To swim, float (or both)?

In early 2022, Conservation Careers Director Dr Nick Askew, Head of Community Dr Fernando Mateos-González, and I recorded a podcast titled ‘Career-changing moments’ – about the moments that completely changed our careers.

Ever since that conversation, this question keeps popping into my mind…

In our careers (and life), is it better to swim or float?

You probably know exactly what I mean. ‘Swimming’ is actively pursuing a goal, while ‘floating’ is relaxing and simply letting the current carry you where it may. We can call it many things: Paddle or drift. Active or passive. Thinking ahead, or living in the moment.

It’s a question many people have asked, answered and debated (and I’m definitely not going to attempt to write anything half as eloquent and thoughtful as them!)

But I’m curious to explore this ‘swim vs. float’ debate in the context of a conservation career.

When Nick, Nando and I recorded that career-changing moments podcast, I realised that some of my career (and life)-changing moments were the result of a random opportunity, a whim. Examples include saying yes to a communications internship after applying for a research assistant role, pausing my undergraduate degree to pursue dance for six months, or just emailing someone out of the blue with an idea.

(By the way, Nick, Nando and I probably wouldn’t have ever recorded any podcasts, if not for that last one…)

On the other hand, on some occasions when I’ve very actively, persistently (or perhaps even obsessively!) pursued a goal, the result has been good, but not necessarily extraordinary. Examples include my master’s degree, and a couple jobs that sounded like unbelievable opportunities on paper, but weren’t quite so ideal in practice – at least for me.

My new office (and wildlife visitor), after saying yes to a very unexpected opportunity to work in communications with the World Agroforestry Centre.

If I step further back and look back at the big picture – a snapshot of my career and life year by year – some of my most goal-oriented years weren’t necessarily the most fulfilling ones, either. Sometimes the unexpected, go-with-the-flow ones were!

Plotting your career (and/or life) enjoyment over time is a simple, but illuminating, exercise.

But is it swimming (i.e. having goals) that’s the problem?

A very good friend of mine loves to argue (rather overbearingly, in my opinion…) that goals are inherently bad, and that happiness and freedom come only when you let go of goals and just ‘be’.

I see this point… and in my experience it’s true that we can get into trouble if we pursue a goal to such an extent that there’s no time to stop and breathe. Also there’s that feeling you get when you have everything riding on a specific goal – that job you’re applying for that you desperately want; that degree that you’re certain is your next step… or else…what?

When goals are without possibilities, options, or room for creativity (or even rest), they can be a source of real stress.

(And sure, we would never have heard Arthur Dent’s story if the series had been titled ‘Google Directions’ Guide to the Galaxy’).

Some of our favourite (mis)adventures – like those from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – are unplanned. Credit: Touchstone Pictures.

But personally, I also get into trouble if I veer too much towards the side of ‘floating’. It can feel too unstructured, unfocused or scattered. Without any clear priorities, it can feel as if I’m letting something other than myself make my career and life choices, and not taking responsibility for them. If you go to the extreme of resisting, avoiding or running from goals, surely that’s not healthy, either?

(What would have happened to Frodo Baggins, without the one ring?)

We often hear – in one form or other – that it’s a good idea to have a goal to strive for, but to be open and flexible about how you get there (and even open to having the goal itself change as you progress and learn). That makes a great deal of sense.

I wonder if another way of looking at it, is how the two forces of swimming and floating work together. How both together create the right context to grow, experience and deeply enjoy your career (and life).

So, it’s not necessarily that you had to be on one side or the other of the swimming vs. floating argument. And it’s also not necessarily that you need to pursue one, or the other, separately in your life. Maybe the key is pursuing both at the same time?

In some of my happiest of times, I’ve been very driven with goals, but also had a context that allowed me to go with the flow and be completely in the moment. A lot of structure, and lots of opportunities to adapt at the same time. This happens at Conservation Careers, because as a small organisation we’re quite agile, and often need to find the balance between pursuing goals and pursuing new opportunities that emerge.

With Nick in Snowdonia National Park, Wales, where we brainstormed how to achieve our vision for Conservation Careers over the next 5 years.

