How often do you paddle out to the wave?

Today is May 8 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often do you paddle out to the wave?” In a May 10, 2013 Harvard Business Review blog post Peter Bregman asked the question: “What if we all lived life like a surfer on a wave?” All surfers have three things in common: they use a board, they paddle out to the wave, and they end each ride by falling. Surfers, by their very nature, are trying to navigate the chaos of the wave dozens, if not hundreds, of times during a day. Living more like a surfer, Bregman wrote, “would entail that we all would take more risks.” People tend to avoid risks, however, because of the feelings involved with them. For example, people avoid difficult conversations with colleagues, lovers, or family members to avoid confronting an important issue. People delay sending out that application, manuscript, or email for fear of being rejected, or ignored.


Bergman noted “the conversations we avoid, the opportunities we turn a blind eye to; they risk failure and rejection. But what if we approached our life and work like a surfer? We would go into each event knowing that some would result in a complete wipe out, but others would allow us to ride the wave all the way into the beach. You would also recognize that every ride provided you with another opportunity to paddle back out to the ocean and ride another wave.” People do not live like a surfer, Bergman noted, because they are afraid of feeling. In each opportunity, or wave, their greatest fear is that they will feel something unpleasant. Difficult conversations could lead to hurt feelings. Bregman concluded that “More often than not, our fear doesn’t help us avoid the feelings; it simply subjects us to them for an agonizingly long time. We feel the suffering of procrastination, or the frustration of a stuck relationship. Taking risks, and falling, is not something to avoid. It’s something to cultivate through constant practice.”


But recent research has suggested something else to consider while pondering today’s reflection. “The Sports Performance Research Institute New Zealand (SPRINZ) has studied surfers' performance during competitive surfing events to inform the development of surfing-specific conditioning and concluded “surfers only spend 8 percent of the entire surf session riding waves.” Eight minutes! The research found that surfers spend 54 percent of their time paddling and 28 percent waiting for waves. Over 90% of a surfer’s time is spent either getting ready for the wave or recovering for the next one. There is a tremendous amount of effort, training, and preparation to go into those eight minutes. For many of those eight minutes, the wave might not even be strong enough to give the surfer a great workout.


For example, scientists found out that only 3 percent of the time surfers reached the maximal heart rate band, with an average of 190 beats per minute. So, 8% of the time surfers are surfing and during that limited part of their sport only 3% of the waves allow them to reach a maximum heart rate. Navigating the chaos and practicing the art of living well involves patience, risk-taking, and grit. Surfers practice all three. They spend most of their time waiting. When a wave does come along it rarely get their heart rate up to maximum capacity. Inevitably the wave crashes down and the surfer needs to go back to waiting. It takes years of practice to get the body, mind, and spirit in shape for a sport built on patience. It is a tedious sport. But life is tedious. Navigating the chaos and practicing the art of living well is tedious. To translate one dream after another into reality it takes years or decades of practice, patience, and persistence.


Just as the waves crash down upon the surfer and require them to start anew, so too do the rejections, obstacles, and hurdles that come along for those translating their dreams into reality. Do you really think surfing is 100% fun? Do you really think navigating the chaos and practicing the art of living well is easy? Paddling out to the wave of life day after day for decades takes enormous personal fortitude. One must be willing to do it if they wish to ride one wave of opportunity after another.


As author Cheryl Strayed wrote: "There's a sunrise and sunset every day. You can choose to be there for it. You can put yourself in the way of beauty.” Like each of the Navigate the Chaos posts, this one is a choice.

  • Will you paddle out to the next wave? And then the one after that?

  • If you have crashed while trying to surf the waves of life, what happened? How did you respond?

  • Will you practice the patience required to wait for the next wave?

  • Will you put in the time required to get ready to ride the wave that maximizes your heart rate?

  • How often do you paddle out to the wave and intentionally put yourself in the way of opportunity?

  • Will you choose to be there for the sunrise and sunset?

  • Will you remind yourself that you can see a sunrise and sunset should you choose?