Self-esteem exists on a spectrum, with self-loathing at one extreme and arrogance at the other.  Most people strive to fall right in the center with a healthy balance of humility and confidence, but as I have come to learn, this happy medium doesn’t exist.  

As flawed beings, we will always either be too hard on ourselves or too full of ourselves.  Many people generally lean towards the former, believing it wiser to criticize than to praise themselves.  However, a healthy dose of pride is key to success and developing this pride is a multistep process, something I learned by being a terrible swimmer.

Kinda a cartoon I guess

When I started swimming, I despised every aspect of it. I constantly made excuses to avoid practice, and when I did go, I put in minimal effort, which didn’t bode well for me at meets, where I was usually one of the slowest competitors.

However, one day, my coach decided to put me in a lane with the fastest people, insisting I could keep up. I couldn’t.  But I worked harder and swam faster than ever before, which felt really good.  For the first time, I was proud of my swimming, which made me want to work even harder.  I wasn’t quite prideful yet, but I was on my way.

First, I had to deal with a major obstacle: my inherent clumsiness.  Swimming requires specific, synchronized movements of both your arms and legs.  I will never be coordinated enough to move in the way that swimming quickly requires.  My friends and I used to joke about how awkward and spastic I looked as I swam; however, I never viewed this as a reason to stop trying.  In fact, knowing I had an inherent disadvantage motivated me even more.

I often hear “I’m just bad at it” as an excuse for lack of effort and confidence.  It’s not.  We all have faults, but those faults should never be an excuse to not believe in your ability to succeed.  Rather, turn your flaws into something to joke about and motivate yourself with.

Once I overcame these flaws, I began setting concrete goals– key word being concrete. It’s much more effective to work towards a clear endpoint.  For me, that endpoint was qualifying for the state meet.  

Spoiler Alert: I never made that goal.  But that doesn’t mean I didn’t accomplish anything.  For two straight years, I consistently got faster.  I also discovered that I was much better at explaining technique than I was at executing it, a realization that gave me the desire to coach.

Many may not view my latter accomplishment as a real achievement, but in reality, achievements may be inconspicuous, ambiguous or unrelated to your original goal.  That’s okay.  Set goals to force yourself to work hard but don’t beat yourself up when you don’t accomplish exactly what you wanted to.  Instead, search for what you did accomplish, and trust me, if you work hard, you will accomplished something.

Finally, I learned to recognize the unique value of my achievements.  Some kids swim fast and win races, but I developed a practical life goal.  I never believed I was better than my fellow swimmers.  I just knew I was getting more out of the activity and with that understanding, came a healthy dose of pride.

At the same time, I never projected my pride externally: I didn’t brag or stop trying because I thought I could succeed effortlessly.  Rather, I let my pride motivate me internally, and I was a better swimmer for it.

Especially now, I think we all need to work on developing  a little bit of pride.  As you go into finals, enjoy working hard, don’t use your faults as an excuse, set concrete goals but be happy with more ambiguous accomplishments and project your pride as confidence rather than cockiness.