Tracey Marshall used to be afraid of the ocean.
It began as a simple fear of the unknown. Marshall grew up in landlocked middle America, and her family didn’t have the means for vacations to the coasts. She didn’t catch her first glimpse of the ocean until she was 25 when she visited Fort Lauderdale with a friend. As she waded into the water, the salt stung her eyes. So Marshall found a beachside store and bought a visor and snorkel. But upon returning to the water and dipping her head below the surface, the first thing she saw was a snaggletoothed barracuda some 20 feet away.
That did little to assuage her fear of the ocean. Only now it was a fear of the known.
At the same time, Marshall, who is now a product manager at the anonymous messaging app Yik Yak, emerged from her confrontation with the barracuda with a sense of mystery and awe. The encounter had ended without incident or harm, after all. (Indeed, barracudas, though having a fearsome appearance and reputation, rarely attack swimmers unprovoked.) Braving the deep, only to stumble upon the sight of sharp fangs and dead eyes, gave Marshall the feeling that the world was much bigger than she'd realized—and that the ocean still had something to teach her.
Years later, she began dating her current partner, Mark Tucker, who was himself an experienced scuba diver. She expressed a desire to embrace the hobby herself and acquire a scuba certification, a significant investment of time and money. Tucker recommended she at least do a trial dive at a beach resort first, but Marshall insisted she wanted to commit to getting certified.
"I made the decision, ‘Nope. I’m doing this,’" she recalls. "‘I’m going to do this and love it.’" She would take a dive of faith.
Marshall spent her lunch hours doing online coursework and her weekends familiarizing herself with equipment at the pool. She passed a written test and finally booked a trip to the Caribbean island of Bonaire for her first dive.
Her diving companions that day were a heavily tattooed instructor and a free-spirited 11-year-old girl. The first thing Marshall noticed when she entered the water was how different her buoyancy was in salt water versus the pools that were more familiar to her. The next thing she noticed was the vast sense of space: Here was a "pool" with no end in sight.
It didn’t occur to her to be afraid. She was too busy checking her air, making sure she signaled to her guide, managing her weight, and analyzing her kicking. It was too engaging of a mental puzzle—and far too beautiful—for Marshall to spend any energy remembering that she’d ever been afraid.
She emerged from that first trip a scuba diver.
In the intervening three and a half years, Marshall has gone on 60 dives. She’s seen stingrays off of Grand Cayman; she’s driven a diver propulsion vehicle over a 25,000-foot deep trench; she’s explored shipwrecks; she’s seen all manner of turtle, eel, and even shark. And she’s grown closer to her partner, her best dive buddy. Together, diving off Bonaire two years after her certification, they experienced the highlight of their diving lives so far: glimpsing an immense and beautiful whale shark. (Tucker shot a video of the experience.)
Perhaps what's most surprising about her new diving habit, though, are all the ways Marshall feels it has made her a better businesswoman. Here are several business lessons Marshall says she’s already gleaned from her adventures in scuba diving in just the few short years she’s been at it.
Scuba is a sport predicated on partnership, much like business. No one dives alone; you go as a team. In recent years, Marshall has come to realize that on most business teams, she is often searching for someone who is a metaphorical "dive buddy," someone who has her back, and whose back she has. (And in Marshall’s personal life, Tucker, her best literal dive buddy, is now her fiancé.)
In scuba diving, says Marshall, you have to "plan your dive and dive your plan." You think about how you’re going to enter the water, exit the water, how long you’ll be under, and how deep you expect to go. Of course, once you get underwater, there a lot of new variables in play, and you’ll need to improvise with your team. Since becoming a scuba diver, Marshall finds that at work, too, her mind has become much better at planning—and deviating thoughtfully from a plan.
On a recent dive, at a depth of 80 feet, Marshall heard a horrible noise: an air leak. There was a temptation to panic, abort the dive, and rush to the surface. But after several years of diving, Marshall kept her cool, returning to her training. She checked her device and performed a quick fix on the faulty valve to stop the leak—and finish a wonderful dive. Throughout her career, she later reflected, there had been similar occasions where the temptation to freak out and abort may have cost her an opportunity. Scuba taught her another way. "Sometimes the best thing is to take a second, take it all in, and invest time in making a logical next decision," she says.
You can’t chat underwater. Instead, Marshall has had to learn nonverbal cues while diving, which has served her well in the conference room. Recently, she asked a team of coders a question about a certain Yik Yak feature. One of the coders launched into an impromptu verbal explanation that was only a half-answer. The "pre-scuba" Marshall would have let that coder—or any "squeaky wheel"—dominate her focus. But "post-scuba" Marshall had enough awareness of the room to notice a nonverbal clue. Another coder had opened his laptop quietly, and Marshall realized he was combing through a document to retrieve an answer to Marshall’s question. Recognizing this, Marshall invited that other coder to participate, and she got the answer to her question sooner than she otherwise might have.
"I’ve learned to look for the nonverbal and recognize when there’s more to be offered from somebody," she says. "Scuba has taught me that so much can be said without words."