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What Are Your Flutter Kicks? Identifying and Honing Emergent Skill Sets

Career and Workforce Development Student Career Development Faculty
November 13, 2023 Michael J. Stebleton University of Minnesota-Twin Cities

JCC Connexions, Vol. 9, No. 3, November 2023 

New Spaces & Roles for Student Affairs: An Ongoing Column of JCC Connexions

I am not a strong swimmer; I can humbly admit this fact. Although I have fond memories of water-related activities as a young kid growing up in Southeast Wisconsin, organized swimming lessons remained an ongoing source of ambivalence for me. I enjoyed spending class time with my friends, yet my skill development over the years never fully aligned with my interest or potential. At best, I was very “mid” in my swimming endeavors, applying a term my kids like to use. This blog explores the idea of identifying areas of growth and then focusing on the development of these emerging skill sets. The honing of these skill sets can lead to fostering a greater sense of meaning and purpose.

Re-Visiting Artifacts of Progress:

I was reminded of my average swimmer abilities during a recent visit to see my 81-year-old mother, Elaine. One night during the visit, my 17-year-old daughter (Riya) and I had the opportunity to look through old photo albums. Much to my gratitude, Elaine made it a faithful practice to save every memento or clipping since I was born (e.g., think school certificates, newspaper articles, and yes, even locks of hair). Riya thoroughly enjoyed this excavation of my past, reveling in these artifacts of my youth, filled with both successes and obvious stumbles.

Because she is 17 with a hint of precociousness, she regularly captured photos of these artifacts with her phone. Together we laughed, joked, and cried as I told her stories of many of my memories. Parenting can be such a rewarding and humbling experience, often at the same time. Later the next day, Riya sent me a text with an attached photo. The text read: “Dad, reminder that u failed swim lessons in ‘74.” The image was the actual evaluation report that my mother had saved from the YWCA Advanced Little Dipper Skill Class taken in July 1974. I was a rising first grader at the time, heading into Ms. Ratzel’s (yes, her real name) class at Pleasant Hill Elementary School.

What Exactly Does “Incomplete” Mean?

I included the image of this official YWCA swim report card above. My final evaluation for the Advanced Little Dipper class was “INCOMPLETE,” stampestebleton incompleted with large, bold black capital letters. The ink appears faded, leaving me to believe that the instructor used this stamper more frequently than the “complete” or “pass” stamp option that more fortunate swimmers might have received. Whereas my daughter viewed the outcome of this swim class as an abject failure, I opted to view the results differently, more positively. What does success look like when there is still improvement needed? Based on my own experiences, I offer three observations that apply to college students and the career decision-making process:

*Consider Incremental Progress Made: My flutter kick skills were clearly emerging in my humble opinion. In swimming terms, a flutter kick involves a fast and rhythmic motion of the legs, where each kick pushes down and up against the water, moving the swimmer forward. I had passed four out of the six competencies according to Barbara, the instructor. That said, I did not pass the two competencies that focused on flutter kicks, including “finning” (i.e., kicking of the legs to generate forward progress). On the other hand, I did pass the combined stroke on the front, using the flutter kick. Clearly some evidence exists (in the form of a hastily written check mark) that my flutter kicks were in the process of development—an emerging skill set from my perspective.

*Acknowledge Prior Successes –and Build on Them: Another sign of my potential as a swimmer is that I was already in the Advanced Dipper class, which leads me to believe that I successfully passed the pre-requisite Beginner’s Dipper class. We did not find any evidence of other swimming report cards, although Riya did notice that my sister did not pass the same YWCA class a couple of years later. This was obviously a challenging aquatic milestone for the average 5-year-old swimmer in suburban Milwaukee. Building off foundational skills and early successes can lead to greater accomplishments.

*Persistence Often Pays Off: Perseverance can lead to success. To be completely honest and transparent, no evidence in the albums exists as to whether I successfully passed the Advanced Dipper class in a future session. (For purposes of this blog, let’s charitably imagine that I mastered my flutter kicks and did pass the course). So, how does this narrative relate to student affairs and career development?

What Are Your Flutter Kicks?

I am defining flutter kicks as specific skill areas in which one has demonstrated some past progress. However, there is still additional improvement to be made. Both educators and students possess their own flutter kicks. These can be challenging areas that create frustration or even angst. Yet, flutter kicks represent skill areas where aptitude and potential exist, emerging strengths that can be developed with ongoing time and practice (Alter, 2023). Flutter kick skills can also be areas that generate meaning and purpose in one’s lives. Identifying and honing these emerging skill sets is a key objective. For student affairs educators, examples might be:

  • Developing public speaking presentation skills
  • Honing supervision skills or taking on administrative roles
  • Teaching a new course for the first time
  • Collaborating with other stakeholders on projects.

Students possess their own flutter kicks as well. Student affairs educators can support students in honing these skill sets that may have been perceived as pitfalls in the past (e.g., an unsuccessful math course taken in high school despite prior interests and skills in STEM disciplines). Many students face barriers in high school that can impair their self-agency and perceptions of success during college. Revisiting and reframing these legitimate yet often faulty self-thinking patterns can help lead to student success. Moreover, developing one’s flutter kicks can lead to skill development, self-confidence, new opportunities—and a sense of purpose and meaning (Volf et al., 2023).

