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If in doubt…paddle out…

By Julian Smith, Director, I Am Recruiting.  


Something different just happened to me on my recent trip to Lisbon. At the age of – (voice drops to a whisper…) forty-four – I got into a situation which left me feeling vulnerable, uncertain and much more scared than I was willing to admit. So what exactly was this crazy business I’d got myself into? I decided to take my first (and possibly last) surfing lesson.


Now, before you think I’m a complete wimp, and stop reading, let me explain that I’m physically really risk averse – at least when it comes to trying new things outside of my comfort zone. I’ve never done parachuting, skydiving, bungee jumping or anything else I consider to be on the extreme side, or where I might possibly make a fool of myself in public (being pulled up on stage by a magician springs to mind…). Surfing, for somebody like me with mild thalassophobia or fear of the sea, is one such risk, and probably the reason why I’ve never been tempted to try it over the years. I also grew up with Jaws and learned the hard way that it’s not safe to go back into the water…


So why am I sharing this as a blog? Well, there’s an interesting parallel with my day job as a recruiter and careers coach. People usually come and see me when they’re stuck in a rut, long after they’ve stopped enjoying their role, because they’re too afraid to make a move and do something different. I often explain to candidates in this position that they need to ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’, and yet here I was debating whether or not to take a dose of my own medicine.


Deciding to take the plunge…

I was in Lisbon to work with my colleague Christian and having ‘discovered’ surfing for himself just a few days earlier, I thought to myself “how hard can it be…?” This, coupled with the spirit of “you only live once”, and I was raring to go! At this stage, I had committed to going surfing, much like a job seeker who, stuck in a rut, decides they should just take the plunge and dive headlong into the unknown…and then came a sting in the tail…


Putting up barriers…

There I was, standing on a beach in a wetsuit, feeling like an extra in Point Break (and posing a little it has to be confessed). I was feeling the adrenaline and more than a little excited at stepping out of my comfort zone when suddenly a Portuguese David Hasselhoff jogged down the beach blowing the biggest, loudest whistle I’ve ever heard. Jellyfish – not the little ones, but the ones that reach several metres in length – had been spotted in the water right where we were about to start surfing and everybody was asked to leave the water immediately.


But since we were wearing wetsuits covering up most of our bodies, we were able to disobey the order at our own risk. Should we? Shouldn’t we? Was it worth the danger – and what exactly would we be risking? The red flags were up, and our confidence was down. The water was a no-go area, and I remember talking myself out of the very thing I’d spent the best part of 30 minutes talking myself into.


I don’t need to spell out the parallel here. Job seekers, often initially encouraged by others are plagued by self-doubt all the time, and the easiest thing to do is to turn around and say “well, at least I tried…” when all you’ve really done is get to the first stage, of updating the CV and ‘pretending’ that this is going to lead to a new career. Putting on a wetsuit is paying lip service to going surfing, much the same as sprucing up the CV is paying lip service to finding a new job. It’s an essential step in the right direction, but no more than that.


Time went by, and we were at an impasse. The whistle kept being blown every time somebody ventured into the water – a shrill reminder of what lurked within those murky, mystic waves. Christian told me he’d risk it if I did, and subconsciously he was drawing me into a pact. 15 minutes of agonising later and we had almost decided to go surfing, when another lifeguard came by and explained that a woman had been dragged out of the water on a neighbouring beach, suffering from second-degree burns.


Suddenly my “What’s the worst could happen?” mantra had an answer:  deadly creatures, second-degree burns, intense pain and scarring for life – all pretty off-putting for a risk-averse forty-something with a healthy fear of the sea. At this point I decided not to risk it. I’d trudge back up to the beach hut, and change out of the wet suit. In job-seeking terms, I’d resigned myself to my lot in life: I didn’t like my job, but why try to change it when I might end up somewhere even worse.


Feel the fear, and do it anyway!

A look of real disappointment from Christian, a couple more minutes of indecision and eventually I decided to give it a whirl. We warmed up again, grabbed the boards, and headed for the waves (think Keanu Reeves, slow motion jogging), and eventually I forgot all about the jellyfish (we saw none), my fear of drowning, of making a fool of myself and all of the other barriers I had put up – both mental and physical. It doesn’t matter that I was actually rubbish at surfing. It doesn’t matter that I had even less coordination in the sea than I do on land. What matters is that I tried something new, despite all the barriers I put up to protect me, and I learned to live with the risks – real and imagined – during the hour or so I was in the water. And that secretly felt good.


A life lived in fear is a life half lived, as they say, so what’s stopping you from taking the plunge, diving into uncertain waters and trying something new? If you’re stuck in a rut, maybe you need to step out of your comfort zone and try something new. It may not be plain sailing, but at least you can always look back and say you tried something different.

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