What Surfing and Pursuing a Career Have in Common

This morning I went surfing. Lucky sod, you may think, and there I can only agree.

Other than just being a lot of fun, surfing can to some extent be compared to what it is like to work and pursue a career. To master either, you have to work hard and be resilient.


Do you remember how you felt when you graduated and headed toward your first job? Before you tried it, it probably looked like a lot of fun, and not too hard. When it comes to surfing, most people think the same thing. You happily pick up a (very long and very large) board and head into the oncoming waves. – Then you realise that to be able to actually surf those waves, it takes a lot more than just initial enthusiasm.

Remember how you ran into your first challenges and obstacles at work? Once in you are in the water to go out and catch the waves, you realise several things: There are currents you don’t see before you are actually in there, and the waves can be both strong enough to topple you, and irregular enough to make you struggle to find a routine and progress. So you start out, you paddle, you are toppled over, and the salty water washes through your nostrils, all this wrapped up by the board hitting you on the head.

This is where the importance of a good manager, or a coach for surfing, comes in. One that will give you little tips and tricks that help you avoid the big mistakes in the beginning, and who helps tweak your technique as you progress. It is also someone who can be a source of inspiration, when you see what they can do and they are willing to share their knowledge to get your there aswell. The positive energy will help you pursue your goal, and help you use your full potential to get where you want. To start with, this means standing up on the board…

After a while though, you start to recognise how to make the currents work to your advantage, which waves to take, and how to work with the board. Sometimes you have to let the board carry you. Sometimes you have to force the board to stay on course and get you where you want to go, by using the energy of the water. This is when you understand your job and the work environment, and you also learn how show leadership and make the best and most of it.

On the way you will feel tired and exhausted, and your muscles ache after each hour in the water. But if you keep at it, you will find moments of triumph and thorough satisfaction, like when you manage to stand up for the first time, or when you get the hang of some little tweak that will help you gain momentum. However, if you let go and stop practising, there is no way you will progress.

Being surrounded by others is important for most of us. It may be our colleagues or our network when it comes to work, it is your group of friends when it comes to surfing. If you do it all by yourself, you can definitely learn everything but it will take you quite some time, and it will be tougher to stand up again every time you fall off the board. If you take the classes with a group of friends, you are more likely to continue even when things get tough, either because you have a commitment toward the others to be there, or because you have someone in the group who needs additional cheering on, or who cheers you on when you feel exhausted, or to celebrate with when someone in the group succeeds.

The grit you need to learn how to surf is the same as the one you need to pursue a career. To get there, you have to get in the water, paddle, and try to stand up, again and again, until you get the hang of it, regardless how many times you miss a wave or are toppled off. If you let go, you get nowhere, but if you stand up again and again after each little failure, you will start getting both results and satisfaction from what you are doing.

You will get better and better at it as you keep going, and one day you’ll be the one motivating and giving advice to others on how to make the most of it. It works for surfing, and it certainly works for a career as well.

If you want to know what competitive sport can teach us about teamwork, business success – and surpassing failure, Guardian just published a good piece on this by Sarah Kiefer, head of EMEA marketing at Ooyala.

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