A recent early morning hike in Malibu, California, led me to a beach, where I sat on a rock and watched surfers. I marveled at these courageous men and women who woke before dawn, endured freezing water, paddled through barreling waves, and even risked shark attacks, all for the sake of, maybe, catching an epic ride.
After about 15 minutes, it was easy to tell the surfers apart by their style of surfing, their handling of the board, their skill, and their playfulness.
What really struck me though, was what they had in common. No matter how good, how experienced, how graceful they were on the wave, every surfer ended their ride in precisely the same way: By falling.
Some had fun with their fall, while others tried desperately to avoid it. And not all falls were failures — some fell into the water only when their wave fizzled and their ride ended.
But here’s what I found most interesting: The only difference between a failure and a fizzle was the element of surprise. In all cases, the surfer ends up in the water. There’s no other possible way to wrap up a ride.
That got me thinking: What if we all lived life like a surfer on a wave?
The answer that kept coming to me was that we would take more risks.
That difficult conversation with your boss (or employee, or colleague, or partner, or spouse) that you’ve been avoiding? You’d initiate it.
That proposal (or article, or book, or email) you’ve been putting off? You’d start it.
That new business (or product, or sales strategy, or investment) you’ve been overanalyzing? You’d follow through.
And when you fell — because if you take risks, you will fall — you’d get back on the board and paddle back into the surf. That’s what every single one of the surfers did.
So why don’t we live life that way? Why don’t we accept falling — even if it’s a failure — as part of the ride?
Because we’re afraid of feeling.
Think about it: In all those situations, our greatest fear is that we will feel something unpleasant.
What if you have that scary conversation you’ve been avoiding and it ends the relationship? It would hurt.
What if you follow through on the business idea and lose money? It would feel terrible.
What if you submitted the proposal and you were rejected? It would feel awful.
Here’s the thing: More often than not, our fear doesn’t help us avoid the feelings; it simply subjects us to them for an agonizingly long time. We feel the suffering of procrastination, or the frustration of a stuck relationship. I know partnerships that drag along painfully for years because no one is willing to speak about the elephant in the room. Taking risks, and falling, is not something to avoid. It’s something to cultivate. But how?
Which you get by taking risks, feeling whatever you end up feeling, recognizing that it didn’t kill you, and then getting on the board and paddling back into the surf.
Have that difficult conversation. Listen without defensiveness when your colleague criticizes you. Name the elephant in the room. Get rejected.
And feel it all. Feel the anticipation of the risk. Feel the pre-risk cringe. Then, during the risk, and after, take a deep breath and feel that too.
You’ll become familiar with those feelings and, believe it or not, you’ll start to enjoy them. Even the ones you think of as unpleasant. Because feeling is what tells you you’re alive.
You know that sensation you get after you’ve done or said something weird or awkward? How you turn around and kind of wince in embarrassment? Next time that happens, take a moment to really feel it.
When you do, you’ll realize it’s not so bad. Maybe you’ll admit, “I don’t know why I just said that,” and apologize. Then maybe you’ll both laugh it off. Or maybe you’ll get into that conversation you’ve been avoiding for years but you know you need to have.
Soon, you won’t fear feeling. You’ll pursue it like those courageous early morning surfers. You’ll wake up before dawn and dive into those scary conversations and difficult proposals. You’ll take the risks that once scared you. And you’ll fall; sometimes you’ll even fail.
Then you’ll get up and do it again.
Originally published at the Harvard Business Review
Thanks Peter! I’ll read this soon.
It took me a moment, but LOL!
I went skiing for the first time this year and noticed the same practice amongst snowboarders. According to friend of mine that took snowboarding lessons they are taught to ‘stop’ by falling on their butts or hands. I’m guessing some falls hurt more then others, but that’s true of life too. So Cowabunga dude!
There is risk… my daughter tried snowboarding and broke both wrists costing us $4000 plus time and energy to take her to the doctor, help her with daily tasks, etc. We all survived… I guess, but having a financial hit is not the greatest and depending on how many times you take a risk and how often… there can be decisions that are just simply bad and if you make enough bad decisions…. those people are the ones on the streets. There is a fine line between taking risks and making smart decisions about the consequences of those risks.
