I’m a kook.
Ain’t no two ways about it.
A little while back, I let go of my board in the water, dipped my head under and, not realizing another wave was coming, had my board came back and hit me directly in the head:
So I don’t think I write what I am about to write because I’m an incredible surfer with all sorts of credibility. Like I said, I’m a kook.
But I’m a kook who thinks about things and writes them down and tries to share what he thinks about with other people. So while I’m not the most qualified, I am the one who is here, writing.
This sport has given me so much, and I would like to take what it has given me and maybe help someone else.
When I arrived in Mexico in the summer of 2019, I was depressed. I was never diagnosed with depression, nor am I a mental health expert, so it’s possible what I felt was something else entirely.
All I know was how I felt, and it wasn’t good.
I was rarely excited, disinterested with most of the world around. I found problems before opportunities and complaints before appreciation.
I had little enthusiasm for new experiences or adventures, no appreciation for the fact that I was alive. Alive! With working eyes and limbs and a brain and the ability to do so much each day.
Much of what once excited me no longer did. I was no longer interested in going out to new restaurants and bars with friends. I became tired of meeting new people. Even travel lost its luster. The feeling of wonder, of standing in the middle of a foreign world and feeling overwhelmed with awe that you, yes you!, get to be here, no longer came to me.
Nothing major had happened to bring about these feelings. I hadn’t lost a parent. I wasn’t robbed at gunpoint. I wasn’t unemployed. There was nothing I could point to and say “This, this is why I want to spend most of my time in my apartment watching Netflix.”
I suppose this is part of what makes depression so frustrating. You know you’re off, but you can’t put your finger on why exactly. And because there isn’t an obvious source for your pain, it’s hard to understand your feelings and move on.
It didn’t help that, on paper, my life was a literal dream. That I was traveling the world, working wherever I wanted, whenever I wanted. That I had backpacked Europe with my younger sister and traveled to Peru with a good friend and spent a lazy Christmas holiday on a remote Caribbean island off the coast of Colombia with my ex-girlfriend.
I wish life had been hard. At least then I would have had an excuse to such a bitch. It killed me to know that so much life, so many incredible opportunities, were being wasted on me. That no matter how much I tried to cultivate appreciation — whether through conversation or journaling — and no matter how far I went or what I did or who I was with, I rarely felt joy.
I started to lose hope. Hope in the opportunity of each day and that one day, I might not be such a bore anymore.
I knew I needed a reset. And no matter how clouded my thinking got, one decision remained crystal clear in my mind:
I needed to get to the ocean.
Initially, I took up surfing out of vanity.
I was on my digital nomad “do-the-world” tour and learning to surf was just another box for me to check. I knew nothing of surfing. I didn’t know there were different styles and different boards for different waves. All I cared about was catching waves and looking cool.
I thought if people back home saw photos of me surfing, maybe it would validate my nomadic life to them. And maybe this validation would help me find validation in a lifestyle I had seriously started to question. Maybe my ex in Colombia would want me back. And maybe, just maybe, if these things happened, I would be happy again.
Then I tried to surf.
My friend Joel stood up the first wave time he ever paddled for a wave. It took me weeks to do this. My first months surfing, I looked like a character from of a surfing comic created to teach children how NOT to surf.
“Here kids… see, this is why you want to stay low.”
“And see here, this is why you don’t want to paddle for every wave.”
I looked like a tube man, you know, the giant blow-up men you see in front of car lots, on a 10 foot board flaying myself across the Mexican Pacific coast.
I fell and I fell and I fell.
But in the process of falling, I fell in love with the sport. I kept at it, and eventually I got better. And as I did, a funny thing happened.
Learning to surf helped teach me, once again, how to live.
1) If it is to be, it is up to me
“As well search for an eagle’s nest on the bed of the ocean, as search for happiness in the world outside of you.”
