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Self-Imposed Limitations

When I was a sophomore in college, I attended Mills College in Oakland, California. It was only for one year, but that one year really changed my life. It’s a women’s college, so I didn’t have the distractions of guys in my classes. But that’s not what changed my life. What changed my life was their swimming pool.

Right in the middle of campus, next to the bookstore and coffee shop was a pool, with lap lanes. It wasn’t a large pool, but something about it attracted me. So I bought a black Speedo bathing suit and started swimming laps every day. The pool couldn’t have been too long (maybe 15 or 20 yards), because I could hold my breath the entire length of the pool. Between swimming daily laps, and cutting my food consumption down to 1,000 calories a day, I lost about 25 pounds my last semester and gained a ton of self-esteem.

Even when I came to work on the L.A. produce market with my mom that summer, I had someone come up to me to ask me where my sister was? The one who had been working there the summer before? Well, that “sister” was me! I looked transformed.

And that was the last time I swam laps. Until about three months ago.

Thanks to COVID, I have had to be creative about my exercise routine. We quit our gym membership, bought a Peloton® to do indoor cycling, have been doing running and taking 5–10 mile fast walks. Because I can’t go to Orangetheory® for my cardio, I have been using the Concept2® Rower my partner Jack had at home (as a Triathlete/Ironman, of course he has a rower at home). And three months ago, the community pools in our development opened up.

I told Jack that I loved to swim, but it had been years. Literally more than 40 years since I swam laps. But I pulled out my swimming suit and we headed to the pool one day. Man, was it long. Way longer than I recall that pool at Mills College was. I was told it was 25 yards. So four lengths (two laps) was 100 yards.

Right away, in my head, I’m thinking that I am going to get side cramps. And that my sore right shoulder is going to make it difficult to swim more than a lap or two before I have to rest. So, I swam two lengths of the pool. Not too bad. I didn’t push it and I noticed that my shoulder liked me being in the water and I did not get one single side cramp.

We were swimming in adjacent lanes, and every few days Jack would suggest a new “twist” on my swimming.  He would shoot a video so I could see my awkward strokes—I was able to fix that right away. He would time my swim, when I did four lengths (two laps) of the pool without stopping. I was so slow, especially compared to him. When I asked how I could learn to swim faster, he suggested using the rower to build upper body and shoulder strength since that is what helped him. So, I started rowing 15 minutes daily.

Finally, Jack dropped the big challenge on me last week. “Let’s swim 20 lengths of the pool straight through,” he says. I’m like, “ARE YOU KIDDING ME?? 20 lengths? I can only do four.” I told him how much my arms would hurt and that my shoulders couldn’t take it.

That’s when Jack said, swimming 20 lengths is not hard because of your arms. It’s your breathing. And I’ve been watching you, timing you, etc. for two months. I think you’re ready. He’s been a good coach, and I trust him. (After all, he got me to do two half-marathons in the last four months!)

So, I adjusted my goggles, took a deep breath, and started swimming. I counted my strokes: one, two, three, four (then took a breath). Back and forth. Staying calm. He was right—my arms didn’t hurt at all. And because I was concentrating on counting my strokes and pacing my breathing, I didn’t find myself out of breath.

At the end of 20 lengths of the pool, I stopped, pulled my head out of the water and started talking to Jack about how I could just keep swimming. Wow—I cannot believe that came out of my mouth!

Have you ever told yourself that you couldn’t do something? Whether it’s related to the pandemic, to your personal or business life—it doesn’t matter. I told myself I could only swim two lengths of the pool. Then I could only swim four. And then one day, I received a new challenge and I easily swam 20 lengths of the pool.

I think that it is the same way with life. Perhaps you thought you could never work from home; but then the pandemic happened. Or you had to always have breakfast—then you learned about intermittent fasting and found yourself not eating until noon each day.

I think all of us have self-limiting beliefs or self-imposed limitations. Consider what yours are. What stories do you tell yourself? What things do you not try because that is what you’ve always done, or what you’ve never done?

Next time you are telling yourself what you cannot do, I want you to think: two lengths of the pool . . . four lengths of the pool . . . 20 lengths of the pool . . . the goals are limitless!


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