How I learned to love my bathing cap & other symbols of conformity that set me free

Earlier this year, I left my corporate job to consult. I have a fair amount of rebel in me and hankered to be free but perhaps, most importantly, I left to find time. Each year, I felt increasingly that I was running behind …clients, details, tasks, my kids’ lives, my own life. Constant running to catch up left me with little space to wonder, muse, and think deeply -  all vital to what I do, and frankly, to who I am. 

So, I left and all of a sudden, I had time. At first, I reveled in it. Seconds and minutes felt weightier. Then, I FACED it. Lots of it. And, I had to figure out how to best manage it. In a large organization, the org dictates the rhythm and you either rise (or not) to the occasion: 10 people want meetings on Tuesday - stagger them; you’re involved in 5 projects with impending deadlines, stack them; re-scheduled meeting cluster - lunch at your desk, etc. In an organization, demands wallpapered my Outlook. On my own, the empty rows loom large. As a consultant, there are so many to-do’s, it’s hard to identify the priorities. 

In another part of my life, I pledged to go back to some exercise roots and swim moreregularly. I anticipated stronger arms, drier skin, and straw-like hair; what I didn’t expect was how committing to a weekly swim regime would help me organize my time, and get my head straight for my consulting work. 

What I learned, and keep working on:

Embrace structure. At my pool, bathing caps are the rule. They pinch your head, leave weird marks and are just plain ugly. But damn - they work: They keep hair out of eyes, and make for a more streamlined swim. When working corporate, I dreamed about infinite freedom because I wanted to make room for inspiration to hit. But inspiration only comes when there is time. Now, I designate certain days and times of day for particular tasks. I know when I am most alert, and do my deep thinking/creation work then. I know when my energy dissipates, and use social energy/meetings to compensate. Without trusting structure, I can’t function to the best of my abilities.

Dive in. The water is cold. There is no avoiding it. You can wait on the side lines and sprinkle your arms gently with water, but the only way to achieve warmth is by jumping in and moving. Consulting also requires moving through many moments of discomfort. To be successful, you must build a network and do the work. Some of us are better at one than the other. Nevertheless, we have to do both. Swimming taught me to jump in immediately - coaching myself through the discomfort - and hustle to gain warmth. Make those calls, pitch your value. Don’t take it personally. Find the pleasure in it.  And when you’ve logged your laps (or your phone calls), be proud of what you’ve accomplished, and recall it the next time you have to face the cold. Because you will. 

Keep your whole self in order. If I don’t sleep well, eat well, live well, I don’t swim well. Some nights, I want to binge watch Transparent (right?), but I tear myself away because I know waking up in the morning will be arduous, and my next day’s swim will be lumbering and unsatisfying. For me, the fun of my work is in the big ticket items - writing reports, running creative workshops, thinking about what drives people, how culture impacts action. I don’t love book-keeping or filing, but these are the other parts of my work self - the support systems - and they enable the fun stuff. I will admit, it’s deeply boring, but I’ve used downtime to establish some systems that have proven their value time and again.

Share your lane. As a swimmer, I admit to suffering from delusions: I think I’m the fastest and therefore, deserve my own lane. In reality, I’m just OK, and there is room for others. It’s amazing how it’s possible to share, without it impeding my progress. When you’re on your own, as a consultant, there’s pressure to do it all because it’s all revenue. But think about the greater benefit you might get from sharing, delegating, and partnering. Give something away. It’s better for the universe and ultimately, that’s better for you. This summer, I was able to employ a new graduate for a project: I gave him a bit of money, but also insight into what I do and a bit more direction for him as he moves towards his first professional experiences. For me, the rewards of teaching and helping were way bigger than the project’s results. 

Don’t compare yourself to others - unless you’re looking for inspiration. At my pool, there are some people who can freestyle for 45 minute straight. Wha?! I’m at my worst when I wonder why they can do it, and I can’t. But, I am at my best when I wonder how they do it, and what I can learn from. So many factors make them (bionic freestylers) who they are and so many factors make the other consultants in my real and virtual midst who they are. Comparison is a futile act. Instead, concentrate on your skills, your uniqueness, your goals. The wins can be small (yes, I am up to 6 consecutive freestyle laps without collapsing), but the achievement is huge.

I am a work-in-progress and some weeks, I regress, and don’t follow my principles but I own them, and have them to refer back to. Next week - what I learned from doing water aerobics with women aged 68 years+ …it’s not for the weak of heart.