– Anthony de Mello
My late grandfather had a favorite phrase he loved to tell me and my cousins. 10 words, each no longer than two letters, and the wisdom of the world inside those ten small words.
If it is to be, it is up to me.
My first few months in the water were a disaster. I spent most of my time inside the break, getting tossed by waves and tasting all the ocean had to offer. For anyone who doesn’t know what the break is, it’s the point in the ocean where the waves break. If you’re “inside” the break, you’re between the breaking wave and the shore. This is the worst place for a surfer to be.
I spent my 32nd birthday learning how to pull sea urchin spines from my feet and had a week where my constant rolling in the water gave me vertigo.
I was also in the way, narrowly dodging other surfers on a seemingly daily basis. Forget catching waves, I was just trying to not get hurt.
In the rare instances I caught waves, I either:
a) fell off my board
b) rode it straight to the shore, standing as if I had to take a dump standing up
I had plenty of blame to go around for my struggles. I blamed the other surfers. The other surfers who took all the waves and dropped in on me and came so close to hitting me. I blamed my board. My giant, clunky, 11 foot board that paddled like a 1971 Cadillac.
I used my height as an excuse. It complained that it wasn’t fair how hard surfing was for tall people.
I even got frustrated with the ocean. With the stupid, weak-ass waves that couldn’t generate enough force to catch my massive board.
Eventually, I snapped out of this. My desire to improve outweighed my desire to fight with the world and I started looking for ways to change my approach.
I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t in good enough shape. I started to train with a local surf pro. We ran hills at 2PM in the middle of the August heat. My first day, I threw up. But my endurance improved, and as it did, so too did my ability to paddle and get beyond the break.
I paid closer attention in the water. I got better at spotting the point, which helped me predict where other surfers would take off, and, in turn, helped me avoid getting my head cut off.
As I spent less time drinking seawater and dodging surfers, I found more time to catch waves. I still fell a lot, but I stood up from time to time. Once or twice, I even had the blissful privilege of riding down the line on a wave as it crested towards the shore.
By blaming my sucky surfing skills on things outside myself, I created a situation in which those things would also be responsible for my getting better. Which was a ridiculous position to be in. Because the other surfers weren’t going to change. They weren’t going to magically wake up and want to give me waves. The water wasn’t going to change either. It all was what it was.
The more responsibility I took for getting better, the better I got.
Being humbled in the water helped to humble me out of it. It helped me to see that maybe, just like with surfing, it was me, and not the world, who was off.
When you’re down, there is a tendency to play the victim. To blame the world and your friends and your bad luck. To create external causes for your pain. It’s easier this way. External causes give us external excuses which allow us to avoid facing internal pain.
In the show “Justified” there is a great scene in which the main character, Raylan Givens is talking to an informant. Givens tells the informant that “If you wake up and bump into an asshole, you bumped into an asshole. If you wake up and all day long you bump into assholes, you’re the asshole.”
As accepted responsibility for my depression, I saw how I was, to quote Givens, the “asshole.” I realized how often I was at ends with other people — friends, family members, clients — and how often I blamed the world for not being how I wanted them to be.
Accepting responsibility for my feelings allowed me to get to the next step, which was beginning to understand why I felt this way.
I didn’t get better right away. No, no. Acceptance was easy. Finding out why is the real bitch.
But at least I had a plan.
I just kept living and kept surfing. And as I did, I learned lesson #2, which helped me to stop getting caught, both in the break and inside my head.
2) The more you try, the harder it becomes
“What you seek is seeking you.”
I so desperately wanted to improve as a surfer. I wanted to ride down the line and show all the locals who smirked at me and my giant board that I could do it. But I was rarely given a chance. Sayulita is a crowded point full of territorial local surfers. Surfing here is kind of like trying to be the first person through the door at Walmart on Black Friday.
I decided to make up for a lack of quality waves with quantity. I paddle for anything I could, even waves other surfers wouldn’t even turn their boards at. I naively thought I, the worst surfer in the water, would find a way to ride the waves they didn’t want.