I dont know why I am bothering to comment, but I am. I am very sure you meant nothing when you said, “if you make enough bad decisions. . . those people are the ones on the streets.” But it was worded badly. I was on the streets and I didnt make bad decisions, I got sick. The vast majority of financial ruin in the US – bankruptcy, forclosure, homelessness – is caused by an illness or injury of the person, or a family member. I know you likely meant, “make enough bad decisions and you could end up on the streets”. That is so very true. You must temper your risk taking.
Eish Peter, where is the like button?
Hi Peter ! Your surfers certainly have a lot in common with
stock and commodity traders where the ability to recognize
losing trades and move on to the next one unencumbered by
regrets or negative emotions makes the difference between
success or failure.
I agree with your thoughts. I should list down the things that always carries so much space in the brain. Then work one by one.
May be I shall add one more which I am practicing and giving good results most of the time. I started telling openly to the colleague or family members that we have some different views and I want to spend one hour to discuss in detail. I make it a point to tell few days in advance before we open this subject. This few days helps a lot to really think over carefully for both of us and come to a quick conclusion. There are cases that we are in same side.
A great read, as always, and at an opportune moment. I had the conversation and I’m feeling the gut wrenching horridness of it all, but now I’m going to embrace it and move on through.
Loved this article. I going to share it with my friends. I have been going to start my own business now for four years and haven’t done for all the reasons listed. Today I downloaded the paperwork and I’m on my way!
Amazing how you pick simple situations in life and translate them into such meaningful message ! Loved this one.
A lovely post, as always. For those of us with a lifetime habit of fearing failure, it’s hard to believe that “soon, you won’t fear feeling.” But I’ll keep trying.
I was hoping you’d do more with the two kinds of falling you observed in the surfers — fizzling and failing. What are their separate analogs in the arena of risk-taking?
I love the analogy. Merely acknowledging our feelings, positive or negative makes us grow as a person. Fear of failure is what holds us back. In my experiences, I have seen that more often than not, the failure itself is not as bad as the fear of it.
Excellent post, Peter. Reminds me of the concept that, in a way, we are all surfers. We search for the perfect wave, and if we can keep that as the goal that we want to achieve, who cares if we fail.
Awesome post Peter!
I really love the example that you took to explain the antidote to procrastination. I have seen people surfing but never realized the lesson out of it until you pointed it out.
I never thought I would ever comment on someone’s blog before this but I have to admit that I look forward to your emails. They are too few and far between. Christine
Great article Peter. I think you hit on the root cause issue here. When in our development did we stop feeling OK to try something new and fall down? Little kids do it all the time.
Think it also relates to control. Those surfers become a willing participant in something they have no control over. Then then get back up and do it again good ride or not. Literally going along with the flow good or bad. Its out of their control and they can choose to enjoy the ride or give up and stay safe on land. Such an excellent analogy for getting over the clenches of procratination and the fear of feeling. Excellent. Thank you for the article!
Great article and insight Peter…and good comment regarding the necessary acceptance of a lack of ultimate control Kristen!
Peter’s analogy of the surfers’ and their ‘falls’ or ‘fizzles’ together with your observation highlighting the inherent uncertainty of life itself (the ocean) strengthened the message for me. We can either be out there in the unpredictable but awe-inspiring ocean of life, working on our rides, falling at times, fizzling at others…..or we can sit on the shore ‘wishing for more’. …Thanks so much :-)
Thanks x share this, very encouraging and true we all most learn to feel and enjoy life that is not only made of triumps but failures too that show us that we all can do all better the next time and never give up :D
Love the sentiment. Being willing to really be awful at something is the only way you’ll become good at anything. If you’re good at it to begin with, there’s not as much satisfaction when you finally master it… whatever it is. You don’t know what you don’t know until you fail at it. Then you can fix it. Great post. Thanks!
Love the post and the call to risk even in the face of failure. There’s a greek word ‘hupago’ that means to lead yourself under, that you intentionally and whole-heartedly go into the hard circumstance. After the call to love others, Jesus says that “I have chosen you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit. . . ” That word ‘go’ is the word ‘hupago’, and the challenge is that loving others is often found in the hard circumstance and difficulty, but so is the fruit that comes from it.
This is a great article. Very inspiring.
