Dipping your toes in the side of the pool will get you nowhere: dive in!

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swimmingI had a powerful and visceral lesson about the importance of doing vs. analyzing yesterday that has tremendous implications for wannabe entrepreneurs.

My two-year old son Josh had his first swimming lesson.

We haven’t taken him swimming too much in his short life, but when we have, he has enjoyed it, so I thought he would jump right in and enjoy the lesson.


He was totally terrified, clinging to me like a baby monkey to his mama in the face of dangerous hunters.  When the kind, experienced and gentle instructor asked me to bring him to the edge of the pool, he screamed, yelled and gripped me harder.  My first instinct was to protect him, so I said “Maybe he should just watch for this first lesson so he gets more comfortable.”

She smiled, and said “No, it actually is better if he just goes in.  The first 3 classes will be the hardest, but then he will adjust and things will be fine.”

I sat in pained maternal silence as I watched him scream and thrash in the water for his first 1 minute (very safe) drill.  After he was done, he climbed out of the pool and clung furiously to my leg.

This continued for two more short drills (swishing around in circles in the instructor’s arms).  His cries got a little less intense each time, and his clinging a bit more relaxed.

Then, at the 10 minute point, a miraculous thing happened. The instructor took him underwater to dive for a plastic ring.  My heart was in my throat as I thought “But he has never been under water before!” and “He doesn’t know how to hold his breath!”  After 30 seconds (update:  it may have been more like 10 seconds, but it felt like 30 years), they both came up for air.  He was clutching the ring with a big smile on his face.

The remaining 20 minutes of the lesson, he jumped off the diving board, swam underwater with the instructor and sat patiently on the steps of the pool with the other 2 students for his turn at drills.

He was beaming and excited by the time he left.

If it were up to me (someone who has NO expertise in swimming), I would have probably let him sit by the side of the pool for the first three classes, then dipped his toes in for the next three.

What broke his fear, and accelerated his learning by 900% was diving into deep water right away.

And that is where the lesson lies for entrepreneurs.  How many of you:

  • Analyze and re-analyze your business idea, strategy and tactics?
  • Spend months (or years) questioning your ability to start a business?
  • Agonize about which business to start or which product to create?
  • Spend 9 months designing your business card, website and stationary before landing a single client?
  • Wait for the “perfect time” to quit your job and start your business?

The message that hit me squarely between the eyes yesterday is that the way to exponentially accelerate your learning is to:

  • Jump in and do something right away.  If you want to be a coach, start to coach someone.  If you are a software developer and want to create your own product, start with a small application.  If you want to start a cookie business, bake 3 dozen and sell them on the street corner.  Get started with your endeavor and you will quickly learn what works and what doesn’t.
  • Choose the right mentors.  I can think of no situation where I felt more vulnerable and at risk than with my toddler’s life at the edge of the pool.  We chose an instructor that is experienced, certified, qualified and capable, and I knew that she would never harm my child.  Don’t “fling yourself into the pool” with just anyone — make sure you have good support around you.
  • Don’t run away from fear.  We often wait to do things until we “build up enough courage.”  Secret tip:  fear is always present when doing new things, no matter how seasoned or experienced you are.  You just learn to feel it and do it anyway.
  • Trust the process.  As I elaborated in my post about the “conscious competence learning model,” you can’t expect to go from novice to expert in one step.  It will take time, practice and experimentation to develop competence and confidence.  But if you never take the first step, you will guarantee one thing:  you will be perpetually stuck in the novice stage.  And the longer you stay there, the more timid you become.

I will harness some of Josh’s courage and resilience as I move forward in scary new areas of my life.

I encourage you to do the same.  Go ahead, dive in!

30 Responses to “Dipping your toes in the side of the pool will get you nowhere: dive in!”

  1. Troy Kobek says:

    Pam, I never leave comments. Anywhere. I guess you could say I’m more of a tanner hanging out pool-side rather than a swimmer. However, your post really resonated with me today. Not only I have been feeling an unusually high level of panic as I try to figure out exactly what service to offer online that will be of the most value and potentially profitable but I also recently took swim lessons as an adult — and was surprised by the progress I began to see in myself. Thank you for sharing this with us. It’s time to get off the deck chairs and into the pool! Happy swimming!

    • Pamela says:

      I’m so glad you left a comment Troy!