But the more waves I paddled for, the more difficult surfing became. I would paddle for a wave, barely miss it, turn around and realize that I was, yet again, caught inside the break.
The more I sought improvement, the more improvement alluded me.
“The best way to be proactive is from a relaxed state.”
This piece of advice came from my surf-trainer Ryan one morning. To this day, it is some of the best advice I’ve ever received.
As I watched I the really good surfers, I noticed how calm they were. How patient and selective they were about the waves they took. They weren’t tense or stressed about the waves they needed to catch and the surfer they needed to become. They sat, waited and calmly floated into the waves they wanted.
I focused on being more patient in the water, on calming my mind when it screamed “paddle, paddle, paddle.”
Strangely, the less I did, the more waves I caught. I spent less time in the break, which helped me conserve energy and also gave me more time to notice little opportunities to sneak into good waves other surfers didn’t want or weren’t in position to take.
Out of the water, I saw how, like surfing, the harder I tried, the more difficult things became.
By mentally creating more for myself to do and be, I closed myself off to so much off life. I once turned down an invitation to a beach party with some Argentinian girls so that I could journal. Because surely journaling contained more inner happiness than actually being happy.
My initial response to feeling depressed was to fix it. To journal and meditate and exercise incessantly. The more I did these things, the better I would feel right? Wrong.
This not only exhausted me, but it caused me incredible amounts of frustration.
By seeking so eagerly to feel better, I actually distanced myself from happiness.
This is a truism for life. Seek beauty, and you will become acutely aware of how ugly you are. Seek success, the more unsuccessful you will feel. Seek love and you will instantly become unattractive to other people.
Part of getting wiser is learning to not seek, but wait. To relax and allow things to come to you.
Relaxing in the water helped me to relax out of it and finally give myself grace from needing to be better.
I quit making mental lists of things I needed to do each day. I took things one day at a time. If I wanted to take a nap, I took it. If I wanted to wake up and surf at 6AM, I did. If I didn’t, I didn’t. I accepted that if I was going to proactively work on getting better, I needed to do so from a relaxed state.
I reminded myself of lesson #3…
3) You’re not in control
“Change is the only constant in life.”
Sunrise and sunset. High tide and low. Spring, fall, winter and summer. Every part of who we are and the world around us is changing. And most of the time, we have very little control over the changes.
Surfing is a masterclass in letting go of control. For starters, there is the whole notion of when you surf. You don’t surf when you want. You surf when the gods give you swell.
Then there is the power of the water. It only takes one fall, one broken board, to realize you are playing on the ocean’s terms:
Wave by wave, set by set, hour by hour, the water is changing. Changes in the current move the takeoff point. Changes in the tide change the shape and force and the way in which the waves break. You must adapt to these changes as they happen.
Just as you cannot choose when you will surf, you cannot choose how to ride the waves you are given. You have to ride the wave as it allows you to ride it. It may close out. It may require a bottom turn. It may require you to ride the lip. You must remain fluid, ready to respond as necessary.
We’d like to think we’re in control of our lives. We even have routines and working structures that help create the illusion we are. But in reality, our lives are like large pieces of glass being carried by two monkeys on a motorcycle. It’s a delicate balancing act that can come crashing down at any moment.
Surfing helped me learn to surrender, both in the water and out of it.
I slowly let go of my expectations and stopped creating parameters for when I could be happy or when I could have exhilarating experiences. I tried to live with the moments I was given, as they were given to me.
I trusted others to make decisions and set the plans. I said yes, even when my mind was screaming no.
I was routinely surprised by life, by how well things always worked out and how I often found exactly what I was looking for, just by doing nothing at all.
Inspiration for my book? Found that over cigarettes with a girl at a party. Romance? Found that during a random urge to get pizza. A new apartment in Sayulita? Met a girl at a bar.
The more I let go of control, the less anxious I felt and the more things worked out in my favor.
