When ‘In Over Your Head’ Is a Good Thing

Feeling In Over Your Head?

It can be an overwhelming, unsettling, literally “I can’t breathe” feeling. But for anyone really wanting to grow and succeed, being in over your head can actually be a good thing. Here’s a quick story to illustrate the point.

Taking the Plunge

During a canoeing adventure on Missouri’s scenic Current River, a relaxing day with my friends quickly changed. A bend in the river revealed a concentration of abandoned canoes, their former occupants swinging merrily — one by one — from a rope attached to a large tree limb jutting out over the river.

As an observer, it looked like great fun! As a participant, I wanted no part of it. Why? Not because of the rope, the height, or even the ultimate plunge into the cold water.

Simply put, I lacked confidence in my swimming skills. And lacking confidence, I was sorely tempted to embrace complacency — and stay in my seemingly safe, secure boat.

My friends decided to participate, and they dared me to do the same. Finally, I could resist the pressure no longer. With my adrenalin pumping and my heart beating wildly, I grasped the rope and launched myself forward out over the river below. Companions and strangers alike joined in a chorus of encouragement. But after releasing the rope and tumbling into the chilly waters, I was alone.

And I was definitely in over my head.

The river’s gentle current quickly began pulling me downstream, away from my friends. Panicking, I kicked and flailed. And as a result, I tired quickly. Soon I had no other option — I had to pause and rest.

When I did, I made a significant discovery. I was no longer in over my head. The water in which I’d initially struggled was now less than waist-deep. Sheepishly, hoping no one else saw this revelation, I waded back to my canoe.

Complacency Cripples Growth

This river experience reminds me of an important question for business professionals pursuing greater success.

Posed by the author T.S. Eliot, is believed to have asked, “If you’re not in over your head, how do you know how tall you are?”

It’s a tragic fact that some professionals choose personal comfort by embracing complacency. They never really learn how “tall they are” or the full measure of what they can do.

And because of their complacent attitude, many problems arise around them. Inactivity — be it mental or physical — inevitably leads to decreased and deteriorating performance. And as performance deteriorates, so does the ability to positively influence and impact others.

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Testing The Waters

So, here’s a simple challenge intended to help you counteract complacency and “test the waters.” As my canoeing friends did with me, I’ll do for you — I’ll dare you to take the challenge.

First, for fun, I dare you to go to some new restaurant and order the “chef ’s surprise.” Don’t look at the menu. Don’t ask the waiter for a description of what you’ll get. Don’t even ask the price. Just take the leap! It will be fun — I promise!

Then on a professional level, I dare you to ask your team leader for more responsibility. Seriously!

For example, ask to be assigned to an internal performance improvement team. Or ask permission to revise your company’s new hire onboarding and orientation process. Or volunteer to teach some skill you possess to those interested in knowing what you already know.

In other words, get out of your comfortable boat and swing into action. You’ll learn new things, discover new truths about yourself and your abilities, and generally, be better for the experience — I promise!

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Attitude Impacts Growth

This is the key to remember: What you do is far less important than the attitude that drives what you do. The attitude with which you approach anything ultimately impacts how much you grow.

Yes, I know your work plate is full. I also know it’s easy to get too comfortable in that safe little boat of yours. So there’s no better time than the present to take the plunge.

I predict the water in which you land will be manageable, and you’ll find a host of people nearby to encourage you.

I anticipate you’ll find the experience invigorating, and I imagine, if you actually get in over your head, it won’t be long until you know more about exactly “how tall you are.”

Get ready for the adventure!

photo credit: yannick lepère pexels.com

Phillip Van Hooser

Phillip Van Hooser, CSP, CPAE, Founder & Chair, Van Hooser Leadership. A seasoned leadership expert, keynote speaker, and author, Phillip Van Hooser is passionate about developing intentional leaders who can effectively engage and empower their employees to deliver powerful results. His most recent book is “Earning The Right To Be Heard," a primer for creating greater influence and opportunities. Connect with Phil on LinkedIn.


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