A goal creates a structure, it offers an adventure. It essentially sets up a ‘game’, and that game increases the space and potential for new experiences and opportunities. There’s also the saying, ‘you have to learn the rules in order to break them’. So, in this sense having goals sets us free, because it actually increases the potential for creativity. And creativity in turn drives new goals.

When I’ve felt stuck or unfulfilled in my career, I used to think it was because I was swimming when I should float, or floating when I should swim. But now I’m starting to think that it was because I was doing just one or the other, not both.

This relates to another of our podcast episodes… ‘Happiest times as conservationists’ (one of my favourites, by the way – Nick and Nando’s stories were amazing!)

When we recorded the podcast, I realised that some of my happiest career moments weren’t necessarily my most fulfilling moments. My peak moments were usually ‘floating’ moments (e.g. adventures in jungles), while fulfilment almost always involved at least some front crawl (e.g. the delayed gratification of long – and sometimes dull! – hours working on a project, and seeing its results).

My favourite jobs and my favourite times have involved both swimming and floating, more or less in balance. So having a goal or a ‘game’, while having the space to pause and move in any direction along that path – that’s exciting. Because it means…

…we all have the freedom to create a context that enables a fulfilling career.

If that wasn’t philosophical enough, if you scroll down you’ll find the first piece of writing I ever read about swimming vs. floating, a letter from American journalist and author Hunter S. Thompson on finding your purpose (maybe you’ve read it!?)

Some 10 years after reading that letter, I definitely agree that trying to answer that question for myself has been (and probably will continue to be) very useful for crafting a fulfilling career and life.


What do you think? What’s your answer to swim vs. float? Is one more natural for you? Does one give you better results? Which would you rather do more (or less) of? And is it a choice, a balance, or a completely different path?

Comments (and philosophical career ramblings) welcome @ConservCareers on Twitter, or @ConservationCareers on LinkedIn, Facebook, or Instagram.


A letter on finding your purpose | Hunter S. Thompson

American journalist and author Hunter S. Thompson was asked for life advice by his friend Hume. Here’s what (a then 22-year-old) Thompson wrote…

April 22, 1958
57 Perry Street
New York City

Dear Hume,

You ask advice: ah, what a very human and very dangerous thing to do! For to give advice to a man who asks what to do with his life implies something very close to egomania. To presume to point a man to the right and ultimate goal – to point with a trembling finger in the RIGHT direction is something only a fool would take upon himself.

I am not a fool, but I respect your sincerity in asking my advice. I ask you though, in listening to what I say, to remember that all advice can only be a product of the man who gives it. What is truth to one may be disaster to another. I do not see life through your eyes, nor you through mine. If I were to attempt to give you specific advice, it would be too much like the blind leading the blind.

“To be, or not to be: that is the question: Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles … ” (Shakespeare)

And indeed, that IS the question: whether to float with the tide, or to swim for a goal. It is a choice we must all make consciously or unconsciously at one time in our lives. So few people understand this! Think of any decision you’ve ever made which had a bearing on your future: I may be wrong, but I don’t see how it could have been anything but a choice however indirect— between the two things I’ve mentioned: the floating or the swimming.

But why not float if you have no goal? That is another question. It is unquestionably better to enjoy the floating than to swim in uncertainty. So how does a man find a goal? Not a castle in the stars, but a real and tangible thing. How can a man be sure he’s not after the “big rock candy mountain,” the enticing sugar-candy goal that has little taste and no substance?

The answer— and, in a sense, the tragedy of life— is that we seek to understand the goal and not the man. We set up a goal which demands of us certain things: and we do these things. We adjust to the demands of a concept which CANNOT be valid. When you were young, let us say that you wanted to be a fireman. I feel reasonably safe in saying that you no longer want to be a fireman. Why? Because your perspective has changed. It’s not the fireman who has changed, but you. Every man is the sum total of his reactions to experience. As your experiences differ and multiply, you become a different man, and hence your perspective changes. This goes on and on. Every reaction is a learning process; every significant experience alters your perspective.

