore. But as everyone else seemed to be happily swimming towards Shelley Beach I figured I would just do the same.

But I was certainly awake now. Nothing like a potential killing machine two metres below you to wake you up and sharpen your senses. At the same time I noticed myself smiling, because it is actually quite spectacular to swim in the open ocean at sunrise and come close to such a magnificent animal.

On the way back to the start I didn’t see anymore sharks, but there were plenty of colourful fish and we also spotted a couple of rays. Coming out of the water I was happy and smiling and ready to tackle the day and I actually couldn’t wait to do it all again.

And I did. Two days later in somewhat colder temperatures.

Swimming again

This time there were fewer people, about 50 in the 6.30am group, which I joined so I’d get to the office by 8.30.
I swam out to the ‘point’ with a couple of girls and when we got there, they floated in the water, pointing down, so I expected some pretty fishies. But no, they spotted a shark and were quite excited about it. Bloody Aussies! I kinda hoped I wouldn’t see any this time, but clearly it wasn’t to be, so I tried to admire this ‘Dusky Whaler‘. Then we waited for the rest of group to get there and headed to Shelley Beach. I saw another shark, of course, and by now I was really focused on what was happening around me.

I actually enjoyed that. I’ve noticed in the past few months that I can get easily distracted by stuff around me and social media with its endless notifications doesn’t help with that. So finding something like that swim where I was so present in the moment and focused purely on swimming (and not being eaten by a shark), was quite a revelation for me.

Again, I came out of the water feeling a million bucks.

Certainly refreshed, but also satisfied from the physical exercise, as well as having a bit of adrenaline rushing through my system from the shark encounter.

 

Was it really that dangerous?

Probably not and I didn’t feel in great danger while I was swimming, but I certainly was aware of potential threat and started seeing (or imagining) shark fins and movements of ‘large fish’ below me. And I quite enjoyed challenging my mind to quieten down, to focus on swimming and to push through the fear.

So what?

Well, coming face to face (or fin) with a shark was one of those big fears I had and I never thought I’d have to confront it. But suddenly it presented itself and I didn’t lose a leg or an arm or my life. I just swam over him/her and that was it. Coming out smiling at the other side makes me realise once again that so many of our fears are a mental game and can build up to unreasonable levels the longer they’re unaddressed.

I’m not suggesting to jump into a shark tank at the nearest aquarium (in fact, never go there, don’t support those places that confine wild creatures into tiny locked up areas), but I think it is a good idea to confront our fears sooner rather than letting them fester.

Next up: Public speaking

Okay, this isn’t such a big deal for me anymore. I used to get very nervous before presenting to a crowd, now I ‘just’ get excited. I think it’s because I finally get to talk about topics that I am passionate about and interested in, which makes everything a lot easier.

My friend Matt gave me some helpful advice a while back in saying ‘make sure you’re the person who knows more about the topic than anyone else in the room’.
I can’t claim that’s always the case, but I do make sure I know what I’m talking about, or I talk about the things I know. And I prepare and rehearse. And rehearse again, several times for each presentation until it flows (more or less 😉 ).

It might not be a big fear anymore to get up in front of a crowd and put myself at their ‘mercy’ but I know it will be one of those moments again when I’ll have to focus on one single thing and be sharp and present.

Monday will give me a chance to do just that. Twice.

Maybe I should go swimming in the morning…

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