When I was 16, I picked up a surfboard for the first time in my life. (Coincidentally, I learned in the very place I’d find myself several years later, happily engaged. But we’re not there yet.) It was much larger than I’d expected, and took a lot of effort to move it across a beach. The wind was less than helpful, resisting all of my my 114lb might. Nonetheless, I took a lesson, and after about 4+ hours of swimming vigorously against waves and currents, falling off the board, and tumbling beneath swells, I ended my day having ridden a grand total of two waves.
This wasn’t the last time I picked up a board. A few years later, I vacationed with my mother again, but this time in Costa Rica. We stayed in a little surf town called Playa Tamarindo. I rented a longboard again for the day, hoping I just might catch a wave in another country. The swells were considerably larger than in Hawaii, where I learned. About 5-10 feet larger. But nonetheless, amateur me couldn’t tell the difference. I attempted and attempted, riding a grand total of one wave, and almost drowning. (For perspective, I was captain of the varsity swim team at the time, and a certified lifeguard. Ironic, eh?)
Why am I talking about this? Because when looking for a great metaphor about life, there was very little guesswork involved thanks to living in Hawaii. Surfing has taught me a lot about how your experiences can shape your behavior, and how your behavior can shape your experiences. The trick is accepting that both of these will happen.
So! Without further ado, here are five amateur surfing tips that apply to dealing with life:
1. When the wave is most certainly going to come down on top of your head, don’t fight it. Dive deep.
It’s easy to get terrified when something is going to go wrong. Sometimes you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, and sometimes you’ve put yourself in a situation you can’t escape from. The best you can do is dive deep and let it all wash over you. Accept that you can’t change the world around you, but you can adapt and learn. You have to simply own the situation and don’t let it own you.
2. Swim over the top of swells if you can. Don’t let the little things hamper you. You’ll get caught in them if you wallow in the shallows. Spend your energy instead on getting where you need to be.
There is nothing more annoying than wasting energy on things that aren’t worth your time. If it doesn’t help you get to where you need to be, it’s wasting your time. Learn when to distinguish the petty from the important, and leave those that don’t support, or help you, behind.
3. Mind your hubris. The ocean is powerful and can drown you. Know that you are not invincible, and to ask for help. Even the experts can struggle. It’s okay.
Sometimes you get caught in a riptide, and it’s really bad. You don’t think you can get out of this one, and you can’t breathe. You’re not a bad person because of it. You simply need help. You are only human. And the ocean–and life–is big enough to ruin even the strongest of us. It’s okay. Don’t drown in your shame. We need to look out for each other.
4. You can find your wave, but the wave will never bother finding you. The best wave is the one that isn’t that obvious. Take your chance on the swells that feel right.
You can wait your entire life to find the perfect opportunity, and it will never come. Maybe if you’re the luckiest person in the universe, but let’s be pessimists for a moment here. Most of the time, you’re going to look for the best you can get, and running with it. I promise that waiting will leave you really, really bored.
The best opportunities, though, tend to be less obvious. You’re never really sure of them, and to be honest, you can’t really make up your mind until the last second. But no one else will see what you see, and maybe you’ll feel like an imbecile chasing it for dear life. But in the end, the real losers are the ones who never took a chance. In the end, success is a decision you make, not a result.
5. Once you catch your wave, ride it with abandon. But don’t be upset about swimming back out if you fall. Surfing is not an end state. It is a process.
Finally, you have done something and you are goddamn successful! You are blazing past everyone, and you are living the dream. But like all dreams, they eventually end. Either by time elapsing, or by a mishap and sometimes a wipe out. It’s easy to be ashamed that you’re starting from the beginning, working twice as hard to get back to where you once were. But that’s the thing about surfing and life. It’s not really an endgame at all. Getting through it all is a process, and always will be. Success is a decision to see opportunities in that process rather than drown in the mishaps; to pursue when you can, and accept when you can’t. All of it is an exercise in trusting yourself to do the right thing when you need to. And once you’ve done that, all you have left to do is ride the wave home.
Not to say I’m an expert at any of this “life” stuff, (and certainly not an expert at surfing by any means… I’m literally just a beginner, and by no means a “surfer”) but this perspective has helped me deal with the fact that life is bigger than me, and that I have little control over it. That fact is exactly why life isn’t ever going to be boring or predictable. Whether or not it will be enjoyable, though, is entirely up to me.
I think the odds of that are far greater than my odds of actually catching a wave.
And those odds are alright by me.