#12: Learning to Swim

I learned to swim when I was very young. Not only that, but when I was in middle school, I was not given a choice of whether or not I would be on a swim team, as my parents wanted to make sure that I was a good swimmer when I grew up. Outside of a Half-Ironman Triathlon over eight years ago, I haven’t needed to swim any long distances as an adult, but it is a life skill that I’m glad that I have.

However, one life skill that I have always had some degree of shame in not possessing is the ability to drive manual transmission, aka “stick”. For those who learned in an environment that only had automatics, it was not an essential skill to have. But especially in parts of the world outside of the US, manual transmission cars remain much more common, and the inability to drive one can be a significant handicap. The only time I had driven a manual transmission car was twenty (!) years ago during a driver’s permit lesson when I had my driver’s permit, but today I asked Gwenn if I could try taking her mom’s car for a spin.

Since it was Sunday (when everything is closed in France), we went to the Carrefour supermarket parking lot to start. Amusingly enough, there was a probably 16-year old girl there also that I saw practicing how to drive with her parents.

I started in the beginning by testing the clutch point to not stall the car and then we did several laps around the parking lot. Admittedly, it was significantly easier, I felt, to learn only needing to figure out the transmission than all of the parts of driving at the same time. I even managed to parallel park on a slight hill, although later Gwenn claimed that I almost killed us exiting a round-a-bout (is that how we spell that in English?).

In the end, I actually felt that I could comfortably drive in most settings, but the thought also occurred to me that it was like learning to swim at my age. Now as I said, I was fortunate enough to have had the resources to learn how to swim as a child, but it felt like similar in that: 1) I had feared trying it for many years, 2) it was something that many other people could do easily and without thinking about, 3) it was something that was shorter to learn than I thought, and 4) I felt a surprising sense of relief and pride at how well I had done.

As I reflect on the experience, a practice I am trying to cultivate more this year, I thought a bit about risk and reward. Part of the reason that I feel people are reluctant to learn to swim or drive stick later in life is that the apparent risk outweighs the reward. We tell ourselves that the risk is drowning or getting into a terrible accident, and those are indeed real risks if we don’t take the proper precautions. But I think the biggest “risk” is the fear of looking foolish: being a 30-something adult floundering in a pool or stalling the car in a parking lot with other teens. But if we can get over the ‘risk from fear’ component in our decisions, I think that we might find the risk v. reward equation shifts direction in many other, unexpected parts of our lives as well.

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