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The Deep End

Written by: Deb Sparrow
Published: July 2016

Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness. 

-Desmond Tutu

Thinking about the deep, dark places that we can get stuck in as humans is kind of a strange thing to be doing on a beautiful summer day, is it not? Perhaps it is proof that some of the negativity that is running rampant in our political process and in so many corners of society can spill over into our protected ‘happy’ places. 

One of my own restorative places is near the backyard pool where I can be found enjoying my introversion during the Maine summer months, surrounded by the quiet of my dead-end street and the joy of a stack of reading material. My contemplative quiet is occasionally interrupted by a dip in the pool, mostly at a leisurely float. We all have those places and activities that allow us to relax and let stress exist elsewhere for a while. 

The pool has not been the lounging paradise that it would normally be for me this summer. Not only have I been thinking about this trend all around us toward violence, anger, and negativity, but I have made the choice to focus on swimming as part of my fitness regimen goals. 

The next thing you know, the pool has become a means toward goal achievement.  I’m not sure about you, but when I have a set goal, relaxation is not part of my process. I go after it. I may have spent more time at the bottom of the deep end this year than a Navy SEAL candidate. 

Okay, not really. My hands are not tied together and I am not retrieving concrete blocks with my teeth. I am not close to drown proof and no one is yelling at me to make me tougher. 

It is a different view from down there, however. Who doesn’t need a different viewpoint and a new challenge from time to time?

Lately I may have been a little preoccupied, okay worried, about this volatility and anger in the world at large. Constant negativity in the news and from leaders does spill over into our daily lives if we are not careful to avoid the “everything is broken and we are all in constant danger” mindset. Ramping up the level of fear in society doesn’t do any of us any good. Awareness, yes. Caution, sure. However, when it gets to the level of blame and violence that we are experiencing, maybe we have taken a wrong turn. 

The immediate cause of my worry is a young adult of mine traveling in London, and another young adult who will be traveling to Austria in a couple of weeks to spend a semester abroad. I am not a worrier by nature. Life is meant to be lived as broadly and deeply as possible. I want young people to travel and enjoy different experiences in different cultures just as I had the opportunity to do. 

Of course, I have to remember that the world can be dangerous and angry place in our own towns, not just across oceans. It can also be a friendly and caring place. 

When we all focus on listening to each other and asking good questions rather than judging so harshly and drawing lines based on political affiliations, ethnicity, and lately, sexual preference, or choice of occupation, then we can begin to understand why others see things differently and allow room for compromise and compassion.  

Back to the pool thing for a minute, while you are thinking about this need that we have as humans to find fault, mostly in others, and shout our solutions over the voices of others, thinking that the loudest voices will win. Why do people like me just have to make something pleasantly relaxing, like pool time, into something challenging? Some people call it stubbornness; I prefer determination. I have always wanted to swim better but never put in the time to practice and become more comfortable in the water. 

Maybe we all have something we would like to do better. This one came to the surface for me at the beginning of pool season. I was outside enjoying one of the first warm days from my lounge chair while trying to get motivated to put on my running shoes and get a workout in before dinner. It occurred to me, as I enjoyed the warmth of the sun and the beautiful blue water, that I could take advantage of both the weather and my location if I swam laps instead of hitting the road. 

There was only one problem. I love having a pool. I don't like to swim. 

Minor detail, right? It’s not like I can’t swim or have a paralyzing fear of the water. Swimming for fitness is a great idea. The older I get, the more running takes a toll on the body. I still enjoy the feeling of accomplishment, those addicting endorphins that kick in when you think you can’t go another step, as well as the mental escape, but I won't be able to keep up this pace forever. Swimming is a great exercise alternative, and for some fortunate people like me, just a few convenient steps across the deck during the nicest months of the year. 

I mentioned this recently when I was talking about personal goals with a group of people I’m just getting to know in an influence leadership discussion at our Priority Learning workshop. I shared that one of my goals this summer is to become a better swimmer. A couple of them seemed surprised. The questions ranged from “Do you not know how to swim?” to “Are you training for a triathlon?” 

Um, no, neither of those. 

