“Keep paddling, even after you think the wave has you,” said the 12-year-old kid in the water next to me.
I love to surf and I get out on the water as often as I can (which unfortunately isn’t a whole lot), but I had only ridden a short board once before. It was down at St. Kilda beach in Dunedin, New Zealand and I got my ass handed to me as the 6-7 foot waves crashed on my head set after set and left me a breathless wounded balance-less seal in the ice cold water.
Since then, I stuck to the long boards. Easier to balance, easier to ride. I figured I’d hone my chops a little more on those before trying anything under 8-feet long again. That changed this past Saturday.
A good friend just moved out to Dubai for a job, and in doing so, wanted to leave Boston without any material anchors to drag him back. That meant that a storage unit full of adventure and personal training gear had to go.
Sven invited a group of us to pick apart the goods like vultures on a carrion. I got a surfboard and bag of wet suits out of the deal. An equal trade? No, of course we’d rather have Sven stick around but I’d make the same decision if I were him and the opportunity presented itself. So, surfing I go!
This board is 6’6″. The time had come to try again. Saturday, I headed down to Second Beach in Middletown, Rhode Island. The swell was coming in with pretty consistent 3 foot faces. Perfect for learning. I suited up and paddled out.
On my own in the water for about 20 minutes, I tried very unsuccessfully to catch a wave. Balancing on the short board wasn’t as big a problem as I expected. What was killing me was actually paddling into the wave. Every time I thought I had it and would try to stand, the wave would carry on ahead of me and I’d be left floating in dismay. I would’ve had these on my long board!
Then another surfer showed up. A kid who had no trouble jumping up and carving into the waves, small as they were. After a bit of studying what he might be doing different than me, I simply asked for any tips to paddling in on the short board.
“You just have to keep paddling, even after you think the wave has you.”
And there it was. Right when I felt the wave had me, I would stop paddling and try to stand. I was letting up too soon. With this advice, I paddled into the next wave, kept paddling, caught it, and was up! For the rest of the afternoon I was catching and carving every wave I paddled into!
On a total surfing high, I continued to think about this kid’s advice. Not only about how spot on effective it was to help me catch waves, but also how perfect this metaphor is for basically everything in life and business.
We have a tendency to work really hard, whether in our careers or our relationships, to get to where we feel that surely the wave of success has caught us and we’ll ride right along in bliss. And so we let up just a bit too soon and the wave carries on from underneath, leaving us wading in the water wondering what went wrong. Someone else closes the deal, gets the investment, goes up to that girl in the bar. Someone else kept paddling.
Last week I also went to the movies to see The Walk. While I think the documentary version, Man On Wire, still tells a much better story, The Walk was really well done and does touch on a lesson that I don’t recall from Man On Wire. The lesson of the last three steps.
Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley), the wire-walking mentor of film protagonist Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), explains that you cannot take the last three steps on the wire with arrogance. The end of the line is right in front of you. Success but a few feet away. That’s when we tend to let our guard down. And that’s when we screw up.
This is true of wire-walking. This is certainly true of mountaineering – that most accidents happen after you’ve reached the summit. And this is true of surfing. You have to keep paddling, even after you think the wave has you. Get to the bottom of the mountain, walk to the end of the line, keep paddling into the wave. Never let up and never lose your focus. If you do, opportunity will pass you by. And, you might die.
Thanks kid, for giving me my surfing breakthrough and one of my new favorite metaphors for life. Thanks.
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