A Shark’s Tail: How #learning Could Save Your Life

Shark Fins in the Ocean at Sunset

It was an Australian surfing blog that brought us here. And, while I’m trying desperately to figure out just how this unbelievable video happened, I’m just going to resign myself that it did.

If you haven’t seen this story, it’s one for nature’s ages; a seal is hoisted up out of the water by a great white shark who is unable to actually grab hold of it.  The seal rides the shark out of the water like an attraction at Six Flags and then launches himself back in the water to apparent safety, or was it?  The next moments are a match of wits, instinct, knowledge (fixed mindset) and acquisition of knowledge (growth mindset).  

The seal learns that if he stays behind the shark’s tail, and swims with him as the shark turns to grab him, he can outlast the shark’s immediate need for a meal.  (Check out the video here!) The seal swims his butt off and stays outside the tail until the frustrated shark, fatigued mentally and physically, swims off leaving the seal to live another day.  Was it instinctual? Some say this is a first. The learning from this chaotic event was everywhere. For the young seal pup of course, a pattern has been formed in his brain.  This is his new go-to maneuver. For the shark, who knows if he learned anything? Maybe that the seal is not always an easy meal. And, what about the surfers? Well, that was the purpose of the blog: that if they get jammed up out there can they stay outside the shark’s tail, and swim or paddle fast enough to catch the next wave and rocket to the beach as the shark concedes.

Learning amongst the chaos.  The idea that when we are in survival mode and our caveman brain, the amygdala, flushes us with hormones and other reflexes, the only instinct we can exhibit is to focus on our own personal safety and longevity — and that learning something new is not going to occur during this time .  And yet, our creative seal pup teaches us that maybe we can learn something new during chaos and crisis. Assuming that as a young seal, he learned this in the moment as opposed to connecting to instincts (and it’s even possible that this wasn’t his first shark rodeo), he put together some pretty cool dance moves that would certainly get him fan-favorite voting and the opportunity to live another week.  

Studies show that in times of moderate stress we can actually learn.  We may adopt a more positive attitude toward stress in general, knowing how it has helped us grow. Research shows that seeing your stressor as a growth opportunity helps you perform better both in stressful laboratory tasks (like public speaking) and in stressful jobs (like sales).  

So what do I want for you?  This is a lemons vs. lemonade moment folks. We can stand here in fear, exhibiting a behavior known as learned helplessness where, being exposed to some sort of inescapable situation (beyond our control) results in our inability to learn.  Or there’s another way: to enter the arena of hope. With hope, the growth mindset can flourish, and in moments of some chaos, some crisis, we can experience clarity when we enter the part of the brain where our inner CEO (aka the prefrontal cortex) allows us to move forward!  Creativity, wisdom, compassion all reside here. We can learn during these moments in our personal history.  

  1. Make learning intentional now.  Enroll in an online class or workshop.  (I think there are a few virtual learning opportunities out there right now…) Get a coach. Join a mastermind group. Pay for them too.  Invest in yourself — when we pay for things, we tend to hold ourselves more accountable.
  2. Notice the difference between a feeling of fear and living in fear.  It’s OK to experience a fearful thought or moment!  You’re human. Recognize it and understand it. “That’s what a fearful moment feels like” can be the whisper to yourself.  And don’t make it your entire perspective. When it appears again, you can recognize it and continue to function and move forward.  It does not have to stay in your life.
  3. Be ready for what’s next by staying present.  This is the time you can truly control.  What you decide in the now will shape your very next step. That’s really all you can ask of yourself, everything else is just guessing.  Yes, we have aspirations and expectations for ourselves. Don’t lose sight of them. There are many ways and many routes to get somewhere.  

This is one of those times where it may not all work out exactly to plan, and that’s OK!  It may take several attempts to incorporate some learning to move forward to a bigger version of what we want for ourselves.  What this time is though, is opportunity. Those who meet it in the arena of hope — who embrace the moment and create something that was unforeseeable just weeks ago — will emerge light years ahead of others.  Whether that’s personally or professionally, it’s in these times that greatness is within reach. Maybe that greatness is just the simple act of escaping a shark’s bite and swimming the ocean for even just one more day.

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