What Wild Dolphins Taught Me About Fear

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Last week my wife and I took a trip to the beach. We went in celebration of our four-year wedding anniversary and stayed at a classic Florida beach motel right on the ocean.

A few days before heading to the beach, I read about the opportunity to swim with live dolphins in the wild. Maybe it’s because I’ve heard dolphins are smart or seen one too many ads for Sea World, but the entire idea of jumping out of a boat in the middle of an ocean (like some kind of maniac) to swim with these sea creatures seemed absolutely magical. I had this romantic idea in my head of what it would be like (think Sea World meets The Little Mermaid).

When the day of the trip came, we boarded our boat and headed out to sea. After fifteen minutes of searching, we found a pod of dolphins. They were swimming right in front of our boat, leaping a bit out of the water before splashing back down. I ran to the front of the boat to get a closer look.

A few minutes later, as we continued to follow the pod of dolphins across the water, I was suited up with a life jacket and goggles. I was starting to feel the adrenaline rushing through my veins. A few moments after that, I was told by our captain to jump in the water.

And so I jumped.

When I landed in the water with a loud splash, my vision was immediately filled with an aquamarine color in every direction, as I quickly surveyed underwater for any sign of dolphins. None were in sight. I breathed a sigh of relief.

When I came to the surface a few seconds later, I scanned the surface for any signs of marine life. I was instructed to swim towards the direction of the dolphin pod. So, I did. And then, just like that, a dolphin broke the surface fifteen feet in front of me.

And I was terrified.

“Please don’t swim towards me,” I thought as I dove beneath the surface to try to catch a glimpse. I caught a very faint outline of the dolphin as it swam deep beneath the surface and, blessedly, away from me.

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If you look closely, you can see the dolphin’s fin in front of me.

While this was the first time I’d ever swam with a wild dolphin pod, this was not the first time I’d experienced these feelings. Everything from the romanticizing ahead of time to the fear to me desperately wishing that precise thing I romanticized would not come true. Yes, I’ve watched this movie before.

Have you ever noticed how the scariest part of a roller coaster is the slowest part of the roller coaster? You know, the part where it slowly clinks and clanks up the interminably long ramp to the top? That’s the part where my feet always shake and I nearly have a panic attack, as I consider whether or not I can climb out of my restraining harness before we reach the top.

In life, it seems it’s always the moments right before the experience that are filled with the biggest mental obstacles. Often when we’re just about to start that big project, move to that new state, write that book, launch that business, or send that important email we freeze up and do nothing. Or, even worse, we sabotage ourselves. We may blame other people and circumstances, but really it’s just our own lack of courage.

Have you ever noticed how right before you’re about to launch a project you suddenly find a million reasons why the project is not going to work out? Some of these may seem truly legitimate. But often this is just a way for us to shield ourselves from stepping beyond our comfort zones. It’s a form of self-sabotage where your most trusted resource (your reasoning ability) turns against you. All of a sudden you are acutely aware of all of the bureaucratic and logistical issues that will keep your project from being successful. And so, you kill your project but have very good (and detailed) reasons behind why you killed it in the first place.

I’ve done this many times. “Please don’t swim towards me,” we often say to our ideas and inspiration that could fundamentally transform our lives if we acted upon them. And so, the projects and ideas and opportunities swim past us as we float along.

When we take chances and leap into the unknown, we need to prepare ourselves for the immediate fear and resistance our brains will throw up to keep us safe. Our brains like safety and the comfortable and familiar will always be where our fear wants us to go. But the truly great experiences and lives in the world are those not lived in perfect safety but instead lived in the wild ocean that is life.

It’s just beyond our comfort zones that the magic lies. Every great thing that’s ever been accomplished involved a degree of fear and overcoming. We often don’t prepare ourselves to overcome that fear. When we do feel the fear, we often take it as a sign that we should not be doing something, rather than as a natural response where our reptilian brains are desperately trying to keep us safe. While our fear is helpful at times, it can be the very thing that stands in the way and allows us to remain stuck.

We need to prepare ourselves for our fears. And beware of the tendency our brains have to artificially exaggerate the ease with which our endeavors will be executed. When we think far in the future, we often only see the positive and none of the negative. We want the results but don’t see all of the struggles it took to get those results. If we instead prepare ourselves both to feel fear and for the reality of the situations, adjusting down our expectations to a reasonable level, we will accomplish our biggest goals and aspirations.

That’s what I learned by swimming with wild dolphins.

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