When a surfer paddles for a wave and the wave pitches up, there is a split second decision that has to be made whether to commit to the wave or not. That split second decision is called taking the drop, as in dropping into the wave. If a surfer is too late, the wave can be too steep and they will get pitched and rolled. If the surfer is too early, then the surfer will begin to stand and miss the wave. Surfing is very much about timing and commitment. Taking the drop is a great metaphor for life. We are faced with decisions daily that require us to commit and to trust that we are making the right decisions.
While to the layman surfing looks like a very physical activity, the truth is that surfing is as much a mental game as a physical one. A friend of mine Bruce McPadden, a former professional surfer from Australia, who is also an accomplished sales professional, recently reached out to me because he is looking to start the next chapter of his life. Bruce used “taking the drop” to describe his learning from a missed opportunity during a surf contest in Hawaii and how that experience has given him perspective about seizing new opportunities.
It was 1979 and the beginning of the northern hemisphere winter on the North Shore of Oahu. My then surf sponsor Neville Hyman had traveled to San Diego ahead of me to begin our promotional tour for his surfboards entering US Market.
I landed in Hawaii in the hopes of finding a wild card event to qualify for the well known Pipeline Masters. Through a series of circumstances I found myself in a heat in mid size Pipeline and doing quiet well, although it was only my second time surfing a reef break.
My opportunity came when a set wave peaked on the horizon, I positioned myself for what I thought was a wave that would place me in an upcoming qualifying event for the Pipe Masters later in the season. I turned, paddled (with intent and my dreams) then, just on take off, I saw the shallow reef bubble up below; I hesitated and pulled back. I didn’t commit to the take off. Not only did I miss the wave, I got sucked over the falls onto the reef, got injured and saw the local (who committed to the wave) progress to the first rounds of the Pipeline Masters. That moment changed everything for me.
Bruce’s story plays out everyday when people second guess themselves, pause for a split second and miss the opportunity to go for it. I know too many people who are stuck in jobs they hate but don’t leave because of their fear of the unknown. To make progress we must be willing to put ourselves out there, take risks and learn from the results. Sometimes those risks can result in amazing opportunities and other times they can be an introduction to the reef as Bruce recounted. Either way there is learning, and that learning translates into better awareness and new opportunities.
When I started the LeaderSurf leadership development program, it was met with incredible skepticism from corporate leaders who had never surfed. At the same time, anyone who has ridden a wave clearly understands the connection between surfing, leadership, self-awareness and the mental fortitude it takes to harness the power of the ocean. Another colleague and executive surfer Erik Logan, President of Oprah Winfrey Networks, describes discovering a love for surfing in his forties the following way.
“I had to surrender this enormous fear thing because I had told myself this story for most of my life that the water's a bad place, be careful of the stories you tell yourself. I am fascinated with what fear does. It is very paralyzing and again I am just a kid from Oklahoma. I’m 41, I can’t learn to surf. How does one get over that? For me the wetsuit felt like a suit of armor. It was a very transformational experience for me. The first time, I will never forget the experience. I walked into my knees, then I walked in to my waist, and I was immediately struck that I wasn’t afraid. It was very profound, it was a complete awakening. Before you know it I’m surfing. When you get an opportunity to try something, one thing, a new thing, don’t meet it with judgement, try to embrace the opportunity to be like, well let me try it and see what it is. One of the great things I love about being in the water with the tribe that is out there is that we leave our egos at the beach, you leave everything on the shore, because it is there when you get back and the ocean is a great equalizer. I think it has made me a better executive for the organization, I think it has made me a better family man at home. I mean, we work for a woman here whose mission is for you to live your dream and often says you don’t dream big enough, dream a bigger dream. Since I discovered surfing my life has not felt fuller.”
There is a power in learning to surf that transforms an individual. It humbles you and gives you power both at the same time. There are few others experiences in life that have that power to transform a person, but as both Bruce and Erik describe opportunity comes from being willing to put oneself out there take risks, commit and take the drop.
If you are ready to commit to learning something new and want to "take the drop" consider attending an upcoming LeaderSurf leadership development program where you will learn to surf, enhance your leadership skills, become more self-aware and engage with a great group of like-minded business executives.