Sink or swim? 任其沉浮


Reader question:

Please explain "sink or swim" in this sentence: "Nobody really taught us anything. We had to find our own way. Basically, it was sink or swim."

My comments:

If a swim coach throws a new comer head first into the deep end of the pool, the new swim learner will literally sink or swim, or at least learn what it means to sink or swim.

I mean, no certified swim coach will do a thing like that in this day and age, throwing a swim learner into the pool directly, let alone at the deep end, leaving him or her to their own devices.

Leaving them to sink or swim, i.e. to swim to the bank by their own effort or sink to the bottom.

And, possibly, drown.

It is comforting to know that swim coaches won't do such a horrible thing, isn't it? But in the old days, at least where I came from, swim coaches often bragged about how they threw new swimmers into the pool. Actually they talked about it every chance they get. To anyone who'd listen.

To be fair, none of the disciples drowned and the only reason they went about their horrible teaching method is, I must say, how effective it was, no matter how extreme it sounded.

Extreme and cruel, but the coaches were really talking about how practice makes perfect. How to know about the way of water, you have to immerse yourself in it.

You cannot learn how to swim on land no matter how much you understand about the concept of swimming.

Well, it is, as I said, comforting to know nobody throw new swimmers directly into the pool any more.

And, more comfortingly, you've probably understood by now what it means to swim or sink.

Yes, to survive on your own or risk succumbing to obstacles and falling by the wayside, unable to survive and fight another day, as they say.

According to, it is Geoffrey Chaucer who first used this expression, in the 14th century and the words Chaucer, the English poet of high renown before Shakespeare used were “float or sink”. In other words, you could either float like a boat in the sea or sink to the bottom like a rock.

In other words, your fate, success or failure is in your own hands.

And here are media examples of "sink or swim":

1. Jerry Jones embraces life in a way few can match.

Whether it's upping the value of the Cowboys to astronomical heights or downing a Johnnie Walker Blue, the architect behind the world's most valuable sports franchise is constantly on the move. One of his newest possessions, the Bravo Eugenia, will be docked in South Florida for Super Bowl LIV.

It won't mean nearly as much if his most-prized possession is unable to make the trip.

Jones has acquired much in his 76 years. But for all of the wealth, real estate toys and attention he's accumulated, the accomplishments -- or failures -- of his football team resonate in a way nothing else does.

Yes, Jones recently purchased a 358-foot yacht. It's nice to cruise the Mediterranean when the pavement and business parks of Frisco get too hot. But outside of his family, the owner's true joy sinks or swims with what the Cowboys do on the field.

Jones doesn't freely articulate his Super Bowl expectations the way he once did heading into a season. A 23-year absence has a way of making even the most optimistic of individuals cautious.

But there's a persistent, yet understated, optimism throughout the organization that this team has what it takes to return.

The Bravo Eugenia cost $250 million. It has two helipads, a spa, a gym and 22 cabins to accommodate family, guests and crew. It doesn't have a plank.

If the Cowboys fall short of expectations, it may need one for head coach Jason Garrett.

"I expect us to be a better team, and I think that our personnel supports that,'' Jones said during the news conference to open training camp. "Our experience gained supports that. I'm real impressed with the staff that Jason has put together here. So I expect us to be better.

"Part of that, it should result in maybe advancing our record, or if you will, our place in the playoffs. It should result in that. That's the assumption you make, that if you're a better team and you've put together a sound one that can stay healthy, then you should be able to do better than you did last year.

"That is what I would call success.''

- Sink or swim: If Jerry Jones' talented crew doesn't make a voyage deep into the postseason, there will be consequences,, August 29, 2019.

2. If a disease can teach wisdom beyond our understanding of how precarious and precious life is, the coronavirus has offered two lessons.

The first is that in a globalised world our lives are so intertwined that the idea of viewing ourselves as islands – whether as individuals, communities, nations, or a uniquely privileged species – should be understood as evidence of false consciousness. In truth, we were always bound together, part of a miraculous web of life on our planet and, beyond it, stardust in an unfathomably large and complex universe.

It is only an arrogance cultivated in us by those narcissists who have risen to power through their own destructive egotism that blinded us to the necessary mix of humility and awe we ought to feel as we watch a drop of rain on a leaf, or a baby struggle to crawl, or the night sky revealed in all its myriad glories away from city lights.

And now, as we start to enter periods of quarantine and self-isolation – as nations, communities and individuals – all that should be so much clearer. It has taken a virus to show us that only together are we at our strongest, most alive and most human.

In being stripped of what we need most by the threat of contagion, we are reminded of how much we have taken community for granted, abused it, hollowed it out. We are afraid because the services we need in times of collective difficulty and trauma have been turned into commodities that require payment, or treated as privileges to which access is now means-tested, rationed or is simply gone. That insecurity is at the root of the current urge to hoard.

When death stalks us it is not bankers we turn to, or corporate executives, or hedge fund managers. Nonetheless, those are the people our societies have best rewarded. They are the people who, if salaries are a measure of value, are the most prized.

But they are not the people we need, as individuals, as societies, as nations. Rather, it will be doctors, nurses, public health workers, care-givers and social workers who will be battling to save lives by risking their own.

During this health crisis we may indeed notice who and what is most important. But will we remember the sacrifice, their value after the virus is no longer headline news? Or will we go back to business as usual – until the next crisis – rewarding the arms manufacturers, the billionaire owners of the media, the fossil fuel company bosses, and the financial-services parasites feeding off other people’s money?


If acknowledged at all, the conclusion to be draw from the crisis – that we all matter equally, that we need to look after one another, that we sink or swim together – will be treated as no more than an isolated, fleeting lesson specific to this crisis. Our leaders will refuse to draw more general lessons – ones that might highlight their own culpability – about how sane, humane societies should function all the time.

In fact, there is nothing unique about the coronavirus crisis. It is simply a heightened version of the less visible crisis we are now permanently mired in. As Britain sinks under floods each winter, as Australia burns each summer, as the southern states of the US are wrecked by hurricanes and its great plains become dustbowls, as the climate emergency becomes ever more tangible, we will learn this truth slowly and painfully.

- A Lesson Coronavirus is About to Teach the World,, March 19, 2020.

3. Something interesting happens on the road to developing as a manager. Your technical expertise—the knowledge and skills that enabled you to excel as an individual contributor—is decidedly less valuable at this new level. Unfortunately, many managers miss this point and burn a large amount of energy striving to remain the smartest person in the room.

Smart managers learn quickly to draw upon the expertise of team members to build team and group performance and support individual development. In other words, smart managers learn to let go of being the expert on every topic and develop new experts on their teams.


The transition from individual contributor to manager is challenging. The burnout or churn rate of first-time managers is unacceptably high across many firms in large part because there is little advance training offered, and even less post-promotion coaching. Many managers are left to sink or swim with their new duties. When faced with a high degree of ambiguity about their new role, they naturally revert to what has worked for them historically: their ability to navigate tough problems by drawing upon their specialized knowledge.

- How to Transition From Solo Expert to Effective Manager,, May 09, 2019.


About the author:

Zhang Xin is Trainer at He has been with China Daily since 1988, when he graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University. Write him at:, or raise a question for potential use in a future column.

(作者:张欣 编辑:丹妮)

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