      Even though Josh is five now I still remember that first swimming lesson as if it were yesterday.

      Trust yourself to thrash around a bit — if you allow yourself to experiment, it is so worth it!

      Best of luck with your product!


  2. Sara Herald says:

    @Alex– No, I haven’t checked out my CofC yet. I’m still planning on that. I did go to BizTrader.com, and I’m really satisfied with what I saw. I was able to find a couple of potential businesses. Great place to buy a business on the Internet. Thanks for that suggestion!

  3. Alex DeKalb says:

    @Sara– have you checked out your local Chamber of Commerce yet? They should be able to help you there. I also suggest going to BizTrader.com because it has a variety of different businesses for sale. It’s a global marketplace for small business, and I think it’s worth checking out. Good luck.

  4. Sara Herald says:

    Woops. I meant starting a business, not selling…!

  5. Sara Herald says:

    I’m a bit late to this post, but oh well.

    Your article is great. I found it to be truly inspiring. I’ve been looking to buy a business instead of selling a business, but I’m not really sure how to start. That’s my main reason for not diving into the pool. I’m not even sure where or how to look. Would you, or anyone else, happen to have any suggestions?

  6. Terry H Jones says:

    Great post, and reinforces something I keep having run through my head over and over – “Quit worryin’ ’bout it, and jump on in!”

    But your Bubs had you and the teacher, the one to lead, the other to fall back on. What do you do (and this might be a subject for a future post (maybe an old one that I haven’t seen)) when you have no mum sitting at the side of the pool? no support network? when what you have is a spouse who not only will make no accomodations to change, but would be the first to throw an “I told you so” when things got tough?

  7. Great post – thank you. I’ve been thinking about the very same idea – doing vs. analyzing, and I’ve realized as I continuing building my own practice that experience counts for a whole lot. I can sit and blog about productivity ideas without any outside contact or experience (many bloggers do this), but being out working with clients is a whole different ball game. And one of the best things? I get lots of stories!


  8. To Dale: I would imagine the “hold back from diving in” signals would include any obvious danger to what you have been doing.

    You can always go forward when it comes to projects, but it’s typically harder to fix something once you’ve messed up.

    Then again, risking a screw up is half the fun. You’ll never know until you try.

  9. So, how about a full time college student?

    Nope – I dont have somebody looking for a job.
    Nope – I dont have a friend that has moved into my house.
    Nope – I am not running a match making service.
    I, myself, have gone back to school.  It has been in the works for some time, but it…

  10. Dale Sherman says:

    Great post! I so-o-o want to dive in, but am concerned that doing so while under-capitalized is a recipe for failure. As it is, I only work 15-25 hours a week at my employee-type job. But it’s really interfering with my energy consulting business. I have a quick and dirty website, quick and dirty business cards, and am trying to broaden my product line which means spending time and resources on additional product development.

    So when should one hold back from diving in? What are the hold-back signals as opposed to the dive in signals?

    I especially like the coaching about shedding projects you love. I’ll have to look at this a little closer with a critical eye in my own life.

  11. Yes, a fun and insightful post. It’s great how you’re able to recognize a challenge for a toddler and translate that to an adult in a completely different situation. I just ran across a great book on metaphors you might be interested in called ‘Metaphorically Selling’ by Anne Miller. Your comparison of the toddler and the adult made me think of this…

  12. Sarah Rourke says:

    Thanks Pam, you always strike a chord with me.
    I’m semi dipping my toe and have also dived in head first (have made my office job part-time and also started a business in the rest of that time). My advice to anyone in the same position is just go for it – take action and don’t leave yourself with the ‘what ifs’.

  13. Dan in Portland, OR says:

    Thanks Pam. Just days ago my wife and I decided that I should finally quit my cubicle job and dive into the business that I’ve been planning for over a year now. This just reinforced the good feelings I was having about what I’m doing. I’m writing this from my cubicle in my last days as an Oracle database *yawn* administrator. Your blog has been motivating and inspiring me for months now. Thank you so much!!!

  14. John Dodds says:

    Will you wear his googgles too?

    Just so you know, this was a stock photo, not my “bubs.” 🙂 I did like the goggles!