Three Key Suggestions for Student Affairs Practitioners

There are some lessons to pass along from this metaphor of flutter kicks. Educators can share these research-based reminders with students.

Success Occurs Over Time–and often after some failure. Alter (2023) stated in his new book, Anatomy of a Breakthrough that individuals often assume that success will be reached early and often. Van Gogh was most prolific later in his life, and received little recognition during his lifetime (Solomon, 2023). He only sold one painting while alive, to his brother Theo, who was largely responsible for popularizing Vincent's work post-mortem. Fellow peers rejected Charles Schulz’s first Peanuts cartoon for his own high school yearbook (Mackay, 2018). Margot Lee Shetterly, author of Hidden Figures, took three years to research and draft her book about Black women NASA scientists. Editors rejected the widely successful book over a dozen times before eventually finding a publisher and a film producer (Watson, 2016). Career hot streaks and successes are often unpredictable and regularly occur due to a series of false starts (Liu et al., 2018). Decisions about majors or careers might take a while, so persistence and perseverance are critical. I like to remind new college students that most undergraduate students will change their major at least once before they graduate, and that success is an ongoing process that can be defined in different ways.

Explore and Exploit. Educators can encourage students to engage in intentional exploration–to take risks and try out new opportunities (Thompson, 2021). Based on the scholarship of organizational learning science, March (1991) noted that individuals can actively explore new pathways using a variety of search strategies, and then pursue select options with an intent focus (i.e., exploit). Curiosity can be advantageous and lead to new possibilities that students might not have considered (Epstein, 2019). Students can be nudged by educators to participate in a range of opportunities that promote academic and social engagement, acknowledging that not all students will be able to take advantage of all possibilities, for a host of reasons. When students find an area of interest, they can be encouraged to dig deeper and take advantage of new experiences (i.e., engagement through internships or community service). From this perspective, exploitation can be seen as positive and intentional, rather than negative and passive. Students might want to pursue pathways that align with their values, or a purpose that provides meaning. Most students now seek purpose in their educational and career objectives.

Prepare for Ongoing Change. The world of work will continue to endure shifts. Today’s college graduates are entering new workspaces and places that would not have been imaginable even five years ago. Managing a 60–70-year work life will present multiple work opportunities for students as they enter an uncertain world of work (Buford et al., 2023). Envisioning new work roles where persistent skill development will become vital. Agility, upskilling, and learning to learn are now lifelong skills (Blustein & Flores, 2023; Cadigan, 2021).

Like my daughter Riya, students often see results in binary terms (pass or fail). Often, progress is incomplete. Incomplete results allow students to reevaluate where they might strategically allocate their time and resources. For many students, challenges presented will push them to develop skills (i.e., flutter kicks) that will open new opportunities that they might have dismissed in the past. As educators, it is our job to offer students both challenge and support in these situations, placing our trust in their own judgment.


Alter, A. (2023). Anatomy of a breakthrough: How to get unstuck when it matters most. Simon & Schuster.

Blustein, D. L., & Flores, L. Y. (Eds.). (2023). Rethinking work: Essays on building a better workplace. Routledge.

Buford, M., Sharp, M. J., & Stebleton, M. J. (Eds.). (2023). Mapping the future of undergraduate career education: Equitable career learning, development, and preparation for a new world of work. Routledge.

Cadigan, S. (2021). Workquake: Embracing the aftershocks of Covid-19 to create a better model of working. Amplify.

Epstein, D. (2019). Range:  Why generalists triumph in a specialized world. Riverhead.

Liu, L., Wang, Y., Sinatra, R., Giles, C. L., Song, C., & Wang, D. (2018). Hot streaks in artistic, cultural, and scientific careers. Nature, 559(7714), 396-399. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-018-0315-8

Mackay, H. (2018, August 5). Charles Schulz learned from rejection - so can you. Star Tribune. https://www.startribune.com/mackay-charles-schulz-learned-from-rejection-so-can-you/490028951/

March, J. G. (1991). Exploration and exploitation in organizational learning. Organization Science, 2(1), 71-87. https://doi.org/10.1287/orsc.2.1.71

Solomon, D. (2023, May 11). Van Gogh and the consolation of trees. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/05/11/arts/design/van-gogh-cypresses-met-museum.html?smid=nytcore-ios-share&referringSource=articleShare

Thompson, D. (2021, Nov 1). Hot streaks in your career don’t happen by accident. The Atlantic Monthly. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/11/hot-streaks-in-your-career-dont-happen-by-accident/620514/

Volf, M., Croasmun, M., & McAnnally-Linz, R. (2023). Life worth living: A guide to what matters most. The Open Field.

Watson, D. (2016). NASA’s unseen heroes. UVA Magazinehttps://uvamagazine.org/articles/nasas_unseen_heroes 

Discussion Questions:

1)     What is one example of “flutter kicks” that you are continuing to improve in your own professional development? What skills do you see as emerging?

2)     Identify at least one example of a career “hot streak” in your own life. What clusters of successes do you recall?

3)     Discuss the concept of exploration and exploitation. Does this idea make sense? What might be some limitations of this strategy?

4)     Identify at least one key concept that you might adopt in your own practice.

The author would like to thank Abby Wilfert, Vic Massaglia, and Rashné Jehangir for their thoughtful comments on this draft.