Be More Dory — Become More Resilient!

“Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming…” How I enjoyed a tricky summer challenge with three simple techniques

I’m an improvisation teacher based in London and this summer I took on a challenge. It was swimming (I like swimming) outdoors (I like the outdoors) with lots of other people (I like people). I was just fit enough to feel like it was an achievable goal, yet flabby enough to know it would require a satisfying amount of effort. It’s a thing called Swim Serpentine where, one day in September, 6,000 people willingly hurl themselves, often in the name of charity, into central London’s best-loved artificial lake. It’s deliciously British. If the Serpentine is below 15˚ centigrade on the day, wetsuits are mandatory. Like Disney Pixar’s eternal optimistic Dory (Finding Nemo; Finding Dory), I decided to 'just keep swimming, swimming, swimming…’

When my plan crystallised, mid-July 2018, to enter Swim Serpentine, the UK was neck-deep in a glorious heatwave and swimming outdoors felt not so much a hardship, more a temperature-regulating necessity. “What’s not to like?” I thought to myself, “I’m a ‘can-do’ person.” Did I mention I was also neck-deep a mid-life crisis and needed distraction? Whatever. I signed up.

Excited as I was at the thought of bossing a new challenge, I was surprised to discover that when it comes to long-term commitment and enthusiasm, I have limits. I’ve always pitched myself as an ‘ornamental lake half full’ type of gal, but the realities were stark: if I don’t train, I honestly won’t finish; if I wuss out, I’ll definitely hate myself.

I was, unusually for me — an improv teacher trained to embrace failure — facing that split in the path between success and ‘must try harder’— that point where you’d wish you’d packed some extra ‘resilience energy’ bars. I say ‘unusually for me’ because even though I come across as a dare-devil and a stayer, I generally won’t actually attempt a thing unless I know I can succeed. I guess it’s a form of control that keeps us safe from humiliation.

So what pushed me to do it and then kept me on track, swimming towards success? Because trust me — I wanted to quit. I hated the rigour and the timescale and the increasingly cold water on the march towards Autumn. I’m a phone addict; a dopamine queen. I err towards distraction. I had little, really, to prove. And, over the next two months, my sense of self-efficacy (a concept we’ll short-hand here as confidence) was very much in question. I didn’t want to swim. I got cold easily. I suffer from earache. My feet would go numb in the water but whenever I wore swim-boots, I couldn’t control my damn legs. Those ‘resilience-flavoured’ energy bars proved inedible, time and again. When the going got tough, the tough often got a hot chocolate and had a pity-cry.

However, it truly was sticking to three simple concepts that kept me going. I stumbled across these through advice, by luck or thanks to my subconscious.

“Let’s Print T-Shirts!”
Step One: Commit
Resilience is a muscle exercised by challenges. To work it, we have to put ourselves in a position of potential failure. This swim was a perfect challenge: rather than some vague ‘get healthier; lose some weight’ flannel, it was a concrete, external goal — and one suggested by my improv mentor, no less. The commitment arc was clear from the off: my mentor posted an open invitation on Facebook to join her in a one-mile swim goal alongside a Swim Serpentine link. Three of us agreed, paid up, and the WhatsApp channel ­ ‘Swim You Bunch Of Legends’ was born. Joining this official public challenge and meeting for practice swims held us accountable and committed. We never did print t-shirts but externalising our intentions and feeling like a team meant we weren’t subject to our personal moods or whims on any given morning. The moment we’d paid our entry fee we were part of a bigger picture. We joined a structure that had in-built delivery expectations. It was no longer a woolly ‘get fit’ whim and it made it exciting.

So: get people you admire to point you in the direction of a concrete goal and give yourself up to their leadership.

Side note: try not to be at the top or the bottom of any given ladder — that way you’re always learning as you support others.

“It’s Just Data”
Step Two: Continue
Good grief, but that was a long nine weeks. As I said, I don’t often give myself the option to fail on terms other than my own. This time, however, the pitfalls were real. I wanted to bail out on a weekly basis. There were three things that kept me going.

