On the importance of developing a surfer’s skill set

6th July 2010
The thing about surfers is they live for the moment.

It’s all about catching, and riding, the perfect wave. It’s their life goal, their passion, their raison d’étre.

My good friend George tells me that from that first “Surf’s up!” phone call, to the journey down to the beach and then getting in the water is a pure, charged, adrenalin rush. The passionate, blinkered attention between call and water makes each wasted second feel like an hour. Nothing is more important than getting in the water. If you get a puncture, just leave the car and deal with it later. Run the rest of the way. It doesn’t matter.

Then comes that magic moment. As soon as you hit the water it’s complete calm and utter peace. “It feels so right when you are out there. Most of the time it’s crap, but it doesn’t matter. You’re there, with your mates. That’s all that counts.”

Good surfers are lucky. They have been able to develop skills which allow them, potentially, to achieve their goal of riding that perfect wave. These include;

  • Awareness. Of themselves, the people around them, and their immediate environment
  • Decision making. In the moment decisions determine which waves they catch, and how they ride them
  • Strategic thinking. A clear strategy is easy to follow and has a definite outcome.

Surfers also have certain personal qualities which allow them to do what they do well, including;

  • Self confidence. An unerring belief in your ability is fundamental. You don’t want to hesitate in front of a big wave
  • Self analysis. An ability to analyse your performance, preferably in real time, is key to improving your skills
  • Self discipline. You don’t tend to see fat surfers under 40. Over 40 is a different matter…
  • Instant responses. Being totally in the moment won’t save you if you can’t react instantly to changes around you.

Not everyone is good. But they are all trying to be. And they learn from each other. That’s a very Darwinian process. It’s called adaptation if you’re a biologist or behavioural modelling if you’re a psychologist. The rest of us would just call it imitation or simply copying.

What I find interesting about these lists is that they are also the skills and qualities that are required in abundance to be an effective business leader. In the knowledge economy, when you are running a (usually global) virtual team, you need to be able to “show and tell” or visibly demonstrate all these skills. It’s no longer about walking the walk and talking the talk; it’s about being able to walk, talk and chew gum – with a smile on your face. Try it. It’s not as easy as it sounds.

Back to surfers. When you talk to them you know that, despite the smile, and the relaxed, engaging charm you are just one more distraction they have to deal with before they can get back in the water and pursue their dream. And, unusually, you don’t mind. You get it. You also get their Buddha-like patience. You experience their listening skills. And despite knowing that you are a distraction, you still get the feeling that they have all the time in the world for you. And you know that’s not faked; that’s who they are.

Surfers are a breed. Their skills set them apart. And they all share the same passion for their ultimate objective. In the meantime they remain ruthlessly, relentlessly and totally in the moment.

Even Laird Hamilton, the most famous of all surfers, who has already ridden the perfect wave (perfectly, if there was any doubt. And this is a MUST watch: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pYQQtxb8wv0&feature=related) still surfs. Why? Because he, like the rest of us, never knows when an even more perfect wave will arrive. Out of the blue. When we least expect.

But Laird, and his fellow surfers, and unlike the rest of us, is determined to be ready, just in case. Because you never really know, do you?


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