Sunday, March 1, 2009

Facing Fears - What is Success and What is Failure?

In my limited 28 years of life, success and failure has always been very clearly defined.

I have always looked at success in the ordinary way. Success is when you when you manage to get asked out on that get a uni degree...or a high level job in a company... success is date by the guy you've been trying to get to ask you out for months...success is when you have a Ferrari when all of the others have Holdens...right?

To me, failure has always been about not being able to that you say you will do. Failure has always been non-negotiable.

You either do it and be successful or you don't, and you fail. Simple has that. In fact, all of the sporting companies would have you believe this is the case - "second place is first loser", "just do it" plus many more catchy phrases to make people who don't win feel bad about themselves!

I did not complete the Sydney Harbour Classic. I am not accepted the fact not completing something ashamed to say it, because I have now doesn't mean you fail.

I do not have many fears. I am not afraid of travel, i am not afraid of heights, i am not afraid of spiders or snakes (well, not hugely afraid!), I am not afraid of the dark, and I am not afraid of being alone. However, I have always had a fear of the Australian ocean. Since I was a little girl, I could not swim too far out from the beach because i was deathly afraid. I have swum in the Andaman Sea in Thailand and the Fijian ocean, but I fear the Australian waters. What I cannot see beneath me is what I fear the most.

When I entered into this race, I had decided that i would overcome my fear of the ocean by doing an event with a couple of hundred people. I had entered the race with DolphCom, in an effort to raise funds for some disabled people to head up to Port Stephens to swim with Dolphins. I was confident that 1km would be an easy distance because I regularly do - 1.5km in the pool as exercise. However, as the event edged close, the stakes got higher. The newspapers had begun to report a dramatic increase in shark activity in the area, due to the warmer and cleaner waters of the Harbour. Then came the reports of shark attacks. Two weeks ago, just around the corner from the Sydney Opera House, there was a shark attack which nearly claimed the life of a navy driver. Another shark attack had occurred that same weekend in Bondi, about 15km away.

This week had been a tough week personally. I have had a number of changes going on in my life. The training took a back seat this week. The sleep had been limited. The eating and preparation had been poor. Even when i turned up this morning, having forgotten some important things for the charity, I knew I wasn't at the top of my game.

As my mum and I walked to the event, we looked into the harbour and saw a huge cluster of jelly fish. This made me feel uncomfortable.

Still, I pressed on. I registered. I tried not to think about my fear. However, I could not help but overhear the conversation behind me. Rumour had it that there had been shark sighting in the Harbour the day prior. There had been another shark attack up in Avalon, on the northern beaches. I suddenly felt sick. There is only so much positive talk you can give yourself in these circumstances. Helicopters were noisily hovering above us all, lifeguards lining the route, divers in the water, looking out for any predatory creatures.

I managed to get to the starting line and without hesitation, I jumped into the water. I tried desperately to block out the thoughts of what was underneath. I tried desperately to talk myself out of the hardwiring that was telling me to run away. I treaded water, waiting for the gun to go off. Everyone was staring at me because I was tied to a inflatable dolphin balloon (to advertise the charity). My heart was pounding. My thoughts were racing. I needed to do this.

The gun went off and I started swimming. I did not enjoy the fury that was the large pack-start. Hands, arms, legs, bodies were everywhere, people were practically climbing over me, but my upperbody strength allowed me to push on. The water had gone from being very flat to very choppy due to the sheer number of competitors. I kept up the positive self talk. I could do this. I was a good swimming. Do not think of what is underneath.

I swam 200 metres and i had realised that I was already veering off course. I could not see out of my water filled goggles, i knew everyone was looking at me because of the balloons, and all of a sudden, I could not find the strength to push away those doubts and fears any longer. Panic filled every limb of my body and all of a sudden, without a second thought, i was racing across the water to the lifeguard. I was not tired, I was not hurting, I was in fear.

This is the fight or flight nature of our bodies. Your body does not have time to question anything. It just wants the fear to end.

I was lifted into the boat and I joined another 3 others who had pulled out as well. As soon as i was on the boat, i was fine. I stood up, gave the crowd a wave, and I was taken back to shore. Everyone was looking at me because of the massive balloons i was wearing but I didn't care.....

.....until i got back on dry land and I had realised that I had not been able to complete the event.

Common reasoning returned.

I had failed. I had let the team down. I had given up. I was a quitter.

The tears arrived and I was enveloped in a big hug by Andrew, the DolphCom owner. My mum then arrived and I received another hug. The crowd thought nothing of it. They thought that I had only entered the race for publicity for the charity. I was happy to let them keep thinking that.

Slowly, my idea of failure began to dissipate.

My fear was not that I could not finish the race. My fear was of the water itself. I had actually gone into the ocean and remained there for a fair while. I had even swum 200m - that is, four lengths of an olympic sized pool, in that open water.

I had in fact faced my fear and I had faced the fear in the most extreme circumstances - amongst much talk of the danger of the Harbour.

All of a sudden, the line between success and failure does not seem so defined.

Success is what you make it, and it is all determined by how you frame your challenge.

I was challenged and I overcame that challenge - even if it just meant swimming 200 metres.

1 comment:

  1. Now you're getting it, girl! Bravo! For learning, and for growing and adapting ... but most of all for facing your fears down! You'll still be able to help charities of your choice, with both publicity and money, many more times in your future. After all, I always have! And that despite sometimes not being able to "go the distance". For instance, I entered a 60 mile walk for cancer 2 months after completing chemo treatments, but could only complete 30 miles. Was totally bummed (especially since I have done a 100 mile walk, so 60 miles should have been a cake walk shouldn't it have?), until I realized it wasn't about the # of miles completed - it was about getting the word out and giving people the courage to detect their cancers early enough to be the ones in charge, rather than cancer being in charge.

    I dare say you've accomplished the same goal here for your charity. People now at least know about it. Bravo!

    Always remember: the greatest success anyone can ever achieve is NOT succes in competition with others ... it is success over one's own internal demons.