The first? Keep it fresh. I constantly varied the types of swim practice: a French family pool; Brockwell Park Lido; my local indoor 16m puddle; a huge, freezing tributary in West Sussex; the actual sea… I gave myself constant mini-goals: increasing number of lengths; wearing an impossibly tricky wetsuit; trying out neoprene boots. Twice I had to exit a pool in tears because my ears hurt so bad. Then I discovered ear plugs — and I also came to realise that all of it — every single stroke — was merely data. Part of the whole experiment. The bad times didn’t define me and they couldn’t ruin me per se. Resilience is often about tricking yourself past the present obstacle.

Also crucial? Share the love (and the pain). A group of friends in the same fix was crucial to the flow. We posted pre-swim photos as inspiration. We met whenever we could in pools and Lidos across London. We shared equipment tips. We felt each other’s pain and had a ‘rest and recoup’ mindset when things got tough. We felt stronger because we were not alone — and my family and friends who came along on the day (I am so grateful to you!) tipped the balance from fear to fun. Ally yourself with positive partners and share the data gathering. Resilience drinks support like nectar and is stronger for it.

Third trick to a happy continuation? Think outside the box. We made this tough personal challenge about more than just us four improvisers and though it wasn’t originally a charity-inspired challenge, by August we’d bitten the bullet and created a donations page (Swimprov London) through Virgin Giving Money. We picked Mind: the Mental Health and Wellbeing charity. If a dawn morning ever looked too frosty, the donations that rolled in from family, friends and colleagues kept us on track and heading for the water. We raised an incredible £3,500 — and all from a tiny, vague wish to be fitter. We made the external world louder and more important than our internal world and this maintained a sense of proportion. The extra ‘data’ of an ever-increasing donations page was thrilling.
Side note: think early about the end-game. You will feel like it’s ages away and feel shy about focussing on it but the quicker you get used to your idea, the better.

“I’ll Have The Full English, Please!”
Step Three: Conclude
Resilience training enjoys a reward. The big day came. I found myself literally trembling on the journey there and then actually crying in the park as I searched for a friendly face. I had a ludicrous flash of anger when my numbers didn’t stick on my wetsuit properly. What a diva.

My knees were weak as we stood on water’s edge, towered over by Christo’s painted barrels sculpture. I floundered for a good seven or eight minutes as I set off alongside hundreds of other women, my friends included.

Gently, floundering gave way to a zen rhythm. By the time I got to the Pergola Café’s 500m mark I was in the zone. Back round on the other side of Christo’s red and pink oil-barrel sculpture and my mentor was suddenly next to me! We high-fived and she continued as I dropped my legs down and released air bubbles from my rubber boots. The feeling of being on the home straight 15 minutes later was bitter-sweet: I was euphoric about finishing but I also didn’t want to stop: I had totally found my happy place. I was a straggler in my wave but I finished in less than 50 minutes and staggered over to a hot tub to find my friends.

Lots of photos, a park stroll and a massive fry-up later and my sense of resilience was cemented. I’d managed my three months’ stress in a multitude of ways and I overcame. Achievable goal: achieved! Yup, humans need closure on stressful journeys. The relief from finishing the swim was immense.
Side note: ultimately, you’re on your own, kid. Get used to that.

Conclusion: So: for some satisfying resilience training, give yourselves a solid, achievable plan of action and then Commit, Continue and Conclude using all the tricks outlined above and a few of your own for good measure. Easy to say when you — like I did —manage to finish the job. But what if I hadn’t reached that happy ending to the story?

Well, I guess the door would still be open and I’d need to complete a similar challenge to feel like I’d cemented my sense of resilience. So I suppose that it’s a case of: If things haven’t ended how you wanted then it’s not yet the end.

Ultimately, I feel it’s all about keeping on topic and calmly gathering data until the challenge is won. I’m an improviser — I’m trained to stay flexible; to ‘hold on tightly, let go lightly’. I’m just relieved I (luckilynotluckily) found such satisfying closure in this three-month adventure. Thanks, improv mentor! Thanks, swim buddies! Thanks, supporters and donators! Thanks, me!

All of which achievable happy makes me ask… what’s next?

Victoria Hogg runs all kinds of resilience, confidence, collaboration and creativity sessions, using improvisation, in the UK, as The Offer BankSign up here for Commanding Your Audience Through Improv Comedy at Goldsmiths College, New Cross, London. Click here to donate to Mind: The Mental Health and Wellbeing charity. Thank you.