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Dive 55: The Importance of History to Personal Growth
Hey, it’s Alvin!
It’s said those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. But avoiding failure isn’t quite the same as succeeding. What if learning history can also help us succeed?
Back in the early 2000s, I had a goal of swimming 800m in 14 minutes.
Well, technically, it was a requirement set by The Royal Life Saving Society Canada for a Bronze Cross lifesaving certification back then. To get certified, I took one class a week for 10 weeks. In each class, we’d learn about and practice life-saving skills like the Heimlich manoeuvre, CPR, water rescues, etc. At the end of each class, all the students would do a timed endurance swim challenge, which was 34 lengths of the pool (about 800m) in 14 minutes. I could only get the Bronze Cross if I achieved that goal.
Easy peasy, right?
Of course not.
I still remember swimming the length of a 25m long pool, front crawling back and forth for almost 14 minutes. Towards the end, I’m gasping for air, but it feels like each inhale just isn’t enough. Every passing moment feels like I’m crawling through quicksand, my scrawny teenage arms and legs pushing me forward less and less.
I reach the end of the pool. And the end of the swim. My instructor is on the pool deck. She was counting the number of pool lengths I swam.
“Alvin, you swam 28 lengths.”
That was already my seventh of 10 classes. And I came up short in every prior class. But I didn’t quit. My parents watched every class from a gallery outside the pool area. So, I asked my parents for their thoughts on how I could swim faster. And they suggested I could try taking fewer breaths of air.
It makes sense. Because I was doing the front crawl, my face was submerged most of the time. I had to turn my head for a breath about every stroke (or two arm paddles). Maybe turning my head too often was preventing me from paddling faster.
I also thought, “breathe LESS?” I was already gasping for air towards the end of 14 minutes. But I didn’t have any other ideas, so I was willing to try.
The following week, I tried taking a breath every 2 to 3 strokes instead. I paddled hard, pulling myself along the water with as much force as I could. I fought to keep my legs near the water surface so I could also flutter kick as efficiently as possible.
“I did it!”
… is what I would’ve said if I reached 34 pool lengths. Instead, I only got to 30. Only two more than my personal best.
But I was also at my limits. As I climbed out of the pool onto the pool deck, I would feel dizzy. It would take me a few seconds to gather myself before I could stand up and walk out of the pool area.
My instructor noticed me trying new approaches in the pool. She asked if I was practicing in between classes. In fact, I was. I was lucky to live in a condominium with a pool. So, for a few days a week after school, I’d practice swimming while also experimenting with different techniques.
But time was running out.
I tried different strokes to see if I could swim faster. But the front crawl was my fastest stroke. So, there was no sense changing that.
Since I was out of breath after each endurance swim, I turned my attention to my breathing technique. I already looked at how often I was taking breaths. But now, I also wanted to look at how I was inhaling and exhaling. So, one afternoon in my condo pool, I shifted all my attention to my breathing technique during a front crawl.
I paddled with my right arm, then my left arm, turned my head to the right side for a breath of air, and turned my head back into the water for the next stroke. But as I did, I noticed something curious…
I was holding most of that air in my mouth! That meant most of the oxygen I was “inhaling” wasn’t making it to my lungs. So, of course, I was so easily out of breath.
So, I started practicing the front crawl, inhaling “normally” by letting all the air into my lungs. It felt weird at first because I spent so many years doing it wrong, but I saw a huge performance improvement. So, I applied my polished technique to the next endurance challenge.
I hit 36 lengths of the pool in 14 minutes.
Then, I hit an all-time high of 38 in the final class.
I was slower than I liked because I was still getting used to the new breathing technique, but I met requirements. At least I wasn’t panting after each swim.
But how did my quirky breathing technique develop? It didn’t just happen.
I realized that was just how I held my breath underwater when I started learning how to swim several years before my Bronze Cross certification. Getting comfortable submerging my entire head was one of the first challenges I overcame. It meant holding my breath underwater for as long as I could.
Then, I’d learn how to float face up, then face down while holding my breath. Eventually, I was taught arm and leg movements, still holding my breath. It was only after I could move forward in the water that I learned rhythmic breathing. Because your breathing must be in sync with your movements, to achieve a good swimming form.
But while I was taught to inhale and exhale to a rhythm, I still kept a pocket of air in my mouth on inhale—a habit I formed while holding my breath. And no one else could have found out because my head was always under water when I was holding (some of) my breath.
There are a few lessons that can be drawn from this story, but here’s a less obvious one:
You can learn a lot about yourself by diving deep into your own history.
I’m guessing most people don’t reflect much on their own past. It takes time that can only be found in moments of calm and slowness.
But who you are today is a culmination of your entire existence on this planet until now. Your values, character, and personality results from all the consequences from all the actions you took in the past. So, if you’re looking to uncover your values, likes, and strengths to live authentically, reflecting on your history is a good place to start.
Once you understand why you are the way you are, you can make better, informed decisions on what and how to change without losing yourself.
I knew it was safe to change my breathing technique because I knew how my defective technique came about. I knew why I did it, which helped me make sense of my “present” situation. I knew MY history.
And I almost forgot to mention: I got my Bronze Cross.
Slow down. Reflect on your past. Know your history.
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Thank you for reading. Know Your History. And I’ll see you in the next one.