The Myth of Omnipotence

My husband and daughter competed in the “Tractor Pull” competition in which my husband’s feet could not find purchase on the slippery bottom of the pool. There was much cheering.

Miles run today: 4.5

Laps swum yesterday: 5

Efficient, impressive laps swum yesterday: 0

Just after college, my good friend had a roommate who came from Old Money. Her father had told her she could be anything she wanted to be.

I remember that we scoffed at this: the girl was nice and smart and probably at or above average intelligence. But we did not see her becoming a brain surgeon, an Arctic explorer, or a CEO of a major corporation.

Especially when it was taking her roughly six or seven years to complete college, and she still didn’t know what she wanted to do. She was not setting the world on fire.

I still feel that parents who tell their children they can be anything in the world are performing a disservice: some children come out of the womb predisposed to certain skills, full of personality quirks and tendencies towards certain careers, even early on.

If a child (or an adult) is passionate about something, the skill set often catches up to meet the passion. With diligent practice, many things are attainable.

In fact, most things improve with practice.

And many things you don’t practice can show off your ineptitude. I challenge you to try some things at which you might fail.

One time, a few years ago, a friend of ours who owns a Thai restaurant offered to let me learn how to cook a couple of dishes in his kitchen. (Keep in mind: I cook at home about six nights a week; it’s not something new for me to be handling food.)

But when I entered the pristine kitchen with glistening stainless steel surfaces, all of the implements of the meal preparation were foreign. There was no large knife to chop with; each tool was a different one from what I had at home.

My husband and kids watched as I listened, watched and tried to mimic the motions of the Thai chef. Later, my husband said he felt kind of sorry for me; I was like a fish out of water.

I thought it was incredibly interesting.

Here was a skill not so far away from one I had mastered… and yet, it felt completely new and fresh. And I was bad at it. Really bad. If I had had the opportunity to continue taking lessons, I would have. I could feel my brain growing as it tried to wrap around the new ideas.

Yesterday, our neighborhood swim club held its end-of-summer bash, complete with swim competitions and cheering.

I felt I had done a fair job of dampening expectations of my swimming abilities all summer by reminding all of the former high school swim champions/volunteer moms and dads that I’d never been a swimmer in that way. My swimming consists of the fun kind of swimming: diving down and holding breaths and doing somersaults and trying to catch my kids and diving into waves.

But still: I signed up for the 100-meter freestyle because I wanted to prove to myself that I could swim four laps without being rescued.

I almost failed.

Up against three other “real” swimmers, I knew already that I would be lucky to finish within a few minutes of that bunch. But when I paused, huffing and puffing, at the end of the pool before starting my fourth lap, and onlookers yelled, “Don’t stop! Don’t stop!” it was truly humbling.

I believe in doing things that scare you. In making a fool of yourself. In trying things that you’re not sure you can conquer.

And I did.

What it made me want to do next: conquer it. I plan to get better at swimming. How is it that someone who can run 26.2 miles can’t swim four laps without her heart hammering in her chest and gasping for breath? I’ll tell you: because swimming is difficult… and it’s not something I’ve practiced.

The difference between my wanting to practice and improve and thinking that I’ll become the next Olympic hopeful in the 500m freestyle is the difference between wanting to give your kids opportunities to learn new skills and thinking you can train a sensitive, artistic type to be a Chief Financial Officer of a Fortune 500 company. And really, please don’t go there.

What have you tried lately that you weren’t sure you could master? What scares you the most about trying something new? When did you feel like a complete fool?