Naturally, the best advice I ever received came from a sprightly, white-haired old lady. She was my grandmother and I lived with her in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, for quite a while when I first came to America. It's her birthday this week, she'd be 105 (hey, she made it to 96, which ain't bad).
This was in the mid 1990s. I'd been a newspaper reporter in the UK, and was freelancing for local papers in the Chapel Hill area. But I wasn't happy - the stories I was being assigned were fluff and the pay was pathetic. I was 27 years old and wanting more.
I was thinking seriously about law school, but discovered very quickly I needed a U.S. bachelor's degree for that (my English journalism diploma wasn't enough). So I went to meet with admin people at UNC, to see how many hours of credit they'd give me for my professional qualification and the three years experience working at a newspaper.
They said: "Out of 120 hours needed to graduate, we'll credit you with seven hours."
So I went home and, as we did most days, I made tea while Granny made cinnamon toast. She could tell I was disgruntled (because I told her) and she asked what was wrong.
I explained: "Well, I'm 27 years old and I want to get my law degree. But to do that, I'd have to do three years of undergrad, taking an overload of classes, and then there's three years more of law school after that."
"Okay," she said. "And what's bothering you?"
"To do all that, it'll take me six years. Six years! I'll be 33 by the time I'm done."
"I see." A little smile appeared on her face. "Tell me, how old will you be in six years if you don't do all that?"
It was a light-bulb moment for me. I could be 33 with a law degree and my bachelor's, or I could just be 33. Brilliant.
But what does it have to do with swimming? Well, this is me at the beginning of the year, doing a lap.
Okay, not quite doing one.
The thing is, I've always been active, my whole life. Even now I play on two competitive soccer teams, play squash at least once a week, and lift weights. But I've always been a horrible swimmer. Maybe I'm too big, too lazy, too... something. I don't know. For whatever reason, I could swim one length (not lap) of the pool before spluttering and gasping for breath, holding onto the edge like it was my only salvation. Which it pretty much was.
I didn't like that. It didn't suit the image I had of myself - as someone who is generally active and reasonably good at sports. I also didn't like that terrifying feeling of running out of air, a feeling I got every time I swam more than about ten yards.
So I took lessons. Signed up for swimming lessons at the age of forty-noneofyourbusiness. I wanted to make sure my technique was decent (it wasn't, but now is) and then after that I just swam. Twice a week. It started with the successful completion of one lap (not length!). Then I managed to sew two laps together without pausing. Then three...
That was in January.
Today I swam a mile. A mile. Such a thing was a pipe dream to me six months ago. Even four months ago. But I did it because I kept plugging away, adding lap after lap. And I've reached the point where I can swim a mile because I knew, back in January, that even though it was a pipe dream, it was a possibility. I knew that in four, six, or nine months I'd be able to swim without that terrifying feeling of suffocation.
The bottom line is that back in January, I told myself I could be forty-noneofyourbusiness and be able to swim a mile, or I could just be forty-noneofyourbusiness.
Thank you, Granny.