Sink or swim (or get a life belt)

I used to be a proponent of  the sink or swim method (or baptism by fire): put someone in a challenging situation and watch them grow.

I’ve since changed my opinion because “sink or swim” is a mental shortcut like the ones I wrote about in Maxims. I think I will compile a sequence of short posts, challenging such maxims, shortcuts, and metaphors that we all use and often live by. Let this be the first one.

The problem with sink or swim is not that it doesn’t work. It works – and I would still do it in many situations. As with all of these mental shortcuts, the devil is in the details. Sink or swim doesn’t work in certain cases, and it’s important to know in which ones, and to stop blindly following a compressed life philosophy file when what you need is obviously something else.

People can take a lot of time to sink, but they may sink in the end. Same goes for swimming. Let’s say you get promoted on your job. Much more responsibility. Much more work. It’s now hard to juggle personal commitments with work. Things start slipping. You get fat. Your psyche doesn’t like you being fat and unhealthy. Stress gets to you. All the time, you’re thinking “sink or swim!”, waiting for that magical moment when you’ll finally start swimming. It doesn’t happen. 10 years pass. You’re still not in shape, you are still unhappy, and your marriage is ruined. You still haven’t sunk, but you’re not swimming either. By the time you start swimming (if it ever happens), you’ll have gone through changes that you cannot reverse, like your ruined health or marriage.

One of the root problems was that you believed in the sink or swim method, which can be a good method, but it simply wasn’t applicable here. You should have jumped in and tried it out. But when enough evidence piles up that you’re not swimming that well, you grab a life belt, and try out calmer seas to swim in.

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