This is a great article. Very inspiring and uplifting.
Thank you for this article, it’s awesome! Buying the book as well.
Wishing you all the best,
Peter, you write well-embellished articles, which I enjoy, not least this particular one on procrastination.
I was a little taken aback, though, with your conclusion that we procrastinate and eschew risk-taking because we’re afraid of feeling. I’m of the view that avoiding risks sometimes is done for pragmatic reasons, not necessarily because of the unpleasant feelings that accompany such risk-taking.
I’m aware that as we “surf” through life, certain situations will breed procrastination because of the fear of feeling. However, at times the cost of going through with a certain risk should it fail may make it difficult to get up. For instance, you’d have blown your capital, which may take years to rebuild.
This is in line with what Laura has said above. Her daughter broke both wrists while snowboarding, costing them $4000 plus time and energy to take her to the doctor, help her with daily tasks, e.t.c. (my heart goes out to Laura, her daughter, and her family). The cumulative cost of taking risks of this nature (in the actual surfing world) is more than a feeling. It can be life-changing, sometimes irreparably.
I read one advert in the Time magazine, which said you need to stare at risk in the face, and let risk blink first. It’s a powerful statement, that.
In conclusion, I’m not a proponent of procrastination. Life demands that you take risks, but you must solidify your plans to minimize the risk of failure, especially if it’s a case of putting your eggs in one basket. The decision-maker, though, must not agonize over this process, taking an eternity.
Peter, Thanks for this great article!
In response to Owen and Laura, I think failures and accidents are a bit different things. Also on risk side, indeed, some risks are too big, and might have too big consequences: an unexperimented surfer trying to surf Jaw or Teahuppo big waves would also end-up in troubles…
As everyone understood, Peter’s point was to build the analogy between surfers attitude and the one we shall have to avoid procrastination, “in a given risk context”.
Indeed, how many times do we postpone things to later on, just because we are afraid to fail or fall, without even realizing this would not kill us or put our financials at “deadly” risk?
The surfers attitude simply demonstrates that, for a given wave size that he knows he can manage thanks to his skills and experience, he keeps on trying again and again, looking for the achievement. And he is not afraid at all to fall; he is even fully conscious this will happen…
Better to drive it, than suffer it!
Dear Peter .\
Thanks for an interesting article.
Procrastination dynamics are basicly those of an inner conflict.
This might also be of totally different nature.
In the other case which appears when no fear is evident or risk,
One is actually confronting “old inner Parent injunctions” like: “Work hard”, “Please others” etc.,
From his or her “Inner Child”.
Such conflicts are not treated or resolved by shear will-power.
In such cases professional intervention is adviced.
Thanks Peter for the article & one thing from my experience I can say that if we don’t do anything , there is no risk of failure. That’s a pure safe play in life but the flip side of this ‘No Action’ is “No Return , rather No Learning’ .
We as human’s try as much as we want to calculate all the possibilities of arriving at the right solution each time , we never want to keep the Plan B in mind or even admit there has been a mistake in the Plan A. My way to looking at all this is to take any decision chin-up , face the consequences , learn from the mistakes & correct it & move on.
Great article! It really ties well into some of the other articles you have written. I recently got the opportunity to practice some of what you write. I truly believe your words have set me free and will eventually lead me to have more honest and stronger relationships in the future!
Wise words and great analogy. Jjst discovered you and your website. Thanks for sharing your insight, knowledge and experience.
Facing your fears like looking in the mirror. I envy your location and the time to sit and watch. Better a bad day on the water than a good day in the office
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What a lovely article to inspire! I am going to choose to ride my waves playfully and enjoy the experience.
Really enjoyed this article – it resonated with me especially because I’ve been working on my fear of flying. About broken wrists and such, it’s true – it’s definitely possible that a risk will NOT be worth while. But staying stuck in fear seems to me a much worse eventuality. I’m finding that when I allow myself to fully accept fear, it moves through me. Love it!
Great article. Great visuals. Thanks for sharing an “aha” moment with us that resonates with probably most of us. Why we always revert to protective mode is probably for a myriad of reasons that go way back into our childhood, but pushing past that into taking the risk instead of always wondering “what if” is so freeing. I always enjoy getting your posts. Thanks again.
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