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10 life lessons learned from surfing – Episode 8 – Discipline

Discipline paves the way to success

All of Surfing

Last week I talked about how frustration just made everything more difficult, but this week i’ll talk about the other side of the coin.

When there is a challenge to overcome discipline–and the stubborn, quiet, patient, persistence that comes with it–is the way to success.

I don’t have a specific surfing story for this one, to me the whole of surfing IS the example. Out of all the sports I’ve ever heard of, surfing probably has the slowest learning curve.

Sure you can say “I tried surfing once” but if you only did it once, you probably never actually surfed.

You can try basketball once and get a pretty good idea for the sport, most team sports in fact, or kayaking, or hiking. Then there are others you need to try a few times to get a feel for them, like maybe snowboarding, or ice-skating. Others take some lessons, like kite surfing, or scuba diving before you can safely even get out there by yourself.

However, I think it’s safe to say that for most sports, within a week of doing it, you can say you’re doing it, not doing it like a pro, just doing it.

Surfing is a little different. To be able to actually “surf,” by which I mean ride a wave (not whitewater,) It might take months.

In order, more or less, one has to:

Learn to paddle

Learn to sit on the board without it feeling like riding a mechanical bull

Learn to read the waves

Learn to how to react to reading the waves fast enough to do act on it

Learn to position yourself on the correct part of the wave

Learn to paddle for the wave

Learn to drop in on the wave

Learn to ride the wave

Then and only then has a beginner finally ridden a wave. Take into account that, depending on conditions and the learner’s speed of learning, each of these steps can take weeks (if in the water everyday) …. sure you don’t learn them one at a time, some overlap, but mostly, if you can’t read the wave, you’re not going to be able to learn to drop in… so there needs to be a certain level of ability on the bottom tiers before you can even get experience on the higher tiers.

Not to mention the fact that when, for example, skateboarding, the conditions are mostly always the same… There’s pavement under your wheels, and you know more or less how it’s going to react.

When learning to surf, the conditions are always different. Wave lengths, heights, periods, power, and quality are pretty much never the same. Really, after two years, I still feel like I’ve only experienced a fraction of the possible and seemingly endless permutations of factors, and have yet to feel like “oh yeah, I’ve seen this before”

Just because you learned to read last week’s slow glassy waves which came in predictable sets doesn’t mean you’ll have any idea how to deal with today’s choppy, windy waves formed by two swells coming in from two different directions.

Just because you managed to paddle for and drop in on the waves this morning, when it was low tide and they were curling with just the right amount of power, doesn’t mean you have any clue what you’re doing now that the tide has changed and is high, and there’s too much water, and the waves aren’t curling at all, and you need to paddle twice as hard to catch anything at all.

When learning to surf it can often feel like a game of “one step forward, two steps back” and it can be pretty demoralizing with the wrong attitude.

So how does keep at it in order to get to the wave riding part, which most non-surfers think of when they think of surfing, even though it can take months.

For me, it’s been a complete attitude change, learning to be disciplined.

First of all, I had to learn to be patient with myself.

When I started surfing I wasn’t used to not successfully accomplishing something. I had never really put myself in situations where I needed to be persistent. Except for maybe the guitar, which I continue to fool around with even though I think I’m no good, if I tried something once and sucked at it, I left it alone.

Doing this gave me a sense of false security and confidence. I could continue to feel good about myself, thinking that I could be good at pretty much anything I wanted to be good at; but really, for most things, as soon as the rough got going I’d bail.

It wasn’t worth my ego getting bruised. Usually there were lots of reasons why that activity or job wasn’t worthy of my time, and sometimes it really wasn’t, but mostly, I just started sucking and couldn’t be bothered to stick to it and get better. I “tried a lot of things once” but just like trying surfing once, never actually did them enough to understand what they were all about.

To learn to surf I had to break past that, which was tough. “You suck at this, Jade” wasn’t exactly what my easily bruised ego wanted to hear, “but it’s ok, you’ll get better as you put in your time in the water” I would tell myself

One of the things that really got me to stick to it was the fact that I would look at local surfers and feel like they had superpowers.

I would stare at the same ocean as them, but they would randomly start paddling toward something I didn’t see and, BAM, a wave would pop up right in front of them. This was fascinating to me. “These people understand the invisible rhythm of the ocean” I remember telling friends “That is amazing! I want that

Discipline turns a hobby into an art. 

These superpowers surfers have, the magic of knowing the ocean intimately, comes from having to work for something, and it makes that thing yours. The difference between an experienced surfer and a beginner is clear, you can’t get out there and fake being good at it, you have to have put in your time in the water.

It’s the same if you’re trying to play an instrument, be a good photographer, write a good essay, or just be good at your job, waterer that is.

If anyone could just try it and get it done, it wouldn’t be special, we would all be replaceable. The fact that there are things that we do as people repetitively, until we know it intimately, allows us to put our flair into it, allows us to get into our flow, it makes it ours, it makes it magic, and it makes it art.

Being patient with myself made me patient with others. 

Slowly as I learned more and more to dim down my 5-year-old tantrums of frustration whenever I felt defeated, or just not good enough, I learned to love myself in a different way. I used to have a meter stick, and measure myself against it, and that meter stick was usually “how good am I at this right now” not “how hard am I trying at this” or “do I have the right attitude with regards to this” or “what factors in my life right now are keeping me from achieving this and how do I identify them, then work through them to get better at this?”

I started developing a deeper sense of self-acceptance, a little bit less superficial, a little harder to dislodge. Self-compassion maybe?

By cutting myself some slack I started seeing the people around me differently too. Their meter sticks changed. I started thinking about all of the invisible factors in their lives that they were having a hard time identifying and working through, and cutting them some slack, developing a deeper sense of human compassion.

I’m not there yet. For the most part people still piss me off a lot, so I guess I have deeper levels of self-love to reach still.

Now when people piss me off, instead of just putting them in the “asshole box” I think about where I am with myself, and why their actions so deeply affected me. I take a time-out to think about what my external emotions reflect about my internal emotions. It’s a much harder discipline than learning how to surf. One I’m far from being able to saying I’ve successfully accomplished.

In Conclusion:

Because I was so obsessed with trying to own the superpower of ocean-speak I tricked myself into discipline.

Discipline not only allowed me to get closer to my goal (the very selfish goal of acquiring the magical skills of communing with nature) but allowed me to see myself through a new compassionate and patient lens, which in turn allowed me to inch closer to a goal I didn’t even know I had, to learn the not so selfish magical skills of communing with my fellow man.

Discipline is a way to make your life a bit simpler.. and that’s we’ll be really getting into in next week’s episode of 10 life lessons I learned from surfing.


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