  15. Tim Haughton says:

    Great post, of course. But was anyone else thinking this : 30 seconds submerged!!!??? :¬)

  16. Jeremy White says:

    Pamela, thanks for the great post! I regularly read your blog, but I was surprised to find out that my business partner read your blog too, as he sent me a link to this post. You’re making a difference and helping us stay motivated!
    We’re planning our second business; hopefully we’ll have much more success this time.

  17. 47 Hats says:

    A double dose of what I need.

    Launching 47hats as a consulting firm is a lot like launching my business, only scarier. So happening across Pam Slims double dose of fortitude for startups was just what I needed to steady my nerves, stiffen the upper lip and march on.
    If you d…

  18. Bob Walsh says:

    Outrageously good post and just what I needed to read (and along with your most recent podcast, hear).

    Thanks Pam!

  19. Jay Thompson says:

    Fabulous analogy. Diving in is really hard sometimes. But once you’re in, it’s just not that bad. Maybe even fun. I love it.

  20. MaryBeth says:

    Pam … I loved this! Reminds me of all the stories you hear about people who are downsized or something and forced to start their business and how they succeed. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say: “in retrospect, getting downsized was the best thing that ever happened to me. It allowed me to (fill in the blank); it made me realize that yes, this is a viable business.” I’m sure you’ve heard the same. I was saying this very thing to my husband last night. (He was downsized 5 years ago.) When it happened, we thought it was the absolute worst thing that could ever happen to us. But, we took a chance, tapped a very small part of our home equity for living expenses, took out a very small school loan, convinced the state unemployment office to keep paying unemployment benefits for a year instead of 6 months … and … he ended up getting his BS degree in environmental science in a year. If he hadn’t been downsized, he would still be going to school at night, working some low-paying job during the day to pay the mortgage, and still wouldn’t have his degree … he would still be dipping his toe in the water. Yes, he was “pushed” into the water and it worked out “swimmingly” … It would ve even more empowering to jump willingly into the water. You are right, with the right conditions and support,the result would be just as positive. No need to necessarily wait around for the push into the water …

  21. Bobby Saini says:

    Thank you this is really re assuring. I enjoyed this post best of luck to your son.

  22. lilalia says:

    Pam, I really enjoyed reading the post. Sage advice too. Your son is blessed to have a mother who allows him to experience swimming lessons on his own; with the guidance of a motivated and experienced instructor, as well as the mother with the wobbly smile and desperate heart.

  23. Audall says:

    Fantastic post. I can’t agree more. I didn’t feel I was learning fast enough in my cubicle job at age 25. I told myself I wanted to be a part of something entrepreneurial by age 26. With the help of many good people and lessons learned with some not-so=good people, I’m now running an international business at age 27 and we’re not only going to make it, we’re gonna do it with style. Whether you are a two-year old or have been around for ninety years, standing at the edge of a pool, or a lifelong business dream–give yourself the credit that you will learn to swim.

  24. What a great motivational post. Like the others, I’ve just started something new and this is timely and relevant, thank you!

  25. artangel says:

    This is perferctly aligned with what I needed to read today! I spent 3 months getting my photography business plan, website, registrations etc, expecting to spend another 3 months preparation. Then I got soooo over my job that I quit 2 weeks ago – I fully dived in the deep end. I havent even got any clients yet – waiting on my marketing to take affect – and am at a loose end. So taking the advice of point one – I am going to keep taking shots of friends kids for my portfolio – I always sell enough to cover costs, this means I get experience and exposure – for free – what a better way to advertise! Thanks so much – love your work!

  26. Laura says:

    Thanks Pam, this was very timely for me (of course, I am a prime example of the person who sits on the sidelines for too long just watching the game, so it probably still would have been timely if you hadn’t written it for another 6 months!!)

    I keep waiting for the money to get my business cards, my website, a spot at a tradeshow, a portfolio… could take me years to get my first client at this rate. I’m just really scared to dive in. It’s easy to distract myself with this type of busywork.

    I still don’t have money to advertise, but I’m going to post an ad on Craigslist as a result of this post. Thanks.

  27. Mark says:

    Greetings –

    I hope your post inspires some people to go ahead and pursue their dreams. Far to many people sit around waiting for life to happen. My wife and I took the leap, followed our dreams, and purchased a guesthouse in the Caribbean.


  28. samantha says:

    This was the perfect post to read as I’m researching my business plan to start a Professional Organizing business. I want everything to begin so perfect that it may never start! Thanks for the push