When you first learn the fundamentals of swimming, you’re in the shallow end. It’s scary at first because of how new the sensation is, but you get comfortable eventually. You know it’s safe.
Let’s say you get out of the pool one day and accidentally slip and fall into the deep end. Naturally, you freak out. Everything you’ve been taught is instantly forgotten and you kick and flail on instinct. You start to sink. Someone rescues you, but your fear of the deep end is heightened for years. “Wow, it’s pretty obvious that I’m not cut out for the deep end. It’s probably best to just stay in my comfort zone.”
Contrast this with someone who gets out of the pool, stares intensely at the deep end, thinks over their game plan, then jumps in. They’re scared, but they know what they have to do: stick with what they’ve learned. They go through the motions they’ve been using in the shallow end (maybe a bit more frantically and with some degree of improvisation) and they stay afloat. They force themselves to swim.
I think it’s actually hugely beneficial to do this to yourself in any area of your life where you’re looking to grow. Once you’ve learned enough about something at a lower level, you will eventually reach a plateau in your growth and become very bored. You’re a big fish in a small pond. You’ve gone through the motions so many times that nothing that comes your way is a challenge. So you need to jump out and find the deep end.
How do you know when you’re in “the deep end”?
You’re acutely aware that you’re outside of your comfort zone and playing above your level. You’re scared that, as soon as you start swimming, people will be able to see that you’re an amateur.
“I should have prepared more! What the hell am I doing here? I can’t do this like they can! They can see right through me, and they know I suck.”
These thoughts usually trigger the make-or-break point. It’s where you decide to either stick with it, or quit. Most people quit. But the more you find yourself in these circumstances, the more comfortable you’ll get in those deep ends. And pretty soon, they’ll start to feel like shallow ends and you’ll have to go searching for even bigger pools.
The people I know who have grown and reached amazing professional levels for their age have all used this tactic. They force themselves into uncomfortable situations, raise their heart rate all day long, then breathe a huge sigh of relief when they get to go home. On the surface, they seem poised. But then you’ll hear them make admissions like, “I was freaking out! I had no idea what I was doing, but I just ran with it and figured things out on the fly.”
But the truth is that they all know what they are doing to an extent; they’re just playing outside of their comfort zone. They don’t immediately know the answers, but they have the necessary background knowledge to find those answers. They have enough experience to barely scrape by, and they can adapt to intense new environments very rapidly. If they don’t know what step to take, they pause, reflect, and figure it out in a matter of seconds. And when they make a mistake and find themselves backed into a corner, they don’t quit — they improvise.
That voice in their head that tells them they suck? It’s on mute. Anxiety is coursing through them, but it’s not paralyzing.
That’s the difference between people who stagnate in complacency, and people who grow. The former avoid playing above their level, while the latter embrace it.
No matter how painful it seems.
EDIT: If this post seems a bit hollow, I listed a couple of examples below in the comments.