15 surprising and powerful life lessons I’ve learned while surfing

Common: Failing to see how unusual activities can offer life-changing insights.

Uncommon: Those who know me are fully aware that surfing is my favorite hobby, but I’ve developed a new appreciation for it. While reading, research, and writing always serve as important sources of information and inspiration, sometimes life has other more “uncommon” ways of offering powerful insights.

Over the past decade as I’ve chased great waves around the globe, I’ve caught myself countless times saying, “Hmm… that’s a great metaphor for life.” So I’ve taken a few days to tally these uncommon lessons to share them with you. Here are the top 15…

1. Getting out there is the hardest part. There are always a million reasons not to do something. These justifications of inaction are very easy to find – especially when the conditions are not immediately inviting. The reality is, there are always hassle factors and rewards involved in every pursuit. It’s all a matter of what to focus on. In many cases, the hardest jam to push through is the jam framing your front door. Once in motion, however, regret rarely follows. This can’t be said for inaction.

2. The best waves require more travel. Each of my favorite top 10 surfing spots are over 1,000 miles from my front door. Making the trek and reaping these exceptional rewards is a real commitment that involves planning and preparation. Some people are fortunate enough to be closer, but they, too, must travel far and wide for other exceptional opportunities of a different nature. There are often  nearby, more convenient options (the low hanging fruit), but many times these offer lackluster results. If you want remarkable rewards, be prepared to go the distance.

3. Opportunity comes in bursts. Anyone who surfs knows that the best quality waves arrive in ‘sets.’ These are often groups of 7 waves at a time with the final wave being the biggest. Obviously, waves provide the opportunity to surf, but the lesson here is clear: the best of the best are not allotted in a constant flow. Sometimes you must wait, passing on the good so you’re ready for the great. You have to position yourself through preparation and proactive measures to make the most of opportunities while the window is open.

4. No single spot stays great indefinitely. Every surf spot offers moments of excellent surf and other days serves up pitiful or no waves at all. Even during a single session, the quality of surf can vary immensely. It’s a matter of reading the ocean, knowing the spot, expecting these shifts to occur, and then reacting/adapting quickly. In some instances, the best decision is moving on to a new break or even a new activity altogether.  There’s no reason to pout about these unfortunate changes when you realize that nothing great lasts forever – and by the same token, nothing horrible does either. The silver lining is a heightened sense of appreciation for the ‘great’ when it’s within your grasp.

5. Those who keep moving get the best rewards. I regularly see surfers who cling to specific peaks in the water, never paddling left or right. They catch one great wave in a precise location and become superstitious about leaving their ‘spot.’ But these individuals never catch the same number of waves as those who read the ocean, look for changing trends, and move. Like the ocean, life changes constantly – we must be prepared to change with it.  By doing the opposite, sitting stubbornly in the same place doing same thing again and again, we can’t expect to get different or better results. Perhaps Wayne Gretzsky said it best, “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.”


6. Seasons are unavoidable. We all have preferences that make us feel comfortable or help set the stage for action.  For me, it’s summer time – a time when it’s easy and convenient to head to the beach and get in the water.  But the dry summer breezes and warm ocean currents don’t last forever. Life also has its own agenda. We can’t stop the inevitable, but we can prepare for it. Life is full of ups and downs and environmental/circumstantial changes that present new challenges and opportunities. Only the right attitude, tools, and techniques allow us to perform well and come out one top.

7. Sometimes you just have to cut your losses. As excited and optimistic as you may be, the surf is not always good. At some point, you have to make a decision: To continue onward or stop. I’ve invested many hours in poor surf, trying to turn bad lemons into lemonade, but sometimes all you get is bad lemonade. Starting something does not always justifying finishing it. Sometimes your time and energy are better spent in other ways.

8. You get better by exceeding your current competence. The learning curve of surfers varies enormously – some people become good quite quickly while others plateau in the early stages. The difference? The willingness to try and potentially fail. Those who excel the fastest make the most attempts at success. Even on the ‘talented’ end of the spectrum, progress means pushing slightly beyond your current abilities.

9. You will get hurt. (Aren’t’ you glad you read this positive article?) Eventually, if you’re seeking a better wave, a bigger opportunity, a leap of progress, or an exceptional reward, you will fall short along the way. Do anything at 110% and you’re bound to experience pain (emotionally or physically). Without turning this into a self-fulfilling prophecy of fear, it does help to remind ourselves of this when bad things do happen.  Haven’t experienced pain for a long time? There is a good chance you’re not thinking big enough, pushing your current competencies far enough, and not taking enough risk. Rewards are not granted to the comfort-seekers.

10. Performance is cyclical. Even given nearly identical circumstances in the water, some days you’re ‘on;’ some days you’re ‘off.’ There’s no point beating yourself up mentally because of it. You must decide to either work through it and focus on the positives (the fact that you’re supposedly doing what you love) or go home and engage in something else. Self-pity and frustration is completely optional. So is peace of mind.

11. Consistency is best forecast of improved performance. We become better the quickest when working towards something with consistent effort. A few weeks out of the water and your edge starts to fade. Working on/towards goals with regular, uninterrupted action is the most reliable path to mastery and of course, ‘consistent’ success.

12. You need the right tools for the job. Surfing a fish (a short, wide board) in a large swell is setting yourself up for an ass-whooping. Wearing a short-arm, short-legged wetsuit through the California winter will freeze the fun out of any surf session. Whatever the activity, come prepared.

13. There will always be people looking for trouble. Regardless of your mood and intentions, someone may still attempt to bring you down, take your wave (opportunity), or trash talk you – especially if you’re working in competitive, high-stakes environments, where great waves (rewards) appear abundant. What do you do with these individuals? You keep marching forward. There is no rebuttal like a life well lived.

14. There will always be people who are genuine and generous. How do you find them? By being one yourself. Give someone one compliment in the water and you’ll lighten the mood, encourage conversation, and have more fun. There are countless opportunities to be generous – and it’s the fastest way to bring out the same in others.

15. You leave with nothing but a feeling. After investing the time, taking the risk, and expending a lot of energy in a surf session you walk away with no certificates, no trophies, and certainly no more money – nothing tangible whatsoever (unless, of course, surfing is your profession). The only true gain is emotional. And such is life. For this reason, we should think hard about why we do certain things in the first place. At the end of it all, we take nothing to the grave, but a collection of experiences and memories.

Your thoughts?

I am I missing anything? Have your personal hobbies and pursuits led to surprising life lessons? Would love to get your thoughts below.

Stay uncommon,

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