Four unexpected lessons from the practice of riding waves
An essay on the transfer of learning
Waves, they’re hard to ride, and in the process of learning this demanding and often uncompromising activity, we can discover something extremely profound.
— Gery Lopez, aka. Mr. Pipeline, Surfing and shaping legend
Chess prodigy, former tai chi push hands world champion, Jiu Jitsu black belt, performance coach and arguably the greatest learner alive, Josh Waitzkin describes the road to mastery as an ability to transfer knowledge from one discipline to another.
The path to artistic insight in one direction often involves deep study of another — the intuition makes uncanny connections that lead to a crystallization of fragmented notions.
— Josh Waitzskin, Author of The Art of Learning
Many of us have had the sensation, for example, when you’re studying two seemingly unrelated subjects and an isight in one leads to a discovery in the other.
In pedagogy this is called transference, or the transfer of learning. It is one of the most important predictors of a learners success, and also the most difficult to design for.
We’re all attempting to master this game of life, but in order to do so we need to identify its lessons in various pursuits.
The last three months I dedicated the majority of my time and energy towards learning to surf. I was in the water everyday, regardless of the size of the waves.
I fell in love with the art, became obsessed, and studied different ways to master surfing.
I am also a learning designer by trade. For the past six years I’ve studied the learning process, teaching, and how to design for learning.
Everyday I spent on my surfboard, I searched for lessons about surfing that I could apply to the other disciplines in my life, and to life itself.
Here is what I found.
The Ocean Is an Airplane, Not a Car
Know your limit, check your ego
One might say that the ability to evaluate one’s own ability is the most important skill of all. Without it, improvement is impossible. And certainly ego makes it difficult every step of the way. It is certainly more pleasurable to focus on our talents and strengths, but where does that get us? Arrogance and self-absorption inhibit growth. So does fantasy and “vision.”
― Ryan Holiday, Author of The Ego Is the Enemy
“The waves are good Jesse, do you want to go back and grab your board?” My father-in-law suggested.
Good was an understatement. I’d been on this beach for a month and never seen waves like this. They weren’t too big, but weren’t too small.
They were coming in with a current that had them breaking in a perfect A frame, rare for this beach which usually had inconsistent waves I had only just figured out how to read.
I wanted to go, but I knew I couldn’t. I was nursing an injury in my rib, I don’t remember what happened, but it still hurts today a month later.
“I want to, but it’s not a good idea.”
He insisted, “But you’re leaving soon, you should try for a little bit.”
Parable alert… “My dad was an avionics technician,” I said. “He fixed electrical parts in airplanes. He had a theory that if we invented flying cars the world’s population would decrease by 50%.”
“The difference between mechanical failure in a car and mechanical failure in an airplane is that in a car you can pull over to the side of the road… In an airplane, there is no where to pull over.”
“The ocean is an airplane…not a car.”
When you start surfing you hear a lot of terrible advice. Never leave the water when the waves are good. Always go for bigger waves. The first thing to perfect is your pop-up.
At best, these are ineffective for a beginner, at worst, they can be fatal.
Never leave the water when the waves are good…. What??? That’s stupid. I’ve been in over my head so many times in my short time surfing that if I followed this advice I wouldn’t be here writing this.
You have to recognize your limit and respect the process. There will always be more waves. You can practice tomorrow.
This is equally true in life.
We focus on the goal, and forget about the process.
My sixth time surfing was not the time for me to catch a six foot wave. The first time I designed a webpage, I did not expect perfection. The first article I wrote was criticized by the editor, rightly so it was terrible, and not published…
But I still write everyday, design everyday, and surf everyday because I learned to respect the process.
Push your limit, absolutely, but recognize when enough is enough. Are you doing this for your ego, or is this the next step on your road towards mastery?
Ignore advice that doesn’t serve you. Know your limit, check your ego, and respect the process.
Take a Breath and Go Back Under
We’re all equal before a wave
— Laird Hamilton, Big wave surfer
I looked up just in time to see a mountain of white water heading in my direction… &^#$ I said. I dove off the board, bracing for impact, trying to get as deep as possible, under the current of the wave. It was useless.
I tumbled. Down, down, down… I knew I was deep, I prayed that my leash would be strong enough to withstand the force of the wave.