What then? I have always been athletic and love to stay active. Why do I not enjoy swimming? As it turns out, my excuses are lame. They range from 'swimming is harder than it looks' (it is quite a workout) to 'I don’t like the feeling of water in my ears' and 'I wear contacts so I have be really careful' to 'chlorine does weird stuff to my hair.' Seriously. Borderline pathetic. 

My excuses started to sound like the lame excuses that we all give about why our behaviors in the workplace, or as leaders, or the behaviors of our chosen political candidates are not what they could be. Blaming someone else for the perceived problems in the world, or in this country, or at our organizations is the quick and easy way to take the heat off our own shortcomings. 

Perhaps we just need to be asking more questions and listening to the answers to help us understand what prevents us from being better swimmers or better leaders. 

I do like to understand. I like to make sense of things. I ask questions, read, and listen attentively to other leaders like the smart people in my Influence Leaders series. I watch events like political conventions in presidential election years without regard to party affiliation or the upcoming Olympics in Rio without judging the competitors who come in last. I like to think I am reasonably well informed, open to divergent points of view, and appreciative of effort and dedication.  

At this point, the political divisiveness and anger that leads people to assume that supporters of the party that they do not favor are all ill-informed idiots of questionable parentage is concerning as well as fascinating. Isn’t it interesting that true leadership seems to take a backseat to posturing, name-calling, and angry blame? Is there truly room for extreme negativity and hate in this country where we are so fortunate to live? I believe we do have a choice. Some of us are stuck in the dark and angry places, the places of “life is unfair” and “I can’t” instead of “I can,” looking for what is wrong with each other and our chosen candidates and not appreciating what is right.

What is the choice for people who do not identify strongly along political party lines? There is plenty to listen to and learn from as the conventions unfold, and plenty of thoughtful questions to ask. 

Perhaps thoughtful questions are where the positive voices of reason can originate. Does it really matter if the voices are Democrats, Republicans, or something else? Are we truly back at a place where we label people and condemn them based on those labels rather than getting to know them as individuals and what they can offer for a vision and leadership? Leading with humility is hard work. It is easier to point fingers at others who lack perfection. I believe that we need to start with ourselves as the positive, encouraging voices and make every effort to spread positive influence rather than negative.

Maybe that will come from a different party. Heck, at this point, I’d vote for a Whig if I could find one who believed in the future of this country, appreciated history, understood compromise, and could lead his or her way out of a wet paper bag. 

On second thought, I think our last Whig president was Millard Fillmore. He ranks somewhere in the bottom 10% of U. S. Presidents in just about every poll there is. I’m not here to slam the candidates, however, past or present. I’m sure, like Fillmore, they all have some redeeming qualities. I’m sure President Fillmore was a great guy. HIs friends probably called him Milly. 

What concerns me, and what I have been thinking about, is the tone being set by leaders. I believe that the responsibility of leaders is to set a positive, optimistic vision and to set the example to push ourselves beyond our own comfort zones. 

Creating safety, showing humility, and being open to compromise and learning is what I look for in a leader. Planting seeds of fear, doubt, and inciting anger and distrust are destructive in any organization, let alone a country of three hundred million people. 

Here's the good news. I decided, on the day I spoke my swimming goal aloud to relative strangers, that I would get over my sad list of excuses and practice. I have been in the pool every day since then. For a few days, I jumped into the deep end repeatedly just to get over the feeling that I hate of pressure in my ears. Next thing you know, I am swimming like a fish. Okay, a fish with battered gills, but still. 

I have to say, the view from the deep end has given me new perspective on goal setting as well. Maybe it is never too late to push ourselves past our comfort zones and set higher leadership standards. 

Now about that triathlon….

Deb Sparrow

Deb Sparrow

Deb Sparrow worked in financial services senior leadership for over 25 years. She is a firm believer that "the universe always falls in love with a stubborn heart" as she explores the fork in the road and writes about it from time to time. She is a graduate of Bowdoin College and Priority Learning's inaugural Executive Leadership series. Follow her on LinkedIn at Deb Sparrow worked in financial services senior leadership for over 25 years. She is a firm believer that "the universe always falls in love with a stubborn heart" as she explores the fork in the road and writes about it from time to time. She is a graduate of Bowdoin College and Priority Learning's inaugural Executive Leadership series. Follow her on LinkedIn at