Some of the best lessons you learn in life are the hard ones. When those revelations arrive on your doorstep, they're rarely cute and small and neatly wrapped like fortune cookies in a chinese restaurant. Instead, you open the door and the mailman smacks you in the mouth. The mailman is the universe and you'll accept this package whether you like it or not.

No one is coming to save you. That’s possibly one of the most powerful lessons I’ve learned.

This doesn’t mean carrying a chip on your shoulder. And you needn't cry yourself to sleep. It just means learning the difference between swimming and thrashing.

When we’re lost in life's vast ocean and being tossed violently by waves, our immediate reaction is to thrash. Deep down you know you can’t beat the water into submission but you try it anyway, attempting anything to survive. But you can’t thrash for too long. Once your energy is spent, you’ll drown.

You have only two options. Swim, or tread water.

Swimming means putting one hand in front of the other. Kicking your feet. Trying to generate rhythm. I don’t think it matters if you’re swimming in the wrong direction at first - as long as your body is under control. You’ll have the peace of mind to notice that you’re off track and adjust accordingly. Most people don’t. They’re too busy panicking.

The other option is to tread water. It’s one of the first things you’re taught when learning to swim. It’s a skill that can save your life.

Maximise energy conservation and keep your head above the water. Slow, smooth movements. Analyse your surroundings. Treading water buys you time.

In moments of panic, learn to tread water.

My entire time at Google felt like the last scenes of The Titanic.

I was standing on the world’s biggest and most beautiful ship, surrounded by decadence, all while knowing the ground was shifting beneath my feet. I was still desperately trying to keep my dream alive. My dream of becoming a lawyer. But with each tilt of the ship I could feel the odds waning.

In retrospect, it’s easy to draw the scene. I can hear the music playing. The symphony shining above the noise. But in that moment, all I saw was chaos.

My first-year grades at university weren’t great. Someone said first year grades don't matter. I took that advice as liberally as you can imagine. Turns out they lied, or I was deceived by my own ignorance. Either way, I’d only just realised how much those grades might impact my odds of getting a summer internship, let alone a training contract with a top law firm. Now, I was looking for a way out. Scrambling for a lifeboat. I desperately needed to hear someone tell me everything was going to be okay.

But I didn’t know any corporate lawyers. I didn’t even know anyone who had actually received an offer to train at a top firm. I had never come across someone who had made it against the odds, as I would need to.

So when I approached a director at Google, in the midst of a swanky soiree, I was asking the band to play one last song. I was searching for affirmation - a refrain to soothe my nerves. I cornered him between finger food and champagne, under the pretence of getting another drink. I told him my story. I’d been invited to dozens of law firms, investment banks and wealth managers. But office tours and free biscuits weren’t the same as job offers, and I couldn’t shake the fear that those would never come. I asked for advice. I asked if he could mentor me. I was asking for the direction of the nearest lifeboat.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I can’t help you”.

I’m not abridging the script here for brevity. I talked for five minutes, he talked for five seconds. Those were the only words that man said to me before turning around and walking away. Back to the party.

His words crawled under my skin, passing right through my bones and out of my body before being absorbed by the thrum of the crowd behind me.

I had no idea if the music was still playing. All I could hear was chaos. It was my last night on the Titanic and it had only just dawned on me that no one was coming to save me. I reeked of desperation and you could smell it coming from a mile away.

I did a pretty miserable job of stifling my tears. If I were a cursing man, this is where I’d drop my next f-bomb. And several other unprintable words right after that.

Lesson learned.

A few months later I was on a plane to Shanghai.

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If you have any thoughts on swimming and treading water I’d love to hear from you! Reply via email, leave a comment, or send me a tweet!

I’d also love any thoughts on what I should write about next.

Read on for this week’s recommendations >>

Photo: by David Elikwu, in Skopje

Reading list

Books I’ve read/seen/will impulsively buy and add to my “to read” shelf on Goodreads. Recommendations from newsletter readers are always welcome:

  1. Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig - seen. In my corner of the universe Matt Haig seemed to become a literary darling overnight and everyone was raving about all of his books. This is a good, honest read about the reality of surviving anxiety and depression.
  2. Polymath by Peter Hollins - read. This book has a few great historical anecdotes of storied polymaths. What it touches on practically is largely in reference to / similar to other books I've also read. That said, it's a solid introductory read.
  3. Building a StoryBrand by Donald Miller - impulsively bought. A lot of what I've learned about branding, but this time from the source. Even if you already think you know a thing or two you'll compound that by reading this.

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