Confidence, Surfing, and Building a Company

The wave in front of me is about 4-5 feet tall, the last one had just jammed my board into my nuts, and my only thought was “fuck”

I love surfing. Now saying I can “surf” is a massive overstatement, but given the option, I’d do it every day.  When I think about it, it doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense. I love water, but never grew up near the ocean. I used to be on the swim team, but my balance has been atrocious my entire life. I can wakeboard, but not very well. Maybe I just like playing in the water, or maybe I just made a random, stubborn decision that surfing would be my sport.

Regardless, here I am on my surfboard. The wave in front of me is about 4-5 feet tall, the last one had just jammed my board into my nuts, and my only thought was “fuck”. I had conveniently placed myself precisely in the wrong position relative to the oncoming wave – I could not easily swim over the wave and was too far back to actually try catching it. This thing was just going to break right on top of me and my only option was to follow the process and leave myself in the most optimal position (post-wipeout).

The training was basically irrelevant now – I was already out of position. In these scenarios, your game plan is to continue paddling directly towards the wave and position yourself in a sort of upward dog position to point the nose of the board up, while keeping enough weight on the front in an attempt to stop yourself from getting flipped backward. Trying to swim away only makes things worse as then you can’t see when the wave is actually going to hit and you flip heels over head, leaving you even more disoriented. Getting caught parallel with the waves just makes you tumble with the wave all the way back to shore – not fun. I swam directly at the wave.

“It will feel like you are underwater for hours, but in reality its about 3-4 seconds”

But then I smiled. This wasn’t scary at all – in fact, I already knew exactly what was going to happen (I was going to flip over backward and wipe out). Was I really fucked? Would this even suck? From lots of prior practice falling, I even knew how to recover from it (similar to a boxer, hands cover neck, elbows protect face and arms defend ears). I knew I wouldn’t drown. The instructor presciently noted before we started, “It will feel like you are underwater for hours, but in reality its about 3-4 seconds.” I had tested this considerably over the past 90 minutes – it did, in fact, feel like I was going to drown, but yes I was underwater for mere seconds. I was safe. The best part: I knew there were going to be more waves. The only goal of surfing is to enjoy getting better at surfing. This fall was irrelevant, even beneficial to my goal. I was going to survive to ride another wave. I was going to have an infinite number of chances to improve and come closer to reaching my goal.

7 lessons I learned surfing and how they apply to building a business

  1. Master your technique on the smaller waves. Its natural to want to go straight for the larger waves. You have great ideas, big plans – and they need to be executed, and they need to be executed now. But the learning curve is probably steeper than you think. Build a strong base because one bad wipeout, too early in the game, could wreck your confidence or take you out for good. Gotta crawl before you can walk (and surf). Likewise, if you never start to crawl, you can certainly never hope to catch your large wave.
  2. There will always be more waves. The instructor always tells you to not look at this wave, but the one beyond it. You do not have to take every wave. If you take a “fine” wave now, how long will it take you to get repositioned for another chance? Learn to say “no” and wait for the best opportunity.
  3. Focus & never rush. This is part of the art and beauty of surfing. If you’re focused on anything other than surfing, you can’t really be surfing.
  4. “Paint the house”. You slowly progress to larger waves, you wait for the right one, you position yourself perfectly, you even stand up – but then you’re sloppy. You look like shit, you forget the details. If you don’t paint the house, did you really even build it?
  5. Protect yourself when you fall. Note this is not “if” you fall – you’re going to fall, you’re going to fail. Know when to recognize it early, position yourself as best you can, protect yourself on the way up. Live to surf another wave.
  6. Don’t get hit by other surfers. If you get hit by a surfer further out, then it’s your own fault. Be better, get out of the way, or find your own wave.
  7. You’ll be fine. It will feel like you’re drowning – you might even swallow a couple mouthfuls of saltwater. Expect it, embrace it. But remember, in the grand scheme of things, your head is only underwater for a few seconds. Get up, paddle back out, and wait for your next wave.

My head game was actually pretty weak leading up to the trip – this experience was one small step (wave?) towards fixing that. I had not taken any lessons in a few years and barely even got out to swim. Could I do it? Am I even a strong enough swimmer to surf? The fuck?! Looking back, my concern was akin to contemplating my ability to safely take a shallow bath.

My Two Asks!!

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  2. My main project is building a low-income financial education platform with the goal of profitably lowering consumer credit card debt. If you, or anyone you know, are interested, want to chat, or generally shoot the shit on anything EdTech, lending, microfinance or economic development related – please reach out!

Orientation: Today marks day 25 of my (mostly) solo, three month trip through Europe. I’m on day 2 of a short trip to Porto from my home base in Lisbon. Sitting riverside in the shade, I’m the only one without a beer at lunchtime. This will surely be changing soon.

4 Replies to “Confidence, Surfing, and Building a Company”

  1. I love how you wrote the first part like the front page of an equity research report 😉

    Keep going and great advice!

  2. Thank you for sharing this Thomas. I really like how you built it up to 7 points. I will share this w others!!

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