Sink or Swim

Elijah Carbajal
3 min readSep 16, 2019


Challenges are interesting. They frustrate us. They motivate us. Challenges dare us to rise up, to better ourselves and our practice.

But they are also terrifying. When faced with a challenge that is too big, for me at least, it feels as though I’m sinking into the darkness of the ocean.

I had the fantastic opportunity to free swim with sharks in Hawaii. 3 miles out into open water is a spot where the currents merge, allowing sharks to basically coast after they have fed for most of the night; kind of a chill time for sharks. It’s really amazing.

As I’m swimming, taking in the beauty of the open ocean, these magnificent creatures swim around me. The largest, a female Galapagos shark about 11 feet in length, eyes me at the surface of the water. Oh my, she is beautiful. She moves through the water with ease. We have an understanding. Neither of us is there to harm the other.

After a while I look straight down. Counting over 20 sharks, I see that each is moving with grace. I keep looking. As far as I can see, until the water of the ocean fades to black, all I see are sharks.

I asked about this. “There has to be more sharks, bigger sharks, deep in the black, right?” I’m told by our guide that, yes, there is even the potential for great whites and mako sharks to be well beneath us.

So. Freaking. Cool.

When I feel the challenge, the set back, the failure, I also feel the pressure. Pressure that can only be described like that of crushing waters, forcing me to sink into the black. It’s then when I think of those sharks swimming in the blackness of the ocean. The darkness doesn’t bother them. They live in it. They aren’t sinking. They are swimming.

I’m reminded that in the face of adversity and obstacles I have two options: sink or swim.

I can sink in my fear, drown in my doubt, and suffocate under the pressure of the challenge.

Or I can learn to swim with the sharks. I can learn to see what the benefit of the challenge is.

See, sharks to me represent those who have learned to navigate those waters. They are deep (pun), reflective people. They dwell on the process and not the problem. The find out how to survive in the darkest waters. They have learned to see challenges as opportunities for growth. They do not fear the dark (the challenge), they embrace it. I want to be that type of person. I want to be that teacher.

Are you sinking or swimming? As teachers, we need to ask ourselves this question when faced with difficult situations in the classroom: new or maybe unfamiliar content, difficult students, students who are struggling to learn, that mound of paperwork to sort through, the limitations we have, and countless situations that are out of our control. Are we drowning, or are we swimming with the sharks?

We need to ask this of our students too. Are they constantly being thrown a lifeline to pull them back into the boat, or are we teaching them how to swim in their challenges?

And, perhaps the most important question to ask is this:

Are we jumping into the water to swim with them?

I hope that we can change our perspective on challenges. Challenges and obstacles may force an indescribable pressure on us, dragging us down to the depths with the sharks. That’s when we really need to understand a valuable truth, something my friend and mentor, Tracey Taylor, told me once; something I’ll never forget:

“Mako sharks don’t swim in mud puddles.”

The fiercest sharks, the ones that terrify some of us, are the ones that swim deepest. They don’t fear what’s beneath them. They are confident. They are bold. They don’t sink. They swim, and they swim in deep waters, where the challenges are.

Mud puddles are for those who want it to be easy. They aren’t mindful. They aren’t confident. However, the best teachers are those who swim deep. They are mindful, they are deep, and reflective. They embrace the challenge. They are bold in the face of fear. The are confident in the face of obstacles.

Sink or swim, we all will, at one point, be pulled down with the sharks. I hope that you see their beauty and learn to swim with them. Get out of the mud puddle. Jump in with the sharks.



Elijah Carbajal

Educator living and working in Albuquerque, NM. Author of “A Place They Love”. Lover of music. Host of “The Shut Up and Teach Podcast”.