November 4, 2020

Surfing the waves of innovation

My take on the transferrable skills from surfing to life and innovation.

Yesterday I came about a quote on LinkedIn which triggered me.

"You can't stop the waves... but you can learn to surf!"

One of the first reactions to the post was a reference to Rik Vera's article "Why the best innovators have a surfer’s mindset".  I love to read about sports and I'm inspired by books like Scott Jureks 'Eat and run' about running gnarly ultramarathons, or like Phil Jacksons 'Sacred hoops' about his spiritual aproach to coaching basketball or closer to home Kim Hertogs small book 'How I started surfing'. As a philosopher I love transferrable skills that you can take from one field and apply them in another. I was curious to read Vera's take on applying the skills of surfing to innovation.

As a surfer I can assure you that learning how to surf is not at all easy, depending on the height and power of the waves you may be in well over your head - literally - before you even know what hit you. A quick calculation learns us that a volume of 1 m³ of water weighs 1.000kg, now imagine a wave of 3m crashing on your head, let alone a wave of 25m. You better get comfortable holding your breath and staying calm while trying to find out which side is up. When you're in the water almost drowning when you come to the conclusion you can't stop the waves, that might be a bit late.

I agree with Vera that surfing is a suitable metaphore for innovation, but the case of surfing Nazaré is so far from the daily reality of almost any surfer that in this case the metaphore quickly seems far-fetched. To know when to go into the water, and when to check your ego and stay on the beach is the first decision you have to make if you're looking at the waves. And in the case of Nazaré this decision is quite simple: unless you have been training for years to surf this ginormous mutant wave, stay out. Don't put yourself or, even worse, the people who will try to save your ass in danger.

I have had mixed feelings about using sports as a metaphore for business for a long time. The main reason is that in sports the players are playing a finite game with a clear set of rules. A game has a certain duration, you know how to win, the playing field is clear. In the example Vera uses in his article the goal is to surf the biggest possible wave at Nazaré on a certain day. Business is different, you don't know how long you will have to perform, it's not always clear how you can win, and apart from the legal framework there is no playing field.

When we look at sports as the activity instead of the competion, the perspective shifts. Looking at the skills and attitudes necessary to perform a sport we could try to identify aspects that transfer from the sport to other aspects of life and business. Maybe that's why I am attracted to sports where competition for me is secondary to giving everything you've got on my level (Crossfit), finishing a hard event together (trailrunning) or simply fun (surfing).

But the point of Amelies post was of course not to actually go out and surf. It's a nice metafore that stems from Jon Kabat-Zinn who thought mindfullness to reduce stress, fear, pain and chronical disease. In this context I know what is meant, and it speaks to me.

When I would suggest a couple of skills that transfer from surfing those would be:

  • Know yourself. Surfing is physically demanding, work on your strenghts, and patch your weaknessess. For me in the context of surfing this means keep my power and stamina and work on flexibility and explosivity. All of which I can achieve by going to the crossfit workouts regularly.
  • Look for ways to practice. The waves are different every time you hit the surf. The wind, sandbanks and swell are never the same. This makes is very hard to practice in the water. Of all the time you invest in surfing you'll probably be on your board for less than 10%. That's why I took up skateboarding to practice the balance on a board and learn to steer better in my turns.
  • Give yourself some time to learn to read the waves. First you will have to get in the right position to be able to catch a nice wave, then you have to learn to pick the right wave, then you have to know where to position yourself and when exactly to go for it. You will not get this right the first time. It will take dedication and humility to learn. Also, to get to the bigger waves you have to cross a lot of perfectly fine smaller waves while paddling out. Sometimes I get tempted to take off on one of those easier waves, but then I have to start all over again to get in the back. More dangerous can be when you are getting dragged out with the currents and you have to fight to stay within reach of the beach. Always be sure there is someone nearby who knows you're out there and you can call to get help.
  • Once you commit, you have to be all in. More often than not, it's not you who chooses the wave but the other way around. Once you're in a certain spot you can't but go for it. Any hesitation will throw you off. Just like Vera pointed out, once you are going, 'straight down' is the only thing on your mind. This is another similarity with skating. To drop in to a halfpipe you have to commit fully, mind you that concrete is harder than water to break your fall when you don't make it.
  • Keep working when you fail at first. Learning to surf is failing by design. I'm not particularly talented so I had to really want it to get to the point where I can actually consistently stand up on a wave and start practising some turns and pop ups on somewhat bigger waves. I also know when to rest. When I'm starting to force things or get frustrated I go sit on my board on the beach for a couple of minutes to catch my breath and enjoy the view. After that I can loosen up again and go for it!
Fighting the wind.

In innovation this could translate as follows:

  • Develop a vision. Know yourself, double down on the reasons your customers choose for you, but at the same time set your sights on the mid term to design an experience your customers don't even know they will want.
  • Be ready but patient. Look for ways to practice, build trust with a couple of key customers to be able to experiment with them without risking too much of your reputataion. Build partnerships.
  • Have a growth mindset and be bold. Give yourself some time to learn to read the waves. Don't be affraid to take on a couple of tasks that are more than you can chew, you'll learn a lot. Always communicate when it becomes clear you are in over your head.
  • Look for flow. Once you commit, you have to be all in. Once you're in the right position, look for that feeling of focus and flow you have chosen this line of work for in the first place. Commit some deep work to get things moving and enjoy.
  • Put in the work but stay loose. Keep working when you fail at first. You knew it wasn't going to be easy. Identify what is going wrong, take a step back if need be and go for it!

See you in the water!

A windy November afternoon in Oostende.