Swimming In The Shark Tank

A simple trick to help your brain overcome a fear of anything. Even (imaginary) sharks. 🦈

So, who should I list as the CEO?” asked Joe, our lawyer, a few weeks ago. It was a routine question on a routine call about incorporating our new venture, Digest, Inc. My husband and I had a clear answer for it. But my brain panicked, and I was unable to respond.

I looked up at my husband who saw me wearing a familiar expression of fear, and he instinctively leaned into the speakerphone. “Pita. She should be listed as the CEO because she really is the CEO,” he said plainly.

As a technical woman who has worked on and led software startup teams within corporations for a decade, you’d think I’d be comfortable running a (currently) two-person (my husband and I) company for my own product: one that’s been a decade in the making, and that I believe in deeply.

But fear and rationality are arch nemeses: a concept that became familiar to me very early in life when I was first introduced to sharks.

In The Jaws Of Fear

The worst idea ever / Image credit: Hans

When I was young, I developed a fear of sharks.

It started after a visit to one of those then-novel aquariums that lets visitors stroll through glass tunnels around which sharks swim “menacingly”. It not only squashed my dreams of becoming a marine biologist, but also made my many years of swim lessons much harder than they needed to be.

My journey through aquatic pedagogy involved a mastery of different swimming and first-aid skills, including the dreaded (for me) endurance swim. Not only was I lacking in actual physical endurance, but my breathing rhythm was completely thrown off because I had a paralyzing fear that I was being chased IN THE POOL by a shark. I consistently replaced the 1–2–3-breathe rhythm that we were taught in class with something on the order of O-gasp-M-gasp-G. Consequently, I had no mental or physical endurance left to focus on the technique of my stroke.

This went on for years and resulted in me failing each swim level at least twice and at most five times. But I soldiered on — I’m a second generation Canadian with immigrant Indian parents who, to put it mildly, aren’t the quitting type — and I eventually became a teen lifeguard and swimming teacher.

I never quite got over my fear of sharks but after spending hours each week volunteering and then working at our community pool, I came to accept that no sharks had taken up residence there.

Logic: The Great White Lie

Years later, all grown up, I found myself doing laps at my gym pool for exercise. And lo and behold, my anxiety returned with a vengeance. There I was, being chased by a shark again. My heart raced, my breathing became erratic, and my stroke labored.

Why was this happening again?! 😭

First, I tried to soothe myself with logic.

Obviously, there are no sharks here. I’m in an indoor pool. Sharks are large and cannot fit through the plumbing system. If there was a shark in here, other swimmers would notice. The probability is high that someone else will get bitten first, and the lifeguard will notice the blood and blow his whistle. I’ll be fine.
Unattributed Quote / Image credit: Nishant Kothary

Unfortunately, this line of reasoning can rarely win over my imaginative worst-case-scenario brain.

What if a tiny little baby shark got flushed down the toilet and ended up in our water system? What if it somehow got into the pool and swam in a corner for months growing bigger and hungrier? What if my flutter board dolphin kicks make me look like an actual dolphin and trigger his instincts? OMG, I have a target on my back. 🎯

So, I next sought out physical evidence to convince my stubborn brain. I opened my eyes in my goggles and looked around.

See? No sharks. If there were sharks, I’d see them. Obviously. Unless… of course, there is just one and he is right behind me. I can’t turn around and check because then the other swimmers will think that I’m weird.

And thus, my terror continued. My only saving grace was that I would not allow myself to get out of the pool; giving up was never remotely an option. Like my parents, I don’t quit things very easily, even if I’m absolutely miserable along the way. So I would continue my laps, and relish the short bursts of relief I got every time I reached the end of the pool and touched the wall.

Eventually, worn out from the trauma of being between the devil and the deep blue sea, I decided that maybe it was time to trick my brain.

Chomping At The Bit

The trick I used was simple: I decided to stop fighting the shark, and instead to give up and surrender myself as a meal.

I said to myself:

If there is a shark chasing me and I slow down, he will eat me. If he doesn’t eat me there can only be one of two possibilities: 
1. There isn’t a shark chasing me, or 
2. He’s there, but isn’t a threat to me

Of course, my brain thought of a third possibility which involved the shark not wanting to eat me at that specific moment but instead wanting to do so at some time in the future. But I could solve this (and other clever loopholes invented by my brain) by running my experiment again. And again. And again. If after slowing down a large number of times I still wasn’t eaten, it would be reasonable for me to conclude one of those two possibilities. And either of them would mean that I was safe, and that there was nothing real to fear.

So, I slowed down, caught my breath, and predictably, nothing happened. It was in that moment that my fear truly disappeared for the first time, even if not forever.

But when it came back, I knew what I needed to do. I had a plan.

Fin

I’ve since employed this experiment in all aspects of my life, in and out of the pool. At a fundamental level, it’s about challenging my fears and figuring out if they are real or not. Sometimes they are, sometimes they are much smaller than warrants my anxiety, but usually they are just figments of my imagination.

Three months ago, TechCrunch reported that only 17% of startups — less than one out of five — have a female founder (let’s not even get started about female CEO stats). If you’ve been following tech news, you’re probably also familiar with the rampant culture of sexual misconduct in tech that seems to have reached a new low this year bookended by Uber’s exploitative culture and VCs with a history of sexual harassment falling like dominos. Even looking outside of tech, each day brings us a new study that demonstrates our systemic biases against women, from home to work to the electorate. My brain can rattle off such information faster than even I can keep up, and the end result, as you would expect, is fear. Deep, dark fear.

By any measure, my fear of failing my own little company as CEO is more warranted than my fear of becoming the main course for a shark in the community pool. The waters of the pool that is the tech startup world certainly seem fear-worthy to some degree. After all, there is much evidence of Great Whites in their waters.

But I have to admit that I can’t help but find myself standing on the edge, leaning in. I guess all those years of dealing with imaginary sharks warmed me up for the real shark tank.


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Originally published in Digesting on July 21, 2017.

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