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What Surfing Taught Me About Success

I just got back from my best-ever day of waves here in Puerto Escondido - a two-a-day set on a day off of work.

Between the sets, I met a girl from Austin, TX and convinced her to give surfing a try with the local instructors I knew. After my second set, I ran into her again.

"Victory!", she effused. She'd gone out, stood up, and ridden a wave all the way in.

Walking back home, I got to thinking about the nature of success, and what surfing is teaching me about it.

What Success In Surfing Looks Like

You can see it clear in your mind. There's a rider, balanced on the board, teal-blue wave curling behind them into foam. It's beautiful.

What's success? Standing up on a board, riding a wave in.

But after two months surfing here, I can tell you something funny.

What Success In Surfing Is Actually Like

It is standing up, and riding a wave in. But it turns out, that's the easy part.

The hard part is:

  • Building up the musculature to be able to control your board and paddle at the same time.
  • Enduring the rib pain stage until your chest wall can handle the forces.
  • Honing the techniques for paddling out through big waves, crashing waves, light foam, rip currents, and regular sets.
  • Learning which technique to apply when, to get you through the breakers.
  • Building enough strength to compensate for the times when you don't have the technique.
  • Reading the currents once you've paddled out.
  • Reading where the breaks typically are, wherever you're surfing.
  • Predicting where incoming waves will break.
  • Predicting how big they'll be.
  • Predicting how many are coming in a set.
  • Knowing which waves are too big for you to handle.
  • Knowing what to do when they're too big.
  • Knowing which waves are too small or fast for you to catch.
  • Knowing what your waves look like.
  • Learning where to position yourself in the ocean to have the best chance to catch your sort of wave.
  • Making a quick decision to try for a wave or not.
  • Learning how to paddle when you're trying to catch a wave.
  • Knowing when to start padding.
  • Knowing how hard to paddle, to neither over or undershoot the wave.
  • Knowing where to keep your weight as you start to catch the wave.
  • Knowing when to stand up.

Finally: Standing up on the board, and riding it in.

Success at surfing actually looks like building and learning every one of those skills, until you're able to reliably be out in the water in the right place, with enough skill, knowledge, and power to identify the right wave, commit to it, and pull it off.

That is a lot of work.

But if we're honest, it's what success actually looks like. And it brings me to an emotional truth:

What Success Feels Like

Success doesn't usually feel like victory. (Though faux-success often does.)

It doesn't feel like accomplishment.

It doesn't feel like pride.

Success - true success - usually feels like relief.

It's Not Just Surfing

Look around, and we find this story everywhere, in every discipline. There are dozens of stories you can trot out about Michael Jordan, Albert Einstein, and every other luminary.

There's a mythos about the overnight success. But it's just that. A myth. And everywhere we look, the people at the top of their chosen pursuits are all telling us the same story.

Decide to do it. Go through the struggle. Make the sacrifices.

Get yourself to the place where the opportunities are. Be prepared. Commit. Execute. Get some luck.

That list isn't sexy.

It doesn't make for good storytelling, and it doesn't help us feel better if our lives aren't what we want.

But it's also amazing, wonderful, and beautiful.

Right there, is a blueprint for how to be successful. At anything.

Even surfing.

After writing this, and thinking some more, I consolidated that list into a proper piece. How to Be Successful at Anything. If you enjoyed this, check it out - it's one of the best things on the site.

Photo is courtesy of afu007

Nah, I hate curiousity.