It tugged on my leg…thank God.
I swam up, took a deep breath, cleaned my eyes.. Another wave.
I went down again.
This happened another two times before I could finally make it to my board and paddled past the break.
Anyone who has ever been taken under by a wave knows the natural reaction is to panic. Waves are powerful. They engulf you, flip you like a rag doll. It’s disorienting, you’re helpless, you freak out.
But freaking out can be fatal.
Even the best surfers get thrown around by waves every day. They learn to go against the natural reaction to panic.
If you panic, you become short of breath, and in the ocean, breath is everything.
Surfing forces you to relax in dire situations. This daily relaxation training transfers over into life off the waves.
Most of the circumstances that cause panic and anxiety in our daily lives are not life or death.
You forget about a deadline, you’re running late to an important appointment, there’s a bill you don’t have enough money to pay.
How is panicking going to help the situation?
Wouldn’t it be easier to deal with if you were calm? Level headed? Clear?
Take a breath, and keep going.
Your Snowy Home Is, In Many Ways, Better Than This Sunny Paradise
It was a perfect day. The waves were big, almost too big. The water was warm, the sun was hot but had just enough cloud cover not to burn.
I had traveled north along the coast to make it to Ubatuba, the self-proclaimed Brazilian capital of surf. There were over 100 surfable beaches in the region, I was at the biggest one, Praia Grande.
I swam out past the break, saw another surfer and struck up a conversation.
“Where are you from?” he asked, always one of the first questions I get from slightly confused Brazilians who don’t recognize my accent.
“The US, Colorado.”
“Oh. It’s much better there,” he said. The clouds opened up. Sunlight glistened off the water and illuminated the mountains in the distance revealing the Brazilian rainforest just past the city. It was everything I thought of when I imagined paradise.
“Better than this?” I laughed as I thought of the blizzard that was passing through Denver right now.
“It’s beautiful, I know, but we work hard and we don’t make shit.”
It’s easy to forget when you’re on vacation that not everyone in that area is on vacation. We often idolize the life of the man on the beach selling coconuts. Envy its simplicity, think what we wouldn’t give to have an office as beautiful as his.
But the truth is you don’t know that man. He may very well love his life of simplicity on the beach climbing coconut trees.
Or, he may be overwhelmed with the burdens of financial struggles, problems with mental health, physical health, an unstable relationship at home, etc.
Never assume you know the difficulties or triumphs that others pass through. Neither approach them with envy nor pity.
The only window we have into the souls of others is through empathetic conversation.
At the same time, approach your own life with gratitude, not guilt.
I was grateful to be on that beach at that time. There was no place I’d rather be. I recognized the struggles of my new friend, and I empathized with him knowing I could never see things through his eyes but I respected what those eyes saw.
I also saw my position of privilege as a “rich” tourist in this beautiful area, and it humbled me.
I felt guilty. But then I analyzed what he said and my guilt turned to gratitude.
He was right, in many ways my snowy home was better than this sunny paradise.
There were more opportunities for career growth, more money to spend, less financial hardship. The system ran better for the most part, there was less corruption, roads were paved, the dollar was strong and consistent, we had more stability.
I am grateful, for the place that I come from, for the people around me, for the things that I have, for my education, for the struggles that I overcame and those I have yet to overcome.
Gratitude brings presence, and it is usually the first step towards healing, calming down, growing, and becoming fulfilled.
The Ocean Is Always Changing, Pay Attention
The waves of life are difficult and dangerous to ride, but they are our waves, we have to ride them on our own. No one can ride them for us.
— Gery Lopez
In surfing the playground changes everyday. No two waves are the same, even if you catch them on the same beach on the same day.
Surfers have to be present, listen to the waves, and be open to what they can teach us. With that said, we have to apply the lessons from yesterday to adapt to the ocean today.
But isn’t that the same in life?
You could wake up at the same time, eat the same breakfast, drive the same route to the same job everyday for years. It’s easy to get lost in the monotony.
But we can’t let that happen because if we do the waves of life will pass us by… that is until a monster set comes in and knocks us off our boards and into the chaos of the deep.
However, if we stay present we are able to recognize the difference in each day, in each moment. We will see that each day is an opportunity for growth, for learning, for discovery.