Don’t Drown! Rules For Success circa 1987

Don’t Drown! Rules For Success circa 1987

When I was a child in Maine, we lived on a lake. My parents were very conscious of the dangers regarding children and water, and so there were often conversations about how to stay safe. Four water safety rules still stand out.

  • First, learn how to swim. We were swimming without a flotation device out to our float by the age of four.
  • Second, never swim alone. We were not allowed near the water without a parent or babysitter present. It wasn’t safe, and no one would be around if we needed help.
  • Third, never cry wolf. We used to pretend we were drowning because we wanted to get a rise out of our parents. Bad idea, because just like the little boy who cried wolf, no one would come to our rescue if we actually were drowning.
  • Lastly, be cautious around drowning victims. Never swim out to a drowning victim without something to use as a barrier between you and the victim. The amygdala takes over, fight or flight kicks in, and that victim will grab whatever they can in order to stay afloat. That includes you.

My favorite thing about these rules is that they work for life – especially the professional world.

Learn How to Swim

There is a reason that the personal flotation device market is valued at 2.1 billion dollars annually worldwide. You can’t just jump in the water without knowing how to swim. Well, you could, but then you would risk being one of the 1.2 million people who drown annually. It’s stupid.

It’s the same reason we don’t hire a college graduate with no work experience to be a Vice President. They haven’t learned a damn thing. Honestly, I’d hate to see how much of my college education, that I paid a shit-ton of money for (that’s a lot), was wasted and never used again. Instead, we hire the rookie and teach them how to swim. So what if you want to get there? This is where the lessons come in. What is the business equivalent of swimming lessons?

  • Read anything and everything; read about sales, leadership, finance, marketing, talent development, psychology, sociology, philosophy, supply chain, data, physics, etc. Read books that make you smarter. Learn something new. Do not stick to your area of expertise. If a swimmer only learned the doggy paddle, they’d be swallowing water when the waves got big.
  • Every single person on the planet knows one thing that you don’t know. Your job is to find out what it is. Dig deep into this stuff. Ask a bunch of questions. Learn from the experience of others. Someone swam first and passed the knowledge on.
  • Part of the reason all those college dollars went to waste? The concepts were just learned, they weren’t experienced. Ask to be a fly-on-the-wall in meetings. Listen in on conversations at work that don’t seem to be a part of your world. You’ll never learn how to swim if you don’t get in the water.

Never Swim Alone

What happens if you swim alone and no one is there to hear you screaming for help? No one would ever be able to find you. You could find a riptide and end up out at sea.

A key engagement factor that companies keep on pointing to is whether employees have friends at work. I personally don’t worry about “friends” so much as I do about having comrades. I don’t want to go out after work with coworkers, I need people at work who believe in what I believe. These are my phone-a-friend team members. I know what I know, and they know what they know. Together, we know a bunch of stuff. Build a tiny army of comrades and together you’ll learn even more stuff.

Have people at your work that you trust to bounce ideas off of. Run speeches by them. Show them email drafts. Role play difficult conversations. Get some shit off your chest so you can move on with your day. Feel like you’re drowning? Scream for help and your comrades will come running. That’s why you never swim alone.

Never Cry Wolf

Pretend you’re drowning, your mom will come running. You’ll laugh, she’ll be pissed, and all goes back to normal. Do it the next day, she comes running, you laugh, she’s pissed, all goes back to normal. The day you actually are drowning, she won’t come running because she’ll think you’re just faking it again.

Value the power of your words, and choose them wisely. Do you want help, or do you NEED help? If you always say you need help, sooner or later people are going to stop helping you. They’ll have you figured out. You just don’t feel like working very hard. Save the word “need” for when you really need it. If you use it sparingly and wisely, you will get the help that you need when you need it.

This is something that I discuss with my company President as well as the folks who report to me. We set up the definition of “need” right away. This way it is clear that when the word “need” is used, it means my arms are flailing and I’m struggling to keep afloat.

Stay Away from Drowning Victims

A drowning victim is in fight or flight mode. They can’t hear or see much of anything. That amygdala is pumping, and all they can focus on is staying alive. As a result, they will grab onto anything that they can get their arms around, and that includes you.

A drowning victim will drown you just to save themselves. They don’t even know they are doing it.

You know those people at work who are drowning victims. For whatever reason, their water is rising and they aren’t staying afloat. Could be that they don’t like their boss, their job, their girlfriend, anything or everything. They focus on the negative, gossip, blame everyone else for their woes, or act dramatically to get all eyes on them. They are exhausting. What I’ve learned is many caring employees will try to help drowning victims by letting them complain.

Unbeknownst to them, the rescuer is actually feeding into the drowning victim. The drowning victim is luring them in, closer and closer until, BAM, the rescuer has been snatched, entangled, and engulfed, unable to get out. Soon the rescuer is gasping for air as well. Soon, they too become a drowning victim.


Want to be successful? Learn how to swim, don’t swim alone, never cry wolf, and stay away from drowning victims. I can’t promise it will get you to the Olympics next to Katie Ledecky, but I can promise that it will make those rough seas a hell of a lot easier to navigate. Worst case scenario, flip to your back, stretch out your limbs, relax and float. It won’t get you from A to B but it will keep your head above water until you’ve regained your strength. If only all of life could be disseminated down to such simple swimming rules from my rural lake circa 1987.

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