At the age of five, I encountered a stern teacher who raised their voice at me, demanding urgently, “Immerse your head in the water immediately!”

In this series, writers share the best advice they’ve ever received and how it’s impacted their lives since.

Swimming lessons are among my earliest memories. When I was in kindergarten, I was able to float, kick, and tread water. However, there was one thing I refused to do – put my head underwater. I’ve seen old home videos of myself dog-paddling at Fingal Head, with my neck stretched high and dry like a baby giraffe.

To overcome this fear, my mom tried to bribe me with ice blocks and Barbie dolls. Several swimming teachers encouraged, persuaded, and pampered me. One even scattered coins at the bottom of the pool, hoping that materialism would conquer my fear. However, instead of diving underwater, I pointed my toes and used a monkey’s grip to collect the coins.

Eventually, I went to yet another swimming teacher. She was not having any of it. When I was five years old, she yelled at me, “Get your head in the water … NOW!”

I was so shocked that I immediately went underwater. I didn’t suffocate. I didn’t drown. And as I came up for air, a little voice inside my head said, “You did it. YOU DID IT!”

Decades later, I recalled that stern command when I was about to go diving with sharks and lost my courage. Panicking, I told the divemaster, “I can’t do this.” She started to say something reassuring, about how it’s not for everyone and there’s no shame in changing your mind.

But I was supposed to write about this experience for a travel publication. The thought of going back empty-handed to my editor scared me more than the sharks did. My swimming teacher’s voice reverberated through the years. “Get your head in the water … NOW!”

The dive was thrilling.

That command is just as applicable on land. It’s like “ripping the Band-Aid off,” Nike’s “Just Do It” slogan, and complements “eating that frog.” It’s a form of tough love that compels necessary action. It’s a mantra for the days when I catch myself avoiding something messy, unpleasant, or painful. I whisper, “Get your head in the water … NOW!” to push myself to tackle tasks like dealing with overdue business activity statements or undergoing a mammogram.

Today, that poolside shout might be seen as abusive. Psychologists say tough love has its limits as a motivational tool, so perhaps other kids, my peers, were scarred instead of motivated by it.

All I know is that my swimming teacher’s (harshly worded) belief in my ability to accomplish this difficult task propelled me through a barrier. Sometimes, tough love is exactly what you need.

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