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Sustainable You

To keep going during these difficult times, remember to float

In a sink-or-swim world, learning how to keep your head above water will enable you to go the distance.

Man floating in water


A couple of years ago, desperate for fitness and community, I joined the master’s swim program at my local pool. I churned up and down the lanes a few mornings a week, and I grew faster and faster, especially on the sprints.

Turns out these big feet of mine, size 13 with fallen arches, propel me beautifully through the water.

"What a great kick you have," my teammates would say. And on the next lap I’d kick even harder, arriving at the wall panting and grinning.

My coach moved me into the fast lane, and my ego swelled.

But on longer distances, I fell apart.

To go faster, I must stop working so hard. To maintain my energy, I must embrace ease. To keep going, I must remember to float.

I’d start off well enough, keeping pace with lifelong swimmers such as Susan and Sarah. Then, a few laps in, I’d falter. I’d fall so far behind that I’d have to occasionally pause at the wall, embarrassed, to let the leaders pass me.

I’d tell myself to work harder. Get those feet moving. Kick more ferociously.

One day, as I again dropped behind, my coach began shouting at me from the deck. I couldn’t hear her over my exertions. She yelled louder.

"Chris!" she said. "You are kicking too hard!"

After the workout, she explained that a strong kick is effective during sprints, but over-kicking on endurance swims slows us down. Our big leg muscles require a lot of oxygen, so we run out of gas quickly.

When you kick more lightly, she said, you maintain your energy. So, you can keep going.

To prove her point, she had me practice floating. I lay still, face down, arms extended. I relaxed, felt my muscles soften, a sense of peace settling over me.

Then, from that place of ease, I began to swim. It felt so different. My strokes were calmer, more efficient. Instead of fighting the water, I allowed it to support my body then slip past me. I understood what the coach was teaching me: To go faster, I must stop working so hard. To maintain my energy, I must embrace ease. To keep going, I must remember to float.

It’s 2020, the year that won’t end, and I suspect that many of you, like me, are trying to kick so hard through this pandemic.

Everything feels difficult right now. As I write, we are slogging through our seventh month of sheltering in place. More than 210,000 Americans have died from the novel coronavirus, and it has spread all the way to the White House.

Fires continue to ravage the West. Here in Oakland, California, I wake up many mornings to the sight and acrid taste of smoke, visceral reminders of the climate emergency. The poor air quality has kept me off the hiking trails and out of the pool, depriving me, like so many Californians, of the chance to heal our psyches in nature.

There is so much to process. So much to do. So much to repair.

Earlier in the pandemic, my writing and my work with leaders and their teams buoyed me. I felt a prolonged surge of energy — purpose, focus, a calling to serve others, motivation to create.

Those desires feel much fainter now, dim outlines I see through a haze of fatigue, loneliness and sadness.

I’ve been trying to muscle through it. Even as I’ve helped my clients notice where they are resisting their current reality, asking them to strip away the non-essential tasks and honoring what they most need right now, I’ve been taking on more responsibilities.

I’m kicking so hard in all aspects of my life: as an executive leadership coach, business owner, father, son, romantic partner, friend, citizen, environmentalist, learner, writer. It’s exhausting.

I’d been trying to write this latest Sustainable You column for weeks. My intention was to explore the importance of identifying our purpose and letting it shine through in our jobs.

Purpose is one of my favorite coaching topics, one I’ve taught in workshops at the Robins Air Force Base and X, the Moonshot Factory, and with individual clients at Apple, Google, Levi Strauss and more.

Following my purpose is also what led me to create a coaching practice focused on supporting environmental and social-impact leaders.

Yet I just couldn’t get it right. I’d captured pages of notes, blocked off time to write, done Pomodoro timer sessions, unleashed a tangle of thoughts. It just wasn’t coming together, no matter how hard I tried.

Then, as I was hiking in redwoods during a break from the smoke, I remembered my swim coach’s instructions.

I started asking myself: Where in my life am I trying too hard? Where can I start from a place of ease? Where can I kick more lightly?

Where can I float?

I started asking myself: Where in my life am I trying too hard? Where can I start from a place of ease? Where can I kick more lightly?

I decided to begin here, with you.

I’ll be back next month with that essay about purpose.

But for now, I invite you to join me in the water.

Wade in and relax. Feel what it’s like to be you, in your body, in this very moment.

You don’t need to be strong right now. You don’t need to work so hard.

Be still. Let the water hold you.

In a few minutes, you will begin swimming again. Set an intention to do that with ease. Whatever you have planned for today, for this week, bring a sense of flow to it. Kick lightly and notice what happens.

But for now, let’s stay together for a while. Let’s be here in the water, serene. Let’s float.

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