Just as I stopped wasting energy paddling through the break in the water, I similarly stopped wasted mental energy being upset when my plans didn’t work out or when people didn’t act in accordance with how I wanted them to. I took the waves as they came and rode them as best I could.
And as I did, I realized it’s important to…
4) Pay attention to the patterns
Everything we learn is taught through patterns.
Reason above the a understand there that you this not sentence is the one and.
There is a reason that you understand this sentence and not the one above.
The words in the two sentences are the same. So why did one sentence make sense and the other sound like the ramblings of a drunk meth addict? Because I used the words in a pattern your brain was able to recognize and understand.
Patterns of sounds make words, patterns of words make sentences, patterns of sentences make thoughts.
There are only ten numerical symbols found on a computer keyboard:
0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9
Every number in existence contains these ten symbols. We learn these 10 symbols and the quantities for each. We then learn patterns for how to create bigger numbers using the same symbols.
We were shown, for example, that once you got to 9, you started the sequence over again, this time with a 1 in front of every number:
10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19
And that after you got to 19, you started the sequence again, this time with a 2 in front of every number:
20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29
The world’s best and brightest have a single common skill.
The best businessmen recognize patterns in the market and capitalize. The best scientists conduct various experiments, recognize patterns among them and correct course to come up with new hypothesis’. As author David Epstein writes in his New York Times best-selling book Range, “elite athletes seem to have superhuman reflexes is that they recognize patterns of ball or body movements that tell them what’s happening before it happens.”
Surfing is all about pattern recognition. You have to pay attention for patterns in how waves break.
Will it close out? Are you too far inside? What are the time intervals between sets? How do changes in the tide effect where you need to paddle in order to catch waves?
How many waves are in a set. Is it three or is it five? Are the biggest waves at the beginning of the set or at the end? Is there a pattern for when the most rideable waves come?
You have to watch the water and notice subtle things, like how right before a great longboard wave, the water will dip down and pull to the left before rising up and showing its face. Or how sometimes the best waves come right after a massive clear-out wave.
Cultivating my pattern recognition skills helped me to spot patterns in my behaviors outside of the water.
I saw how I had a habit of creating ideas about how situations, before they happened. I would decide not to go out, because I knew in my mind how things were going to play out, before they even happened.
I noticed how I used my writing and my book project as excuses to avoid social situations. How “focus” and “drive” became blankets to cover social anxiety.
I saw how often I turned to marijuana when I was nervous or stressed. How it had become a crutch I leaned on, but did not need.
I noticed patterns in the times I felt happiness. In the things I did and the people I was with.
Seeing all of this gave me ideas for how to change. Which is important because…
5) To improve, you must change
“To improve is to change, to perfect is to change often.”
– Winston Churchill
“The best way to get better at surfing is to change. Ride different breaks, go frontside, go backside, ride different boards, do as many different things as possible.”
This advice came to me from my friend Scott, when we were out surfing one morning. And he was right. Every time I rode a friend’s board or visited a new break or tried riding a different style, I came back a better surfer.
It makes sense. No matter how you want to grow, change is what our bodies respond to best. If you do the same exercises over and over, you’ll plateau. Muscle growth requires change.
Researchers who study learning call this interleaving, which is the process of taking breaks while learning something to apply different studying techniques or maybe even study something altogether different — in order to help strengthen long-term learning.
As I saw the effect change had with my surfing skills, I applied it in my personal life.
Instead of moving to a new country, I stayed in one. I set up roots in Mexico and focused on building community.
Instead of spending only a month back home each year with my family, I spent three.
Instead of smoking every day, I went 30 days without smoking weed or drinking.
As I changed, I felt better. I re-discovered parts of myself I had lost. I became clearer mentally. And I remembered…
6) Doubt kills
“Action breeds confidence. Inaction breeds doubt and fear.”
