When I was in my twenties, I spent several years working and living on sailboats. Even though I didn’t make a lot of money, the lessons I learned and experiences I had have proven to be valuable time after time in the decade or so since I moved ashore.
When I worked on these boats, one of the tasks that was often assigned to me was to fit a fender in between a boat and a dock. A fender is a large, heavy duty pill-shaped rubber balloon that prevents friction and rubbing just like a pair of socks in between your foot and your hiking boot prevents blisters. Using fenders can prevent damage to both a dock and a boat and is a simple way to avoid costly repairs.
When I was first asked to do this, it seemed like an impossible task. Imagine the scene: the broad side of a hundred ton schooner pressing squarely against the pressure treated planks of the dock and held in place by the formidable forces of wind, tide and current. It seemed laughable that I, an average-sized, average strength woman, would be able to separate the two and insert the fender.
“Push,” the captain instructed.
Trying to be a good sport, I planted my feed on the dock and spread my palms wide on the hull of the boat. I started pushing and just as I expected, nothing happened. I grunted and strained to show that I was making a real effort. Still nothing happened. Sensing I was about to quit, the captain quietly but firmly urged me, “Keep pushing.”
Standing there straining and sweating, I felt like I was performing an exercise in futility for people who would laugh and tease me about it later that night at the bar.
But then a crazy thing happened. A tiny sliver of space opened up between the boat and the dock. I kept pushing, my fingers spread wide and my eyes closed with effort. The sliver grew to a gap and the gap grew wide enough for me stop pushing and drop the fender into.
Over the next few years, I would repeat this task many times. Lining up my feet and hands, I would just stand and push, not stopping until the boat, thousands of times my mass, would start to move.
Today I live in a house with no cause or opportunity to place fenders. But I still think of this exercise frequently because what I learned from it is that change happens through slow steady pressure. As a parent, as a teacher, as a mediocre athlete, I often want to see the results of my efforts immediately. When I don’t it’s tempting to quit, try something else, or get angry. But then I picture whatever problem I am as a giant boat and I try to just imagine myself leaning in to it and not stopping.
If you’ve ever trained for a race or a physical event, you know this is true. One or two workouts prior to the event will not improve your performance, even if they are crushingly hard. It’s the fifty or the hundred workouts you do in the months and weeks before the event; even if they’re easier, you’ll see your results improve.
And in parenting, I have reminded my kids to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ thousands and thousands of times. Every day, every meal, every trip to the store and every bedtime story, I am reminding them to use their manners. It is exhausting and seems excessive, but I just picture shaping their manners with my two hands, applying slow and steady pressure. And although my two year old still says, “I really want milk!” from time to time, I frequently hear comments about my older daughter’s nice manners from her teachers and coaches.
Also, like every other high school teacher in the world, I struggle with kids using their cell phones in my classroom. Although I certainly can’t claim that I have conquered this issue, I find that constant, gentle reminders to put them away are far more effective than a list of unenforceable rules and consequences or ignoring the problem until I lose my cool and yell at somebody. It’s not perfect, but when kids know that I will call them out every single time they take their phone out, they tend to keep them tucked away more and more.
Finally, If you take a walk outside, you can find countless examples of this in nature. When we moved into our house, I put a pizza-box sized rock horizontally in the crotch of a tree and now, nearly a ten years later, the tree has swallowed up the edges of the rock creating an unbreakable bond between the two. In other places, you’ll see tiny tree roots grow into the cracks of rocks eventually splitting them in half. Rushing water will carve jagged rocks into smooth graceful curves. Invasive vines the diameter of a pencil can grow into a 200 year old oak tree and eventually pull it down to the ground. And it’s all the result of slow, steady pressure.
If you don’t believe me, you should go find out for yourself. Drive to the nearest marina and find the biggest boat. Plant your feet, place your hands on the hull and start pushing. When you feel like nothing is happening, just keep pushing. When you want to quit, keep pushing. Change won’t come quickly — but when it does, you’ll feel big and powerful and strong.