This is a story about losing our surfing virginity on the beaches of Raglan, a town on the west coast of New Zealand’s North Island. It’s also about taking a step back to appreciate that learning to surf is a lot like learning to live life itself.
I woke up that morning in Raglan and the rain continued to piss down. How saturated could the ground be? How consistently foggy and gray could it get here? The answer: very. It was one of those mornings when I got up and just wanted to pull the covers over my head.
But you get up because breakfast is at 6:30. And you have a surfing lesson that morning.
And maybe things will get better.
And they do.
You try like hell to get up on your surfboard; you watch others try too. You witness sheer joy in trying; you experience sheer joy in trying. And then you experience sheer joy in standing up.
And you learn something from it all.
10 Lessons Learned from Surfing
1. What is most apparent is not always what actually matters.
When it comes to achieving our goals and objectives, it’s not about what’s most apparent – that can be a distraction – but rather about what’s relevant.
“Conditions are great. It’s a good day to learn how to surf,” Nick, our G Adventures leader and ever the optimist, offered as it rained through breakfast, just before our surfing lesson.
Initially, I construed Nick’s outlook as cheerleading to get us beyond the day’s superficial, wet misery. However, it turns out he was right. The waves were just about perfect. Water temperature was, too. Eventually it stopped raining, but the clouds remained. Knowing how powerful the New Zealand sun could be, I appreciated that this too was a blessing in disguise.
Learning to surf was our goal, and in that context, all that really mattered was the condition of the waves, not my stereotypical notion of what constituted good weather.
Figure out what really matters to achieve your goal and understand that your success depends as much or more on your ability to see opportunity in circumstance as it does on the circumstances themselves.
2. Celebrate the attempt.
More often than not, you have to fall down in order to stand up.
Later that day, after having conquered my first surf, I had a conversation with a bartender in Raglan.
“How was your day?” he asked.
“Great. I went surfing for the first time. I stood up five times!” I offered satisfied.
“But you fell down a lot, didn’t you?”
You might be thinking “What a jerk!” No, not at all. The bartender's intention was good, and he was right. There was also a lesson in his response. He wasn’t trying to take away my accomplishment, but to recognize what it took to surf and what it would take to improve.
The upshot: It should feel good to try. If it doesn’t, learn to enjoy trying. There's joy and satisfaction buried in there.
3. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Asking for help was one factor that separated those who stood up and rode a wave from those who did not.
Even if you think it makes you look silly, don’t be afraid to ask for assistance or guidance. Willingness to learn is a sign of strength. Or at least a sign of knowing what you know and what you don’t — also a strength. Exchange the short-term pain of looking and feeling inadequate for the long-term gain of skill acquisition and a taste of success.
4. Guidance helps.
My first time up on the surfboard – for what seemed like an eternity of a few seconds — was most likely for a nanosecond or two. It was thrilling in its own right. However, the real a-ha! happened when a surfing instructor from another group waved me over to him, took me out further into the ocean, waited for the right wave, held my board from behind, talked me through what I needed to do and steadied me into my first real experience.
“Oh, so this is how it’s supposed to feel.”
Many of us want to carve our own path. But in reality, we occasionally need someone to show us the way. A dose of the right guidance from a helping hand can be the difference between understanding the target sensation and always feeling slightly off-course.
5. Support is divine.
One my fondest memories of surfing: being in the middle of our group, many of them first-timers, all cheering each other's attempts. There was little competitiveness, mainly just support for those putting themselves out there and trying over and over again. And then trying some more.
Although there was a lot of falling down, based on the cheers, you'd figure we were all riding the wave of a lifetime, hanging ten.
Success or failure, life feels better when you receive — and freely give — support and encouragement.
6. Baby steps, baby steps.
There are two approaches to surfing, broadly speaking. The first is to charge out into the waves, catch the first one, hop up on the board and hang ten. Then there are the stepwise methods for mere mortals like us. The surf lesson we were given included a yoga-like 4-step process of getting onto the board with our knees and stepping into a warrior pose-like surfing position.
Once out in the water (i.e., the real world of surfing), it helps to get a sense by riding the board on your belly, much like you would on a boogie board. This will help you understand how to steady yourself and to harness the wave. Then you can move on to riding the board on your knees. And from there, to standing up. Each step in the process helps you appreciate the timing, balance, and alignment you'll need to reach your ultimate goal.
Tasks that seem fluid, once broken down into steps, become less magical, more doable.
7. Balance and alignment are key.
In my brief experience of learning to surf, there’s nothing worse than being off-balance on your board. Once that happens, you are toast. If you begin your paddle off-balance, there’s a good chance you will either miss the wave or be eaten by it.
As in life, alignment will set the course for a healthy ride. Proper alignment also makes it a whole lot easier to steady yourself throughout the ride. Alternatively, if you begin off balance, much of the energy you'll need for everything else will be spent on correcting.
8. You will never know until you try. Really try.
I was apprehensive about surfing. Now that I’ve tried it, I want to do it again. And again. It's something I will actively seek out.
My fears about surfing were many. Fear of failure. Fear of being pounded upside down into the current and sand. Fear that maybe I'd waited too long to try. Fear of being uncomfortably cold in the water. (Yes, this is a real concern for me. I'm working on a permanent 11-mil wetsuit.)
Then I think of Kathy, a young woman in our group with a fear of water, and what she had to overcome to get into the waves with her surfboard. But she didn't give in; I saw her throwing herself on her board, trying again and again. Before we were done, she too was able to stand up.
Fears and apprehensions are quite normal and human. Getting out and “getting amongst it” is really the only way to transform your fear into something more productive: awareness. Perhaps we should consider consuming our fears before we allow them to consume us.
9. Nature: It’s always bigger than it looks.
From the mountains to the sea, human beings have done remarkable things to work with and harness the power of nature. Having said that, nature deserves respect — it’s almost always bigger and badder than it looks.
Walking down the hill to our surf beach, I remember thinking, “Those waves don’t look very big.”
Others echoed the sentiment. Once we got into the water, those waves, while not monster tubes, were plenty big and certainly more powerful than we'd all imagined.
Nature has a way of tricking us with distance. The further away from something we are, the smaller it looks. It’s only when we get up close and personal do we understand the reality.
And so it is often with life. What might seem simple and quick from a distance is often more complex and time-consuming when we're in it.
10. A nine-item list is OK, too.
Try as hard as I might, I couldn’t really squeeze out ten lessons from surfing, so nine will just have to do. It’s a pity, particularly since I really wanted to hang ten.
So what of all this? Why life lessons from surfing?
As I rode my last wave in standing up (it was a remarkable fluke), I remember thinking “That was amazing.” It wasn't just that it wasn't as frightening as I first thought, it was better than I could ever have imagined.
It’s taken me 41 years to find the way to get up on a surfboard. I don’t expect it will take another 41 for me to get back up on one again.