How to learn and develop a skill in steps

Learning to Swim [Innovate] Again

How to develop a big skill in small steps

With so much change happening in our world and important new things to learn, the skill of how we can learn to do new things (or old things in new ways) has become critical. How do we learn and develop skill? It is never too late to learn something new (again).

I took swimming lessons as a kid. Beginner. I think I may have failed intermediate. I don’t like putting my face underwater. It’s hard for me to float and I doggie paddle to get places.

At age 41 I decided it was time for me to learn how to swim again. My wife is a good swimmer and I asked her to give me a couple of lessons. We have a lake near our place in Madison, Wisconsin called Lake Wingra. They have a beach there, but it’s a pretty weedy lake.

I started to swim in the lake. Most people don’t because of the weeds and occasional beach closing due to harmful bacteria. I’ve found it to be fun though. The lake is surrounded by an Arboretum and plenty of trees.  There are also cool birds there, like big herons who fly over like World War II bombers and catch fish in the lake.

The first few times I went swimming I would do my usual doggie paddle and backstroke. Always keeping my head above water.

After a few times of going swimming by myself, my wife came with and gave me a swimming lesson. It was amazing the little things I didn’t know, like keeping your fingers together so your hand acts more like a fin.

It was a little embarrassing with people watching as my wife held me to back float. It was something you see a parent do with a 7 year old. That day I wore her swim goggles, not with the intention of putting my face in the water, but just to wear them as a first step. BUT, I over-performed that day and went the extra step. I tried putting my face in the water and swimming. I coughed a lot. Then I tried a little more, and a little more. It was a victory! I had done some swimming underwater. I had also tried breathing and then putting my face in the water. I looked like a gasping fool and my wife had quite a laugh.

Two days later we went swimming again. I was committed. It was 65 degrees and raining but we still biked to the lake. This time it was interesting. The University of Wisconsin Badgers were playing their first home football game of the year less than a mile away at Camp Randall. You could hear the cheering of the fans and the announcer from the lake. We knew when there was a touchdown. I love watching the games but I was committed to swimming. This time I did more than last. I swam a number of 250 feet lengths with being underwater and breathing. It was still a mess but it was much better than last time.

Two days later I devised a new routine. I would bike 20 minutes to a favorite coffeeshop. At the coffeeshop I would change into my swim trunks and bike to the lake on the way home. I would put my bike down next to the water and do my swimming. This time I did much better with the breathing. I even swam 12 lengths of the beach with 5 of those being underwater. It was difficult, but it was more than I’d ever done.

Improving a little more each time was now becoming habit. Two days later I biked to my coffeeshop and stopped at the lake on the way back. This time my freestyle stroke was better than it had ever been. The breathing looked more like a real person. I swam 14 lengths of the beach and 7 of those were underwater, including 1 where I experimented with a new underwater stroke in addition to the freestyle.

Each time was better than the last. I made a habit of going swimming every two days. I knew if I could do 3, 4, or even 5 or more times every other day and focused on the underwater swimming and breathing I could make progress even if it was very difficult at first. I had “key performance indicators” like how many breaths I could take in one nonstop swim, how many lengths I could swim, how relaxed I could be, how fast I could go, how little I could exhale or inhale, etc. I could compare myself to the last time on a number of measures, and then I could track these things on a spreadsheet or reflectively like in this article. I also documented it and am sharing it. This has helped me learn to swim again.

What in your personal life or work life could you learn how to do again? What could you commit yourself to making little consistent improvements on? How could you work on innovating yourself to a whole new level and do something you may not have thought you could do?

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