So it would seem foolish, would it not, to adjust our lives to the demands of a goal we see from a different angle every day? How could we ever hope to accomplish anything other than galloping neurosis?

The answer, then, must not deal with goals at all, or not with tangible goals, anyway. It would take reams of paper to develop this subject to fulfillment. God only knows how many books have been written on “the meaning of man” and that sort of thing, and god only knows how many people have pondered the subject. (I use the term “god only knows” purely as an expression.) There’s very little sense in my trying to give it up to you in the proverbial nutshell, because I’m the first to admit my absolute lack of qualifications for reducing the meaning of life to one or two paragraphs.

I’m going to steer clear of the word “existentialism,” but you might keep it in mind as a key of sorts. You might also try something called Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre, and another little thing called Existentialism: From Dostoyevsky to Sartre. These are merely suggestions. If you’re genuinely satisfied with what you are and what you’re doing, then give those books a wide berth. (Let sleeping dogs lie.) But back to the answer. As I said, to put our faith in tangible goals would seem to be, at best, unwise. So we do not strive to be firemen, we do not strive to be bankers, nor policemen, nor doctors. WE STRIVE TO BE OURSELVES.

But don’t misunderstand me. I don’t mean that we can’t BE firemen, bankers, or doctors— but that we must make the goal conform to the individual, rather than make the individual conform to the goal. In every man, heredity and environment have combined to produce a creature of certain abilities and desires— including a deeply ingrained need to function in such a way that his life will be MEANINGFUL. A man has to BE something; he has to matter.

As I see it then, the formula runs something like this: a man must choose a path which will let his ABILITIES function at maximum efficiency toward the gratification of his DESIRES. In doing this, he is fulfilling a need (giving himself identity by functioning in a set pattern toward a set goal), he avoids frustrating his potential (choosing a path which puts no limit on his self-development), and he avoids the terror of seeing his goal wilt or lose its charm as he draws closer to it (rather than bending himself to meet the demands of that which he seeks, he has bent his goal to conform to his own abilities and desires).

In short, he has not dedicated his life to reaching a pre-defined goal, but he has rather chosen a way of life he KNOWS he will enjoy. The goal is absolutely secondary: it is the functioning toward the goal which is important. And it seems almost ridiculous to say that a man MUST function in a pattern of his own choosing; for to let another man define your own goals is to give up one of the most meaningful aspects of life— the definitive act of will which makes a man an individual.

Let’s assume that you think you have a choice of eight paths to follow (all pre-defined paths, of course). And let’s assume that you can’t see any real purpose in any of the eight. THEN— and here is the essence of all I’ve said— you MUST FIND A NINTH PATH.

Naturally, it isn’t as easy as it sounds. You’ve lived a relatively narrow life, a vertical rather than a horizontal existence. So it isn’t any too difficult to understand why you seem to feel the way you do. But a man who procrastinates in his CHOOSING will inevitably have his choice made for him by circumstance.

So if you now number yourself among the disenchanted, then you have no choice but to accept things as they are, or to seriously seek something else. But beware of looking for goals: look for a way of life. Decide how you want to live and then see what you can do to make a living WITHIN that way of life. But you say, “I don’t know where to look; I don’t know what to look for.”

And there’s the crux. Is it worth giving up what I have to look for something better? I don’t know— is it? Who can make that decision but you? But even by DECIDING TO LOOK, you go a long way toward making the choice.

If I don’t call this to a halt, I’m going to find myself writing a book. I hope it’s not as confusing as it looks at first glance. Keep in mind, of course, that this is MY WAY of looking at things. I happen to think that it’s pretty generally applicable, but you may not. Each of us has to create our own credo— this merely happens to be mine.

If any part of it doesn’t seem to make sense, by all means call it to my attention. I’m not trying to send you out “on the road” in search of Valhalla, but merely pointing out that it is not necessary to accept the choices handed down to you by life as you know it. There is more to it than that— no one HAS to do something he doesn’t want to do for the rest of his life. But then again, if that’s what you wind up doing, by all means convince yourself that you HAD to do it. You’ll have lots of company.

And that’s it for now. Until I hear from you again, I remain,

Your friend,



Careers Advice