Growing up, Kevin was always narrowly escaping trouble by the skin of his teeth (and he lost a tooth once or twice). He was a risk taker, a rebel, and sometimes just plain lucky. He lived up to these traits into his adulthood and into the beginning of parenthood. However, he wasn’t juvenile, reckless, or even fearless. He was oddly practical and seemed to know how to step between raindrops without getting wet. Kevin was gifted; he knew how to swim in deep water.
Deep water is the term I use to describe a form of risk taking that puts a floor on the downside fears and makes extreme risks acceptable. Some of the most remarkable and well-accomplished people in the world are deep water swimmers, and it is a learnable skill.
To explain deep water, let’s look at Kevin and his brother, Doug.
Picture a beach along the ocean, where young Kevin and young Doug can walk in the shallows and go out for a swim. Unlike Kevin, Doug is not a deep water swimmer. Doug prefers shallower and clearer water because he likes to know where the bottom is. He likes to see it or be able to dip down and touch it if he chooses. Doug and Kevin are both good swimmers, but Doug likes the comfort of knowing where the bottom is. Kevin, on the other hand, doesn’t mind murky water or deep water. He doesn’t actually care where the bottom is.
This difference between Kevin and Doug is illustrated how they swim in the ocean. Doug knows where he is relative to shore, relative to the breakers, and relative to his beach towel. He is aware of wave sizes and alert to rip currents. Kevin also knows where he is: swimming in the ocean. Kevin knows the size of the waves based on how he bobs and he knows when he’s in a rip current.
Doug equates his awareness of the shoreline, the waves, and the water depth as a sign of safety. He knows his likelihood of danger increases as he gets farther from his point of reference, as he grows complacent, or as he drifts into deeper water (as he gets uncomfortable). Kevin believes his awareness of what he is doing in the present and his immediate surroundings are most important. He doesn’t mind being far from shore or caught in swells. Kevin knows he just needs to swim regardless of where he is relative to anything.
The difference between Doug and Kevin lies in their comfort with the known and unknown. Where this distinction really separates deep water swimmers from others is this: a deep water swimmer knows that there is no difference between 30 feet of water and 50,000 feet of water because if you stop swimming, you can drown in 10 feet of water. Deep water swimmers don’t see a difference in risk between swimming in the shallows and swimming in deep water. So, they are comfortable going where others are not: deep water.
Kevin’s comfort in any depth of water enables him to go places where Doug is not comfortable going. Kevin’s enlightenment allows him to remain calm when he is caught in a rip current and pulled far off-shore. He doesn’t need to know what risks are beneath him because he intends to stay in the top 3 feet of water.
A deep water swimmer doesn’t waste energy or mental capacity worrying about 2nd and 3rd order consequences or cascading risks based on a situation. A deep water swimmer is focused on 1st order consequences and being present for what is occurring in the moment. Said differently, they are focused on the top 3 feet of water.
When Kevin was young and daring, he didn’t worry about what would happen to his college applications if he got caught doing something stupid and ill-advised; he was only worried about getting caught. A deep water swimmer doesn’t worry about what happens to their mortgage or car payment if their business venture fails; they are focused on keeping the venture from failing. A deep water swimmer doesn’t worry about how plans are disrupted by an unexpected event; they are present to navigate the unexpected event.
Deep water swimmers like Kevin show us that there can be comfort in not knowing everything that’s beneath us. They remind us to be willing to take risks well beyond our comfort level. If we don’t swim out into deep water, then we will always remain close to where we start.