The Five Be's

Life Lessons from Surfing

Just take your time – wave comes. Let the other guys go, catch another one. -Duke Kahanamoku, Legendary Hawaiian Waterman

Surfing became a part of my life later than most. Other than the one time my Dad and I rented a board in Corpus Christi, Texas to try to surf the Gulf shorebreak, I was 30 years old before I got on a surfboard. To say that learning to surf was life changing seems trite, but it’s true nonetheless. Like golf, surfing is a sport that one takes a lifetime to master and is also a metaphor for life. I can vividly remember the feeling: the smell of the ocean, the roar of the waves, the anticipation after spotting a ride-able set approaching, and the exhilaration of that first feeling of lightness as the wave picks you up and you feel like you’re gliding over the water.

Life Lessons from Surfing, I try to share the lessons I’ve learned from two decades of trying to understand the “one-ness” of ocean-surfboard-man. I am by no means an expert–I still miss more waves than I catch–but I’ve been at it long enough to distill some truths from feeling the ocean and waiting for the right moment to launch myself down the face of a wave.

The Lessons

Paddle Out Often. The first lesson for surfing is to actually go surf. You can’t learn to surf sitting on your couch watching surf videos, and you can’t lead people from behind your desk or grow personally without engagement in life. Life requires us to be in harmony with others, with ourselves, with God. That harmony only comes with engagement. In an era when it’s very easy to simply sit on the couch and interact with the world through a screen, my challenge to you is to “Paddle Out.”

Keep Your Eye on the Waves. It’s an old adage to “never turn your back on the sea,” and the reason it’s an old adage is because it’s true. The ocean isn’t predictable and it requires your full attention. The moment you start getting complacent and daydream in the lineup is the moment some big wave will come thrash you! Complacency will also rob you of opportunities to ride the perfect wave. In life, it’s the same idea. If we remain engaged in life we’ll be ready when the next opportunity presents itself. Being engaged means deliberately cultivating relationships and seeking to serve others. Figuratively keeping your eyes on the waves of life is a sure-fire formula for avoiding the “coulda-shouldas” later in life.

Choose the Right Board for the Conditions. To non-surfers all boards probably look basically the same, but even casual surfers know you match the board to the conditions. Like choosing the right board, choosing the right person as a business partner or the right opportunity is the difference between and “epic ride” and a “wipeout.” If something feels forced, then that’s a good signal to examine the situation and ensure you’re a good fit. It’s also about pursuing things in life where you thrive instead of merely survive. Metaphorically choosing the right board in life implies we have some knowledge of what we’re doing. Over the last 22 years I’ve surfed I never stopped learning–either by talking to others more experienced than I or practice. Life is the same way: never stop learning and always seek to find a place where you “fit.”

Don’t Fight the Current. It’s a cliché that surfers are some of the most laid back and easygoing people you’ll ever meet, but there’s some truth to that. I think the reason is because really serious surfers are good at reading the wind and waves while waiting for that perfect time to drop in. Like the surfer who chases every wave instead of patiently watching and waiting for the right time, the over-engaged person will be exhausted when it’s really important to be fresh. It’s easy, particularly this time of year, to become overly enthusiastic and a bit too optimistic about our own energy reserves. You can become exhausted trying to do and be too much. Spend your energy wisely. Choose where you gain energy and spend it primarily on those activities. Adults have to do things that sometimes drain our batteries, but if everything drains your batteries then you won’t be able to do anything well.

Have Fun. Surfing isn’t supposed to be work; it’s supposed to be fun. If you’re not having fun you’re probably doing it wrong. Trust me, if you’re not having fun nobody else around will either! Again, achieving in this life often requires sacrifice and hard work, but healthy people look for ways to enjoy even the hard times. It’s the reason for the dark humor of soldiers who joke about their conditions, and it’s the reason for the inside jokes people make in bad office environments. The life lesson from surfing, then, is to have a good attitude and have fun (and make sure you’re not the reason nobody is having fun!).

Surf Your Life, Don’t Get Thrashed

Life, like the ocean, can be a place of discovery and wonder or storms and danger. Engaging in our life actively and seeking harmony is the best method I’ve found for being the sort of person we were to be, and the kind of person who achieves what we want out of life.


Mickey is a consultant, author, and keynote speaker. He believes everyone can reach high levels of performance if inspired and led. During his 30 year US Air Force career Mickey commanded thousands of Airmen, managed portfolios worth billions of dollars, and worked with military, civil, and industry officials around the world. He is a Distinguished Graduate of the Eisenhower School at National Defense University in Washington DC.

Mickey is the author of seven books, including Leading Leaders: Inspiring, Empowering, and Motivating Teams, Mickey’s Rules for Leaders, and The Five Be’s: A Straighforward Guide to Life.

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