At the end of my son’s most recent swim practice, he approached the car with a big grin, which is not his typical post-practice body language. Before I even had a chance to ask him how practice went, he proudly announced, “Dad, that practice was so fun because it was so hard!” I was surprised by such a statement coming from him, as I don’t believe he has ever used the words fun and hard in the same sentence. This was a Saturday morning practice, which means he swims with the older kids. It means he has the opportunity to share a lane with friends he doesn’t see every day. It means he focuses more time on enjoying the company of his friends than pushing himself.

Earlier in the week, my wife and I had shared with him the concept that each of us is the average of the people we spend most of our time with. That we tend to exhibit the behaviors and abilities of those who influence us most. If we want to be a better (fill in the blank), we ought to seek out people who are better than us in that area; typical conversation most parents have with their children periodically. This was not denigrating his swim-lane friends in any way, as they are fine young men and continue to influence him in positive ways well beyond the pool. On that morning he chose to swim in a different lane. He swam with a 17-year-old boy and the fastest 15-year-old in the State of Virginia. Where most Saturday mornings he makes sure he is the fastest in his lane, this time he was far from it. Where most Saturday mornings he has time to socialize in between sets, this time he was too winded to say but a few words. Where most Saturday mornings practice is more about making plans with his friends, this time it was all about leaving the pool a better swimmer than when he arrived.

I was pleased that he chose to change lanes in hopes of raising his game and I was equally surprised by his attitude when it was over. The practice as prescribed was no more challenging than previous Saturdays, but he made it more challenging because he pushed himself. The example and abilities of his lane-mates motivated him to work harder. Most Saturdays, he leaves practice somewhat validated by being the fast fish in a relatively slow lane. That Saturday he left feeling satisfied with his effort as he enjoyed varying degrees of success in his attempt to keep up with faster fish. He was also pleased with the way the faster fish welcomed him to the lane and encouraged him along the way.

Most people go through life swimming in the same lane for years. They find a comfortable pace among people who don’t challenge them to be more than they are, as they mindlessly allow their comfort zone to decrease in size over time. The more we make comfort the priority, the less capable we become over time. The more comfortable we become, the less we grow. And the more comfortable we are with today, the more uncomfortable we will likely be tomorrow. Growing up is not easy and true growth lies well outside our comfort zone. The challenge for most is in the acknowledgment that a truly fulfilling life is one spent expanding our comfort zone. My parents gave me the below piece of art when I assumed my current duties as Commanding Officer of Navy Cyber Defense Operations Command:

The more comfortable we become with being uncomfortable, the more life we will truly experience, the more we will grow, and the better we will become. Every so often, it’s vital that we change lanes, find new influences, create new relationships, and purposely challenge ourselves to be more than we currently are.

  • Are you the fast fish in a relatively slow lane?
  • When is the last time you changed lanes?
  • How comfortable are you with being uncomfortable?