I’ve never been a team sports guy. I’ve always liked solo activities — running, riding my bike, swimming. There are a lot of reasons behind that, but mostly, as I got older, I began looking to exercise to not only benefit my body, but also my mind. If I have a lot going on, I can get away from it by working myself hard. Dipping in and out of mental problems and ideas while working out has always been good for my mental space. It’s private time.
I swim at public pools. I love Kits pool in the summer, but right now, it’s the Aquatic Center. Not my first choice for a lot of reasons, but it has decent-sized lanes, great natural light, and isn’t too busy.
I was swimming along the other day, thinking about my breathing and concentrating on the way I finished the stroke — while concurrently thinking about materials for a new set of pieces I want to finish — when I felt something slam into my lower leg. It didn’t hurt, but it totally fucked up my rhythm. My breathing got erratic, I stopped moving my legs, and my stroke hesitated. A second later, while turning to see what had hit me, I felt another bump in my side and a splash in my face as I tried to breathe in.
It was another swimmer passing me. It happens from time to time. I’m a strong swimmer, but sometimes someone is just going for it, or they’re a stronger swimmer than I am, or they’re doing sprints or whatever.
What brings me to writing this was my reaction, that day. While I did feel threatened for a second — my pride momentarily disturbed by the fact that someone could pass me — I was back where I was before the interruption within two strokes. In fact, someone passed me right after the first person did, and I barely registered it.
Three years ago, someone touching me while I was swimming would have made me stop dead, stand up in the pool or tread water and see who and what their problem was. If I would have felt someone passing me, I would have sped up and raced them all the way in. I probably wouldn’t have said anything, but I would have made my presence known in some passive-aggressive way. It was all personal.
I was an asshole. But more importantly, I wasn’t very effective. I couldn’t swim long distance. I had to break often. I got tired quickly. I’d get distracted by the diving board or a bikini — anything but the task on hand. I splashed a lot, and didn’t get a lot of swimming done.
I’ve swam the last two years more seriously, but in my opinion, what has really changed is my attitude about my work.
I’m an artist. Contrary to what you might have been led to believe by popular culture, it’s fairly boring. Long hours, low pay (for most), lots of toxic chemicals. I enjoy it for most of those reasons. One thing is that it’s taught me a lot about myself, and has given me a broader view of the world.
The last three months have been shit for me. It’s been tremendously hard to make work for a variety of reasons, but mostly it’s been about me. My work is changing and I’m scared and feel out of my element. I’m trying new things and they freak me out. I’m going outside of what I’ve done before to try something new based on all the things I’ve done previously. It’s hard work. It’s emotionally draining. It’s tough on my relationships. It’s costly.
How does this come back to swimming? It’s easy to get distracted by other people in the pool. But I go in with specific things I want to work on – how I’m breathing, a certain time per lap, distance – and I come out having achieved those or not. So that guy who passed me? He’s not that important. More importantly, I’m not that important either. Frankly, neither are you.
Who wants to hear that? It’s a drag putting in all this work, knowing we’ll barely put a dent in the field we work in, even if we’re among the most fortunate and successful. When I take into account that I’m just another swimmer in a pool of swimmers who will all go home, and who will be replaced by new swimmers the next day, it just doesn’t matter as much. The world isn’t going to change if I don’t show up tomorrow. The guy who smacked my foot forgot about it seconds later — at least I hope he did.
To me, however, the swimming – or what I’m really talking about here, my work – is tremendously important. It’s everything. I treat it with the most respect I can. I study its history. I see as much work as I can while accepting my work as my own. I respect it by taking it in the direction it needs to go, not necessarily the direction that will make me the most money, or repeating what “works”. I try to learn things and improve. I build up my self-discipline. I get stronger. I pay attention to how it affects me.
When I say I’m not that important, I mean that I’m continually motivated to show up day after day for little reward because I don’t believe I’m the most important thing — I believe my work is the most important thing. It’s the paradigm shift of caring about the work more and my pride less that makes me pause to consider where I’m at and what I want to do.
What does that look like in daily practice? I care less when I lose or don’t get a sale, but more that my new piece is better than my previous piece. I expect less from others and more from myself. I’m less angry and more driven. I don’t care as much about being happy — I care about getting better, and working for the sake of the work.
I don’t know if that sounds good to you, but despite its ups and downs, it’s what I’ve always wanted. Self-satisfaction has to be number one. I may not make a ton of money. I may not get the fame and respect we all feel we deserve. But if I can look at what I’m doing and say that I’ve done what I needed to do for me first, and followed the path my work made for me (one project leading to the next logical step), then it becomes simpler.
It’s impossible to get anything done if I’m distracted by how everyone else in the pool is swimming, or how much money they made doing their work, or whatever the latest trend is, or what I’ve been told will make me the big money, or thinking about the steam room after the swim.
The hard part for me is getting past my own self-importance, my own pride and sense of entitlement. When I realize I’m swimming well because I earned it with consistent hours spent in the pool, I don’t congratulate myself. I’m grateful to the work for making me better, and whatever got me there in the first place.
It’s a subtle shift, but it keeps the unhealthy competition out of my game. I think less and less about others, and more and more about the work. I enjoy the healthy competition of beating myself at my own game daily. I wish it were otherwise, but in the meantime, I’m improving. Despite wanting everything – now – that will have to do. For the moment. I’ll think about happiness when I get the time.
Joseph/Office Supplies Incorporated
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