Updated: Dec 2, 2019
“Jump and swim away fast. 1–2–3- Go!” It’s September 7th, 2019, I’m standing on the edge of the doorway of one of two ferries carrying 600 swimmers — two thirds men, two thirds in wetsuits — to Alcatraz so that we can race back to shore. We jump in and swim hard, barely seeing the San Francisco skyline over the grey waves that splash into our mouths with every breath. I feel like a tourist, plucked from a Greek beach and dropped into the cold Pacific Ocean. What made me think I could do this, on a cloudy dawn, in 60F water, in a french lingerie swimsuit? I am not an athlete, I don’t train, I don’t buy sports clothes. How delusional! How futile, too: This race has never been a goal. I don’t even like goals.
Flashback two years ago, I walked into the Aquatic Park’s cold water at the crack of dawn. I had just come home to San Francisco from a summer break in my native Mediterranean, I was feeling blue, and hoped the saltwater would lift my spirits. My intent was to walk in up to my neck, then straight back into the sauna where I belong. The friend who brought me there at this ungodly hour, before vanishing out to sea with his swim pod, had introduced me to an 80-year-old Ironman athlete with phase IV lung cancer. I couldn’t chicken out. We went in, breast-stroked for 20 minutes, and back out. I entered the hot sauna with my frozen face flesh barely able to pronounce “Is this thing on?”
For the next two years, about once a week for 20–30 minutes, I splashed around inside the Park’s cove, mostly by myself and sometimes with a friend, rarely joining pods in their adventures in open water. I told myself that committing to show up at precise times and exercising harder would ruin my enjoyment of the refreshing water, clean air, rising sun, pelican sightings, the whole magic. That said, it was the few swims with other people that were by far the most exhilarating — we jumped off high piers holding hands, flew in with strong tides. Yet I did not pursue repeats: I did not believe I was strong or disciplined enough to join a pod. In fact, I proved myself unworthy of joining by being flaky and slow.
The thought of setting measurable goals and stretching myself to reach them had always seemed foreign. We Europeans, broody and phlegmatic, feel disdain for the cheerful and energetic pursuits of Americans’ dreams. I preferred the subtle, qualitative descriptions — “I sometimes splash around in the Bay” — to the crass, quantitative ones — “I swam 1.25 miles in one hour in 60F water.” That’s not to say we don’t do hard things. I had built a solid sense of comfort in the water over decades of swimming (from playing in crashing waves to long laps in Stanford’s Olympic sized pools), under-water diving (including with sharks, at night, and in shipwrecks) and had now acclimated to cold.
This past summer, though, an unfamiliar yearning to feel strong became a recurring thought. “My power”: these were two words I had never put next to each other. I pondered on how many of my endeavors, behaviors, thoughts and feelings had to do with avoiding exposing myself to rejection and disappointment, and how few had to do with approaching challenges I would be thrilled to succeed in.
As an avid reader of neuroscience and psychology, I knew where “avoidance” and “approach” behaviors originate in our brains, and — most usefully — how we can progressively change them.
There are a number of brain parts that become active without our conscious control when we perceive a threat or an opportunity. They include the amygdala, hypothalamus, and many others. These parts react fast to stimuli, trigger a cascade of automatic reactions, resulting in our behaviors.In addition to those, adults also develop brain parts that help us evaluate options and decide how to best respond — not just react — to threats and opportunities. A key player in executive function is the dorso-lateral pre-frontal cortex (dlPFC). The right dlPFC gets activated in the context of threat. It is associated with fear and anxiety, and develops the capability of inhibiting or controlling our actions. The left dlPFC gets activated in approach pursuits. It is associated with sociability and vitality.
The Statue of Liberty is a great visual metaphor for the dlPFC. In her right hand she holds a torch to ward off threats (avoidance), and in her left a list of goals to pursue in life (approach). In the best of cases, when we develop into mature adults with well-balanced brains, she looks the way we all recognize her.
However, many of us adapt to rough lives by developing hyper-sensitive stress responses, and coping with more frequent avoidance behaviors. Our Statues of Liberty end up looking like Lara Croft brandishing a flamethrower to anything that moves and dropping her list of positive life goals.
The opposite also happens, to all of us: it’s called adolescence. Imagine the Statue of Liberty while being assembled, first getting her list of dreams to pursue, not yet her flame (bad sense of risk, low impulse control.) Some of us remain somewhat disinhibited and impulsive into adulthood.
I visualized my own brain as lopsided — consumed by fear, neglecting action. If I wanted to feel “my power” I would have to rewire it progressively by promptly interrupting any ruminations about inadequacies, and by setting positive goals, reaching them, and building trust in myself. So when at the end of the summer I caught sight of an email reminder urging late entrants to sign up for an Alcatraz race that would take place two weeks later, I pounced.
The morning of the race I waited with fellow swimmers inside the ferry for the tide to ease. They chatted about past failed attempts, stretched, traded tips. I felt increasingly nervous and noticed how this affected my demeanor and others’ responses. I slouched, smiled meekly, made unsteady eye contact, spoke softly and nodded profusely… Conversations steered towards the more confident interlocutors. I was not being unfairly judged and excluded by others, I was actually excluding myself by feeling weak. Like most animals, we size each other up with two unconscious questions: “friend or foe?” and “weak or strong?”. In that short conversation, I must have given off signals of 'friend but weak', as well as the biggest repellent to people about to dive into dangerous waters: “I may need help in there!”
As it turns out, my fears were unfounded: I made it to the finish line without help (police in jet-skis repositioned about 10% of the swimmers that day, twice as many as other years) placed respectably, with energy to spare. I finally felt powerful, because the capacities I had been developing over decades now had a label: “Alcatraz race finisher.” It earned me trust and self-respect, an appetite for more, and most surprisingly the desire to join others for group swims: feeling confident made me want to connect more, share perspectives, trade tips. I already knew that connection begets confidence — I would never have attempted this swim without a massive supporting community. What I hadn’t realized is how confidence begets connection — and conversely how fear isolates.
The next thing I did that same day was to file my long-delayed application for American citizenship: it made September 7th 2019 the symbolic day I swam from the prison of my European brooding and phlegmatic avoidance behaviors, to the freedom of American cheerful and energetic group adventures. Until I become a US citizen, though, I'll keep blissfully splashing around.