In high school I worked as a lifeguard and swim instructor. I had a few close encounters — just a few feet from me, below my line of sight, a 6-year old began to drown in four feet of water.

Her toes barely skimmed the floor of the pool, and her arms fluttered up and her mouth popped open. Her face began to panic, and she was there for several seconds before my eye scan circled down the water below me. I saw her, and stood up.

Getting down from the lifeguard stand, getting the red rescue tube off me, and reaching out to her felt like it took ages. She struggled to grab the rescue tube, then grabbed it, and I dragged her to the side. We pulled her out of the pool, she coughed up a bit of water, took a deep breath, and burst into a wail. Her mother came flying down the pool deck. I’m sure it took a while for her to come back to play in the pool again. It took the rest of the day for my heart to stop racing.

I’ve never given mouth-to-mouth, but in the years of swimming, life guarding, and taking water safety, I did pick up a few things about CPR.

There’s a remarkable fact most people don’t know about swimming, drowning, and saving someone’s life.

In lifeguard training, most lifeguards are run through the exercises only a few times—and sometimes only once. You learn CPR and how to put someone on a backboard and drag them out of the pool, and then you become a lifeguard.

The first time I learned this, I was very worried: what if I put them on the backboard wrong? What if I broke their neck as they were getting out of the pool? What if we forgot the order of the chest compressions and the breathing cycles?

It turns out it doesn’t really matter.

The biggest factor that influences whether or not someone will help a stranger is whether or not you believe you know what to do.


And in order to get people to step up and act, you need to have them practice the behavior at least once. You only need to go through the motions once in order to have enough information to trust yourself enough to take action in the case of an emergency.

That is, people who have gone through emergency training only once are something like 90% more likely to take action in the face of an emergency.

And what saves someone’s life? When someone takes action instead of standing there.

It’s those moments when you see someone face down in a pool and you run over and pull them out and start CPR rather than standing their with your mouth open. It’s seeing a choking victim in a restaurant and pushing up your chair and heading over because you know just enough about the Heimlich maneuver so you do your best version of it until the person spits out their hot dog, and they breathe again. Instead of standing there, helpless, not knowing what to do.

One of the biggest reasons that people don’t get help during robbery or assault events? Everyone believes someone else is already doing something. So, collectively, everyone just stands there.

Doing nothing.

Watching someone die.

So how do we change this? How do we get people to act, and how do we change this occurrence of events?

The most important thing you can do to save lives

The most important thing you can do in lifesaving behavior is to practice doing something just once. It increases your odds of doing the behavior in the future by an exceptional amount. It becomes something you’ve internalized with your brain and body, and therefore you don’t have to think about what you’re going to do. Instead, you get to the business of doing what you’ve already once practiced doing.

Want to save more lives? Take a CPR class, or just google something right now and watch a twenty minute video.

(Note that the latest CPR recommendations don’t even recommend doing mouth-to-mouth, because it’s too much of a deterrent and people won’t actually act; instead, they recommend continuous chest compressions because people will actually do this, rather than stand around. Interlace your fingers, do chest compressions. Rapidly. You might crack a rib. That’s okay. Now you know CPR.)

Want to become a writer? Sit down at your desk, and practice the act of writing. Want to become a musician? Open your mouth and let out a warble.

The first most important step in guaranteeing a future behavior will happen is doing the behavior just once, right now.

When you want to learn how to do something new, the two important things you can do are (1) practice it, and (2) visualize it.

Can’t actually practice something? The next most important thing you can do to change your behavior is visualize it — rehearse it in your mind, in specific detail. I wrote about this previously for 99U:

Visualizing is so important that it’s been proven to change behaviors even when people don’t actively change anything except their mental stories. In a famous basketball study, players were divided into groups that visualized perfect free throws, a second group that practiced their shots, and a placebo group that did nothing. At the end of the study, the players that visualized their perfect throws improved almost as much as the group that practiced—without ever touching a basketball. It’s a practice used by Steve Nash, the all-time leading free-throw shooter in NBA history. (Note that the players weren’t just visualizing being winners, but the specific steps and actions it takes to perfect the free-throw shot, a crucial distinction.)

This doesn’t just apply to emergency events.

If you want to change who you are, and what you do, planning — visualizing — can help.

Changing behaviors: practice once, visualize often.

If you want to exercise more, go through the motions: plan a date on your calendar, make a very specific outcome, and then walk through the behaviors. At home, I’ll put my swimsuit, cap, and goggles into my bag, along with a towel and soaps. I’ll pick up the bag and practice carrying it out the door in the evening before I want to go practice at a new pool. That way, the next day, when I’m tired and worn out, I don’t have to think about the act of packing up—just finding the new pool.

For eating: go to the store when you’re not hungry, and pick out a couple things you’d never eat. Try two or three new things, and just stick them in your basket. This act alone will make you more familiar with them. Or, try a one-off cooking class that shows you how to use new vegetables. Experience breeds familiarity, practice makes easy.

And for your own safety? Try these two practices for yourself. Just once.

Two of the safest things you can do for yourself in your house and while traveling are as follows.

First, for fire safety: take a pad of bright post-it notes and do a walk through your house. Put a sticker on the things that you would need in a fire and what you would want to keep if you were allowed to keep something. Rearrange your stuff so everything with a sticky is all in one place (I have a single bookshelf with my moleskines in one stack and our fire extinguisher in the center of our house so we can grab either and walk out). Walk through your house once and go through the motions of leaving your house.

Second, for airplane safety: when you sit in the exit row of an airplane, read the safety information panel and visualize yourself doing each of the moves. Look at the exit, read the card, imagine turning the giant handle to open the door (it will be heavy, by the way), and then think—where will it go? If you visualize walking through the steps, you’ll actually be very prepared to take action if the time comes and you need to.)

I have now revealed to you how passionate I am about fire safety, water safety, and airplane safety.

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