Surfing as a metaphor for life

Yes I know… Surfing metaphors can be some of the most clichéd, hackneyed and overwrought metaphors of all time.

But as they say, it’s always the new proselytes who are the most evangelical. And as a relatively new convert to surf-world, I’ll beg your indulgence as I metaphorically testify for the next 900 or so words.

So…I have been involved in sports my whole life – from football and skiing in high school, an intense rock climbing stint in college, and then mountain biking and kayaking throughout my 20s and 30s. I didn’t even discover surfing until moving to Panama in my mid-40s, and while I’m still mediocre, none of these sports have ever taught me more valuable life lessons than surfing.

Here are 4 critical surf lessons that translate seamlessly to life in general:

If at first you don’t succeed try, try again: Surfing is by far the most difficult sport I’ve ever learned. So difficult in fact, that it took me two long years before I could even credibly boast of “catching a wave.” While there are naturals who can pick up the sport after a few attempts, I certainly wasn’t one of them. That was incredibly frustrating as I’m usually a quick study.

Learning this sport was different: It required hundreds of failures before finally catching the face of a wave. But each failure resulted in learning and knowledge – the micro-adjustments necessary to properly position yourself correctly on the board; the muscle memory required to know exactly how much effort was necessary to paddle into a wave; the critical timing to avoid ass-over-cranium catapults down the face of crashing waves. Hundreds upon hundreds of failures, until one day… Success!

More so than any other sport I’ve ever learned, persistence and perseverance are the name of the game in surfing and every failure resulted in just a bit more knowledge and experience.

And so it is in life… Success is the result of preparation, hard work, and the knowledge gained from failure.

Patience, acceptance and being in the moment: Waves and sets have a rhythm all of their own. They are unpredictable. They never break exactly the same way. And sometimes they don’t break at all. Waves, just like the world at large, work on their own time, not our time.

It can be incredibly frustrating trying to learn a new sport when you are dependent on such an unpredictable environment. Especially when approached from a mindset that covets instant gratification and achievement.

That is, until you learn to just accept and enjoy the moment. Sitting on your board, feeling the rhythm of the waves, the wind, the salt spray. Watching the pelicans around you dive for fish or a school of tuna launching themselves out of a breaking wave, or just experiencing an epic sunset.

Being patient and accepting the moment goes a long way on the water. It goes just as far in real life.

Taking pleasure in the enjoyment and accomplishments of others: By far one of the coolest things I’ve witnessed is the encouragement and excitement expressed by others on the water when someone else catches a great wave. Hoots and hollers… Whistles… High-fives. And often from surfers you don’t even know. It’s palpable, natural and uncontrived. And it’s not just reserved for the insanely talented, but is equally imparted and expressed to clumsy beginners. These folks are experiencing profound pleasure in the enjoyment and accomplishment of others. That’s cool.

Here’s an example: Super Deportes and other Panama businesses host surfing competitions for kids every other weekend. They are free, very well-organized and always well-attended. Panama’s best surfing talents and personalities almost always attend — pros like Gary Saavedra, who holds two world records for the longest wave ever surfed and 10 time surfing champion Pucha Garcia. They certainly don’t have to show up… They actually want to. Watching the next generation of surfers learn and enjoy the sport is something they genuinely enjoy.

More heart, less ego: There’s a surfer I met recently who is an almost perfect hybrid of Jeff Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High and “The Dude” from The Big Lebowski. One of the first times I met him he was sitting on the beach waiting for a swell to come in wearing board shorts, big round sunglasses, no shirt, no shoes, and crazy hair sticking up in every direction. But I noticed something else as well that surprised me: His head was buried in The Grapes of Wrath! We ended up having a very insightful 30 minute conversation about the Steinbeck classic.

He’d also just been hired from the U.S. to teach at our kids’ school for the semester. It turns out he’s an incredibly gifted teacher with an overabundance of heart and very little ego – the kind of person who is as passionate about imparting the gift of knowledge (for knowledge’s sake) and self-reliance to his students as he is about grabbing his board for a few sets. He does it all without pretense or personal agenda, and not surprisingly, he’s one of the students’ favorites.

There are strains of Taoism or Transcendentalism that you find a lot among surfers. A non-conformity and “go with the flow” attitude that is much more in harmony with the universe. The Big Lebowski actually spurred an entire philosophy based on it — an ecclesiastical strand known as “Dudeism”. It is roughly defined as a heartfelt gratitude, serenity and carefree approach towards life, and an utter lack of the pretentiousness, bitterness, and pettiness of ego.

By far, the best (and funniest) example of the “attitude” is this quote I found recently about Lao Tzu, the creator of Taoism:

“When things got screwed up in Ancient China Lao Tzu didn’t go all Mr. Miyagi and try to fix it. He got on his buffalo and took off for more-copasetic pastures. But not before scribbling down a few what-have-yous that helped define Eastern philosophy ever since.”

And there you have it, surfing, Eastern philosophy, and metaphors for life… All rolled into one. Go surfing.


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