I’m terrified of swimming. The deeper the water, the further away the edges, the worse I feel. I’m powerfully drawn to it too, to the freedom it offers, as well as my fear.

I visited Whitstable, UK last summer and I made my way directly to the sea shore as I always do, to soak in the salty smell and the hypnotically rippling waves. I wondered how far I’d swim out the next day, feeling nervously excited as I tried to work out the difference between recklessness and bravery. After my cerebral swim rehearsal I turned to see a large piece of graffiti on the concrete sea wall. CREATIVITY TAKES COURAGE it said (I later realized that Henri Matisse said it first). I felt affirmed by the message, proud of myself for the things I’ve managed to create because I don’t find the process easy. And swimming takes courage too, I thought to myself.

I feel deeply ambivalent about wild swimming. On one hand I see bodies of open water as the most beautiful elements in nature. I dream of submerging myself in expanses of delicious watery colors, being enveloped and maybe even transformed by their shifting beauty. I think of my visits to the local pool and the feeling of being held by the water’s buoyancy so I can ‘fly’ through the water. I imagine that experience amplified by the grandness of nature which turns a swim into an adventure. I get so excited about the freedom from lane ropes and clockwise laps that I can hardly hold myself back from stripping off and running in immediately.

The problem though, faced with that amount of freedom and openness, is my fear. Romantically admiring the water from dry land is incomparable to submerging myself in it. The water always swallows me whole in a way that shocks me. Rather than giving me the warm welcome I always seem to hope for, the water is indifferent to me and the romance abruptly vanishes. Below the surface is an alien world (sometimes a very cold one) filled with the unstoppable energy of currents, tides and organic life. Heading out into the sea with the edges moving away from my peripheral vision seems like going out towards an irrevocable emptiness and I often have a moment, not very far out, of behaving as though I’m in mortal danger. Out of my depth, literally and emotionally, my body becomes rigid and I fight with the water, every cell of my being telling me to head for land. On a bad day, that’s the end for me. On a good day, I gently pay attention to my breathing, reshape my thoughts and mental images which allows my panic to pass. Sometimes I enjoy the experience. Occasionally I love it, but to love it I have to forget the idea of escape and instead be fully present in the water, as though that’s where I belong. I find myself working with the water, trusting that we are allies after all. That is what truly liberates me. My bliss emerges once I let myself go.

It’s a similar experience for me with creativity. It always looks deliciously enticing from the metaphorical shore. Creative projects tend to begin as daydreams, hopes, notes on a scrap of paper – all thrillingly fragile invitations from another world. I find it easy to imagine the freedom of expression I’m about to experience, the adventure and discovery. I see myself languishing in words, images and color, and ultimately, by the end of the journey, I see myself reveling in the sense of accomplishment.

My experience is always different though, at least at first. Like plunging into a chilly sea, the romance of creativity evaporates at the first sight of unexpected hurdles, doubts, or prematurely harsh scrutiny. Then I’m alone, like a swimmer about to embark on an epic journey to a foreign shore without the belief that I can do the distance. I enter the whole rigid fight for survival phase which comes in the form of some spectacular procrastination. I hang onto my smartphone as though it’s a life raft that will keep me safely in the shallows rather than risking any dangerous depths. After all, it’ll still be deep tomorrow. I can go there then instead.

Why such ambivalence? Why all the fear and apprehension? The simple answer for me is education. I learned to swim badly as a child because it was a compulsory, joyless, potentially life-saving activity that was rooted in fear rather than fun (water is dangerous, don’t you know … people drown all the time). Likewise, I learned to engage with creativity badly as a child, in an education system (one that is lamentably similar now) where creativity is seen as unskilled play and often a luxurious reward for working hard at more valued academic subjects. I demonstrated creative talent from an early age, but because the arts are seen as the least important of all school subjects this seemed to be worth very little and resulted in meagre self esteem, nothing that came close to refilling the deficit created by a rigid focus on subjects I didn’t thrive within (almost certainly because the approach was rigid rather than creative or flexible enough to be taught to individual children in the way they could engage with it). I am just one of huge numbers of children who left school feeling sidelined when I could have been celebrated, nurtured, and ultimately sent out into the world feeling confident in my value.

I eventually found my way to art college where I had to unlearn those messages and free myself up enough so I could work successfully in the creative industries as a designer and brand consultant after graduation. I’ve learned (and continue to learn) that being creative is essentially a mixture of two things: receptivity to ideas and the courage, tenacity, and audacity to see them through. Successful creative projects need patience, protection, and loving attention. We have to move deeply into them and stay with them for long, uninterrupted periods of time which means letting go of the edge and sometimes letting go of the sight of land.

When we venture out into a creative project, or an expanse of water, we do so alone and sometimes we need to get lost if we’re going to find what it is we really want to say or do. Even when we work as part of a supportive team we confront our private selves and the darker recesses of our inner worlds which is where the messages we’ve received from the outside tend to lurk. If we’ve been told we get most things wrong and that making mistakes is something to be avoided, then we will quickly learn to avoid creative processes. And if the world has been presented to us as a frightening and unsafe place, then getting lost or being outside our comfort zone is when we most profoundly feel the impact of this conditioning. I’m much more adventurous now but still apprehensive about letting myself go because ultimately I have an expectation that something bad will happen when I do. I also know that going, departing, flowing, and freedom are all essential to being creative, in fact they are essential to feeling vividly alive. Safety can be extremely dangerous—we slowly die inside when we risk nothing. Facing fears brings us to life.

Courage is easier to muster when we have a strong foundation of self esteem formed and nourished by encouragement, enjoyment and positive messages about our natural strengths and talents. Creativity is not a luxury or a reward for compliance and good behavior. It isn’t an added extra. It’s central to human life and it should be central to education too. Everyone is creative, though of course not everyone has to live as an artist to prove it. Living a life is a creative act in and of itself. We can invent ourselves and reinvent ourselves as we move through life if we have the courage and inclination to do so. It is a tragedy that our education systems are still fundamentally so linear and rigid because we become conditioned to getting things right rather than thinking for and responding to ourselves. If we aren’t encouraged to think, feel, and behave creatively, to take risks, embrace mistakes or to have the audacity to imagine that things could be different and better, how are we supposed to make a life worth living and ultimately contribute to a society within which everyone can thrive?

Creativity is not a luxury or a reward for compliance and good behavior. It isn’t an added extra. It’s central to human life...

 I am setting out on more substantial, riskier creative projects and longer, wilder swims (one discipline builds momentum which flows into the other). I do this by continually growing my self esteem which in turn allows me to be more courageous. Writers write, painters paint and swimmers keep putting one arm in front of another until they reach the distant shore. The inner dialogue along the way, rather than constant critique, can be something like ‘You’re safe. You’re just where you need to be. You’ve got this.’

 

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Tony Linkson is a psychotherapist, coach, creativity consultant and writer based in London, UK. The heart of his work is supporting people to get clear about who they really are and how they might create the lives they want. He uses words, imagery and movement in his therapeutic work. He fuels himself with cinema, fiction, essays, coffee, dance and (of course) swimming. Tony’s website is tonylinkson.com and he sometimes tweets @tonylinkson

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