– Dale Carnegie
I was afraid to surf. Still am. Still get butterflies before paddling out for a big swell. It’s not the water that bothered me, but the drop-in.
For a brief instant, you, a moving thing, must separate yourself from another moving thing that is being pushed by a third, even more powerful moving thing, and stand up.
It’s a very precarious position to be in.
You have a very small window to stand up. Wait too long, and the wave will close out and pass you by. You must pop up instantly, without thinking.
Eventually, I learned to take a deep breath, say “fuck it” and pop up as fast as I could. The bolder I became, the more I reaped from the water. I rode bigger waves with longer rides that gave me more and more surfing ecstasy.
Life’s a lot like this. You cannot think. It’s better to do.
I applied my pop-up mentality to my life.
Instead of waking up and looking at the surf report and debating whether to surf, I just woke up and surfed. Instead of thinking about all the things I had to do for work, I just did them. Instead of wondering if I should eat mushrooms, I just ate them. Instead of debating whether to book flights to visit friends, I just booked them.
The more I popped up, the more benefits I reaped from life. I felt better. I was more productive. I had more fun. I went on awesome vacations with people I loved and laughed more.
I think most of the time, it is our thoughts that prevent us from feeling joy. From seeing all the good that exists in the 80.
What’s the 80?
Well that brings me to lesson #7.
7) Capitalize on the 20 and find ways to enjoy the 80
You might have heard of the 80/20 rule. It is also known as Pareto’s Law, named after Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, the man who first noticed this phenomenon.
Basically, Pareto’s Law states that 80% of outcomes will come from 20% of causes. 80% of your profits will come from 20% of you clients. 80% of your problems from 20% of your friends. The planet is 80% water and 20% land. 80% of the world’s population live in 20% of our countries. 20% of our crops yield 80% of the world’s food.
Surfing is the ultimate 80/20 sport. 80% of your time in the water will be spent paddling through the break or sitting around waiting for waves. 20% will be spent actually surfing.
If you love surfing, it’s because you learn to love the 80% of the time when you’re not on your board. You enjoy paddling over a massive wave and having the water slaps you in the face. You enjoy the sunrises and the sunsets and the small talk with other surfers between sets. You marvel at how the pelicans swoop down and glide over waves as they roll through and crest.
Like surfing, 80% of life is pretty uneventful. It is routines and work and paying bills. Only about 20% of our lives will be truly noteworthy and exhilarating.
True happiness isn’t found by constantly replicating the exhilaration of the 20, but rather but learning to appreciate the 80.
This was the lesson that pulled me from the depths.
Enjoy life. All of it.
Life, at least the version we know, is the most interesting game on the planet, and we get to play.
We get to laugh and cry and love. We get to taste delicious foods and create things and use eyes better than any camera ever invented to watch beautiful sunsets containing colors that don’t even have a name. We get to run and jump and swim in the ocean. We get to love.
We get to surf, to ride all of life’s waves, good and bad.
When I think back on what I’ve learned over the past 18 months, it makes sense how much surfing helped me emotionally. Life, for the most part, is water. We are it and it is us. And since surfing is learning to ride water in one of its most alive states, it is fitting the lessons we learn in the water translate to how we ride the waves of life.
I still don’t know much. Like I said in the beginning, I’m a kook. Both in the water and out. All I try to do is remember the final lesson that surfing taught me:
You don’t know.
When you stand on the shore and look out into the break, you don’t know how the waves will be or if it’ll be packed or how many you’ll catch or if you’ll get tossed or if you’ll have the wave of your life.
You just gotta paddle out anyways.
Thanks for sharing your path with us. And thanks for the reminder that “if it is to be, it is up to me”. I can remember being annoyed when Dad would say that because, well, what about all those other people and the things that they are doing that is affecting this? Personal responsibility is at the core of all of this. I love being connected to you from afar and part of that connection is you are sharing your deepest thoughts rather than just sending a photo of what you’ve been doing. Sending you love from the mountains of North Carolina…