Seven Life Lessons from Surfing

This time yesterday I was surfing off the North African coast. A twelve-hour journey, a dreamless five-hour sleep, and a few thousand kilometres later, I’m home (south-west England). But when I close my eyes I can still see the water. Sitting at the kitchen table, in my chest, I feel the draw and swell of the ocean behind me, building in volume ready for the next set of waves.

You can rationalise the ocean. Break its action down into measurable rules. But once you’re in – floating on its surface – rules are of little use: you have to feel it out; you can only understand it through experience.

Out on the water, those best at surfing have an intuitive understanding of where they need to be. They let the ocean do the work. A few effortless strokes and they land in the sweet spot and ride to shore. (Contrast with my frantic thrashing to catch a wave.)

So surfing’s an intuitive affair. Yet I’m going to attempt to rationalise, and draw out seven lessons from my experience: the first is to…

… (1) have PATIENCE

Surfing involves waiting. A lot of waiting: for the tide to change; the wind to blow a different direction; and, when conditions are perfect, you have to wait for the right wave to take you.

Waves come in groups – a few waves to each. Between each of these pulses you may be waiting several minutes. You may spend more time bobbing up and down on your board, and paddling to position than dropping in and surfing to shore. In short, you need to be patient.

More than patient…

(2) … be PRESENT where you are

You can either wait, impatient, craving the next ride. Or you can adopt a placid stance:


Deep breaths…

Make the most of your freedom – no work, no worries, just you and the sea.

Taoists have a concept which I equate to this: wuwei. As is often the case, the term has no english equivalent. Wuwei is often translated to ‘effortless doing’, or simply ‘non-action’.

Wuwei works on the premise that there is a natural flow to the universe. What happens will happen, and often your input can hinder rather than enhance this process. Best to go with rather than force against. To practise non-doing you do what needs to be done, when it needs doing – minimise resistance to what is. A person must eliminate thoughts and actions which interrupt the natural state of flow.

For me, boredom is the sign that I’m not in state. There is a quality to passivity, but we are so rarely away from smart-phone sensory stimulation that, in the modern world, we’re at risk of forgetting – or at least losing touch with – awareness of that quality. Really, there is no reason to be bored… ever: there is always so much going on within and without.

When surfing it’s somehow easier to understand and apply this principle. Although you’re waiting, you’re never bored. There is no need for concerned. The wave, as with the next opportunity for growth and action in life, will come. You just have to be patient.

So you’ve stilled your breath – waited with zen-like repose for you next trip to shore – but the ride you want to take might not be yours at all. You need to…

… (3) be FLEXIBLE

Further out, swell can look promising – the water bulges on the horizon. By the time it reaches where you are, however, the potential has faded to nought. What appears a golden opportunity from a distance sometimes fails to turn out that way. The tangents often end up taking centre stage. The possibilities that arise around what I thought I wanted turn into best rides. Paddling to position for what looked like your wave may set you up for another down the line.

So be flexible. Don’t cling to something that appears right for you, but never was. But, at the same time, you must…

(4)… TRUST yourself

Trust your choices. Stop second guessing yourself.

It’s tempting to look at an area five metres away, to where the wave is breaking, and feel like you haven’t picked the best spot for take off. (Ok, as a beginner, your position probably is poor, but grass-is-always-greener syndrome can be a factor too.) Every time I found myself moving down the line to get to where I thought the waves were peaking, I looked back only to find that they seemed to be best where I had come from.

Trust where you are.

That being said, highly talented people miss a trick because they are in the wrong place. So keep your eyes open, but still… trust yourself. If you’ve seen from the shore that that’s the place to be, keep doing what you’re doing and fruit will come.

Once you are in the sweet spot, as important as positioning, timing is crucial. In fact…

… (5) TIMING is everything

Waves are travellers. Born by storms out to sea, they journey thousands of miles before breaking on the beach. After making it all that distance, you can trust them to carry you the last leg.

Those surfing in Morocco impressed me. With experienced surfers, even when they seemed to be in the wrong position to grab a ride, a few light strokes and they manage it. Their timing is perfect. No wasted effort. They gather the right momentum and let the wave do the work.

Excess, mistimed thrashing is counterproductive. The more effort you put in, the more you impede yourself – you upset the balance of the board (it bobs and dampens momentum).

Just a few well-timed strokes and you’re away.

To help with this, as with mastery of any discipline…

… (6) RELAXATION is key

Last week training BJJ with a friend, he told me that when players hit blue-belt, they start to relax. By the time they are black you can hardly feel where they are: they use their posture and positioning rather than static muscular strength.

It’s the same with any high-level sport, there has to be a point where you relax if you want to go further. (Not sure if the same is true for weight-lifters, but let’s ignore that for the sake of my argument!) With surfing relaxation helps with paddling – you need your torso and shoulders to relax so your arms can move free and not rock the board. You need loose legs and open hips for free movement up and down the wave.

Tension trips us up: it’s the perspiration beading during an important interview; it’s the lump in your throat when you ask someone out; and it causes most of our health complaints.

It all starts in the mind and it’s difficult to overcome. However, if you have all the proceeding steps in place, relaxation is effortless. In the same way, step seven is easy if you’ve released tension – if you’re relaxed, no need to…

… (7) LET GO

When surfing you need to renounce control. You are at the mercy of the ocean.

The sea is powerful and you are subject to its majesty. If you bail in the wrong place, you can be kept under for a long time. Too long. You’re churned up and rolled till you can’t tell up from down – until you fear you won’t be able to hold your breath much longer. Oddly, for some reason it’s the moment when you accept your fate and surrender that you break surface.

There’s something liberating about surrendering in that way.

Life is precarious. At any moment you could leave. Accepting this is a powerful tonic. Considering death makes you value every moment of life you have. I’m not being morbid. It’s just that we spend so much time in regret, worry, incapacitated by self-doubt, or simply wrapped up trivial matters. The occasional consideration of your mortality does wonders for cutting through these bonds. It makes you appreciate what you have.

I’m not proposing flinging all caution to the wind. But the occasional paddle outside your comfort zone does wonders for your posture in the long term.

So there you have it. 7 life lessons from a week’s surfing: patience, presence, flexibility, trust, timing, relaxation, and surrender.

But, most important: surfing is fun and I’m hooked. In fact, I have a new proviso when choosing places to live: be close enough to the coast that I can get to the sea often – if not every day then on a regular basis.