Most Important Lessons In Life Are The Most Counterintuitive

A near-death experience taught me one of the most important lessons in life.

I was afraid of water when I was a kid, I didn’t start to learn swimming until I was around 14. Back then I just was just kind of playing and practicing in small training swimming pool with my friends. I felt pretty safe there because the maximum depth of the pool was about 1 meter, I could easily stand up in the water whenever I was struggling. After practicing for a few weeks, I could swim for a very short distance, about 15 meters because I still didn’t know how to breath properly in the water. But at least I had overcome my fear of water, or so I thought.

Then one day I followed my friends and ventured out into the diving pool, I didn’t know what get into me that day. Maybe I was so eager to try something new that I didn’t even think about how deep the diving pool was before I jumped straight right into the it. Then all hell broke loose!

Once I dived into the water and felt my feet couldn’t touch the bottom of the pool because it was so much deeper than I thought, I started to panic. I kicked as hard as I could and tried to scream for help, but the harder I tried, the faster I sank and more water I inhaled. I was fighting for my life, but I kept choking, suffocating, and sinking deeper.…. until I finally passed out.

I didn’t know how much time had passed, but when I woke up, I was in an ambulance, half-conscious. When I arrived in hospital, a doctor told me that a swimmer could lose consciousness and drown in less than 30 seconds, I could have died had I not been rescued in time. Until these days, I’m still grateful for those lifeguards who saved my life that day.   

Many years later, I rarely think about this near-death incident any more until one day I stumbled upon a blog post about the Navy SEAL’s training.


In case you didn’t know, to become a Navy SEAL you must complete a 6-month of endless physical, psychological, and emotional torture, arguably the most challenging and brutal military training program in the world. It is so tough that roughly 8 out of every 10 trainees entering the program will either drop out or being forced out due to injuries.

And one of the most dangerous and deadly SEAL training exercises was so called “Drown-proofing” where they tie your hands behind your back and tie your feet together then throw you into a 5-meter-deep pool. Your job is to survive for five minutes.

This exercise specifically designed to induce panic and fear into trainees’ brains, driving their minds going absolutely nuts as they desperately tried to breathe. That was why most trainees who attempt drown-proofing for the first time failed. Because upon being tossed into the water, many of them panic and scream, struggled to keep their heads above the water. Over the years, many trainees had lost consciousness during the exercise and several of them had even died.

This drown-proofing exercise was like a horrible trip down memory lane to me. It reminded me the near-death experience I had been through which still left a psychological scar after many years. But it also got me thinking, under such extremely dangerous situation, why some people make it while others don’t, a few even lost their lives?

Survival instinct – fight or flight

To answer this question, we have to understand that when we confronted with fear or danger, one part of the brain, the amygdala, responds to information from our senses, and instinctively presses the body’s panic button by sending signals through the autonomic nerves to the adrenal glands. These glands respond by pumping the hormone epinephrine (also known as adrenaline) into the bloodstream. As adrenaline circulates through the body, it brings on a number of physiological changes. One of them is our heart beats faster than normal, pushing more blood and oxygen to the muscles, heart, and other vital organs, providing your body with extra energy to deal with the whatever dangers in front of us. This triggers our survival instinct – fight or flight.

The lesson of drown-proofing completely turns our survival instinct against ourselves: the harder you try to keep your head above water, the more likely you are to sink. The more intense you fight to survive, the more likely you will die.

The only way to survive in drown-proofing is actually doing the exact opposite of what we would normally do – let yourself sink to the bottom of the pool. From there, you gently push yourself off the pool floor with your feet and let your momentum carry you back to the surface. Once there, you can grab a quick breath of air and start the whole process over again. Basically, you just keep bobbing up and down the pool for 5 minutes.

You see, surviving drown-proofing requires no superhuman strength or endurance. It doesn’t even require that you know how to swim. On the contrary, it requires the ability to not swim. Because the harder you try to kick and resist from sinking, the more oxygen you will burn and the more likely you will black out and drown.

The lesson of drown-proofing is emotional self-control in situations of extreme danger, which is the ability to let go when you want the most, to remain calm when you fear the most, to do the opposite of what you would naturally do. This counterintuitive skill is far more important than your physical or mental toughness, or your ambition, or your intelligence. And not just for Navy SEAL, but for people from all walks of life.

Have you ever felt that:

  • The more you strive to control our own life, the more powerless you feel?
  • The more intense you pursue happiness, the more unhappy you feel?
  • The more you demand respect from others, the less they’ll respect you?
  • The more you try to argue with someone, the less likely you are to convince them of your perspective.
  • The stronger you desire for freedom, the more likely you feel trapped?
  • The more you try to feel confident, the more insecurity and anxiety you create?
  • The more honest you are about your faults or vulnerabilities; the more people will think you’re perfect?
  • The more you learn, the more you realize how little you know?

Turning a Flop into a Success

Another great example of counterintuitive, unconventional, and go-against-the-grain thinking is the sport of high jump.

Until the Mexico City Olympics of 1968 the customary way for a high jumper to cross the bar was with his body parallel to it, in a technique known as the Western Roll. But that was about to change.

A little-known athlete approached the bar, which was set at a Olympics record height of 7ft 4.25 inches. He took off, but instead of turning his body towards the bar, he turned his back on it. He brought his legs up and flipped over the bar backwards.

Journalists covering the game went nuts over the new technique, devoting more space and adjectives to the young man than to most of the other individual medal winners. They realized immediately they were watching a sport being completely revolutionized.

His name is Dick Fosbury from Oregon, and his “back-first” technique of jumping became known as the Fosbury Flop. Within 10 years “Fosbury Flop” became the de facto standard for high jumpers everywhere. However, little known was Fosbury’s unconventional style was criticized at first when he begin to experiment it in high school. One local newspaper said that he looked like “a fish flopping in a boat” while another called him the “World’s Laziest High Jumper” and ran a photo of him sliding over the bar backwards.

Fosbury jumped higher than almost any man before and revolutionized the sport of high jump by thinking the opposite from every else, by letting go of the conventional wisdom, by willing to experiment with new ideas even everyone else is laughing at you.

Next time when you face insurmountable challenges, when you feel so overwhelmed that you can’t even breathe, when you are stuck and seem nowhere to go, think about the lessons of drown-proofing and Fosbury Flop.

Published by Anthony Tsang

I’m a bookworm, a sports & fitness addict, an adventurer, and more than anything else, I’m a permanent work-in-progress, always learning and evolving till the day I die.

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