What can a surfer teach us about life?

laird_book_bigIf you did not grow up on the coast, when you think of surfers many of us think of Bode, Patrick Swayze’s character from the movie Point Break. Many people on the coast might think of him too, who knows, but when a friend recommended that I read Laird Hamilton’s book “Force of nature: mind, body, soul, and, of course, surfing,” I thought I’d give it a shot. After all, one of my core beliefs is that you can learn something from anybody. Not only is this guy one of the world’s top surfers, he managed to marry Gabriela Reese and seems to live a very happy existence doing exactly what he loves – okay, you got me, what’s on your mind Laird?

One thing I completely agree with Hamilton is that days are meant to be fun. The last thing we want to do in life is look back and think coulda, woulda, shoulda (Hamilton xi). How many of us can truly say we are happy every day of our life, or even a majority of the days? Hamilton says the idea is to become an old Wizard; to live a long and fruitful life and have family and be healthy and enjoy the ride (Hamilton xi). How many of us are just counting the days to retirement so that we can begin to enjoy your life?

Hamilton does not say that we need to sell all of our personal belongings, buy a surfboard and a Volkswagen minivan, and head for Malibu. He understands that we are all different and we need our own playbooks, and that maybe there is something in his journey that might inspire our own. (Hamilton xi)

Life is for living

While Hamilton first addresses the mind in his book, it is interesting that he immediately connects the mind to the body. When he is thinking bleak thoughts he will go out and do something physical, either clear brush or move rocks or going out for exercise (Hamilton 1). The next time you’re feeling a little listless, even if you are sitting in your cubicle, get up and take a walk. I used to have a boss who could work at his desk for hours and never leave except to go to the bathroom (well I hope he went to the bathroom at some point and didn’t just store up jars of urine underneath his desk!), but I can only work for a few hours then I have to get up and move. So, I would take walks around the parking lot just to clear my head for about 10 minutes and then I could get back to work and refocus. Well this stressed out my boss, it allowed me to clear my head. I also find by cranking out some push-ups or sit ups, taking the dog for a walk, or even a few minutes on the exercise bike have an even better effect. If you’re stuck in your head, move your body.


Tony Robbins is known for saying that “thoughts are things.” Hamilton echoes this, and says if you’re looking for a fight, then you’ll find someone who will want to fight you. If you are looking for the beauty in the world around you and you have faith things will be good, you will cultivate that in your mind and give it life (Hamilton 1). I even see this in my teaching. Sometimes you face a rough audience member or someone who just wants to let you know that they are significant too. I do have strategies to manage those situations but I find that if I look for actively look for the difficult people  I will find them. However, if I make a general assumption that I am going to do my best and expect that people will follow along, most of the time they do. And when they don’t, I already have a plan in place to help get them on board.

As the man who pioneered the practice of “tow-in,” surfing, which is where a JetSki tows in the surfer into waves they could not physically paddle into themselves, you would expect that Hamilton is someone who enjoys risk. However, he says we all need a little bit of risk, it is part of our need for adventure, it is part of our human nature (Hamilton 3). Now, you don’t have to get towed into a 40 foot wave to experience risk. You might be able to find some risk just by putting yourself in an unfamiliar situation, challenging or even scaring yourself a little bit and then overcoming that challenge,  (Hamilton 3) is truly the spice of life.

  • Fear: fear is a natural response without it we would not survive. But fear can also be used as an energy source to increase our performance. The adrenaline created when we are scared is more powerful than any drug and once you understand fear you can tap into and use it  (Hamilton 7)
  • Negative thoughts: negative thoughts are luxury. They are a way to avoid getting down to work, they are greatest inhibitors and we find when we just get out of our own way we do really well. Plus the sooner you face the work, a concept author Brian Tracy calls eating the frog, the easier it will be (Hamilton 11)
  • Instincts: trust them. Whenever something bad has happened most people will say that they have a “funny feeling,” right before the bad thing happened. Over the course of millions of years as a species we have developed an intuition because it has been necessary for survival. We need to pay more attention to our intuition. Granted, most of the time we are not operating in life-or-death situations so we tune out most of our life – but it’s important to exercise our intuition. Start by turning on your senses. Be still and stay in the moment and become aware of all of the subtleties you have not previously noticed.

When you embark on a mission to read 50 books in 50 weeks and blog about a book each week, you cannot help but notice that you are learning a few things along the way. While I have written for publication since 1995, and even started writing short stories as a kid in elementary school this ‘blogging every day’ was still fairly new to me. Normally, to get published I would have to convince an editor to let me write something, or get an assignment from one. Now I hit Publish on the blog admin page and thousands of. . . well, maybe hundreds. . . well, okay, at least six or seven people can read my thoughts. I have to challenge myself every day to not only find the time, but to be articulate, try not to get too many typos, and also be interesting and helpful. This has improved other areas of my life as well.

Hamilton talks about the joy of being a beginner, which I was when I started this process. And a beginner is what you will be when you start making changes to your life in any area. Hamilton understands that people generally do not want to try new things if they think they are going to bad at them. But you must be willing to subject yourself to failure, to bad at it and even be willing to have people laugh at you at first (Hamilton 17).

Learning is a way to continue to challenge yourself (Hamilton 17). Once you reach a level of proficiency in anything, your effort is diminished because you have adapted (Hamilton 17). When you’re a novice at something it takes more focus and more concentration and engages more of your brain and your senses. A beginners’ mind also helps keep you humble (Hamilton 17) and young. And staying young is something I am becoming more interested in the older I get. For the past five years I have taught an industry certification exam in a weeklong course format. But I have not taken such an exam in over six years. I recently took a certification exam in a slightly different industry which forced me to study the body of knowledge, just like the students to take my class. I was thrust into position of being a beginner learner once again. This helped me appreciate what my students go through in my classes, it made me more empathetic and I even made some adjustments to my teaching as a result. When we do something new and allow ourselves to be a beginner, it helps us understand what others go through when they do something that they are challenged by.

I remember in my early 30s when I first started to learn how to play hockey. I had been a very proficient snow skier growing up and could even ice-skate a little bit as a kid, but I could barely stay on top of the skates when I first started taking lessons. The first several games were incredibly embarrassing, but I was with a group whose skills were about like mine, so for most of us it became just about having fun, trying to improve, and having a drink (or two or three – just depending on the score) when the game was over. Most of us stuck with our initial team and within a couple of seasons we were our beer league champions. Even though this was just recreational hockey it felt good to challenge myself and I found that the other areas of my life actually improved during that time – even my social life improved at this time and I met my wife along the way.

When we are challenging ourselves we are fully alive and firing on all pistons, and it feels good

Maybe we could relate all of this back to Patrick Swayze’s “Bode,” when he talked about surfing being a place that you lose yourself and you find yourself. When we lose ourselves in new challenges we often find out more about our true capabilities.

Hamilton, Laird. Force of Nature: Mind, Body, Soul, And, of Course, Surfing. New York: Rodale, 2008. Print.


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