I am a mad keen surfer. I surf every day, summer and winter. It has to be so big as to be unsurfable, or so tiny as to be a lake, for me not to get in the water each morning.
One of the best things about surfing is what it can teach you about life. So this week, I’ve compiled a list of my top six lessons from surfing for business.
1. You don’t have to ride every wave
It’s easy when you’re in the water to think you need to go for every wave. But the secret to a really great surf is to be judicious about the waves you choose. Pick the ones you know will be a smooth, long ride.
It’s the same in business. You don’t have to take every opportunity that presents itself. If you choose your ‘waves’ carefully – rather than take everything that comes your way – you’ll have a better chance of developing a specialisation in your field, for which you can charge a premium.
2. There will always be another swell
Winter’s usually a great time for waves, but this winter on the east coast we had a flat spell of about six weeks. My mental health suffered because I couldn’t surf and you start to think you’ll never have another good surf. Wrong. There will always be another swell.
When you run a business you often go through periods when nothing much happens. You haven’t won a big contract for a while. Things are ticking along, but nothing amazing has happened. You become despondent. But chances are, when conditions improve, you will get another great opportunity. It could be just over the horizon.
3. Whoop in the water
It’s the best feeling if you’re on a good wave and another surfer whoops you. When you paddle back out after the wave it gives you a chance to have a little chat with them, even make a new friend. And if I catch a great wave and no-one whoops me, hell, I’m not too proud to whoop at myself.
The way I apply this to my business life is to try and acknowledge other people when they’ve done a great job. For instance, I might see an article written by a colleague I think is fantastic, so I’ll send them an email to tell them. It’s all about letting people know you admire them. And just maybe they’ll reciprocate.
4. Learn to share
So often, I’ll see super-aggressive surfers in the water, gunning to get every possible wave they can, practically running over people – sometimes actually running over people. It creates a negative atmosphere. Much better to give a few away – that’s the way to create good vibes in the water.
You can take the same approach in business. Give a bit away. For instance, send work to your competitors occasionally. Building good relationships with your competitors is a good idea because you never know when you might need them to take up some work you can’t handle, or to help you out in a crisis. Or save you from a shark.
5. Don’t go out in dangerous conditions
I’ve been dumped more times than I can remember, have almost drowned on a number of occasions, had stitches in my skull, chipped bones and generally been battered and bruised from surfing. So finally I learnt that it’s a good idea to know your limits.
If you don’t have the right expertise for a job, don’t do it. Taking on work you don’t have the experience for can do your business more harm than good. It can also wreck your reputation and potentially send you out of business.
6. But at the same time…take a few risks
I’d still be sitting on the shoreline building sandcastles if I hadn’t picked up a board. Boring. I’d much rather be mixing it up with the other surfers. Plus I would never have advanced if I hadn’t eaten it on a few (actually, plenty of) waves.
You also need to take calculated risks in business. Go for that contract you think you have only a slim chance of winning. Develop that new product. Hire an extra staff member to help the business grow. Not every risk you take is going to work – and don’t expect it to. When you find something isn’t working, change your approach.
There are also other lessons I’ve learnt from surfing. For instance, they say a good carpenter never blames his tools, but I’ve found surfing on a great board does wonders for your ability. And it’s the same in business – buy the best tools you can afford and your work will be of a higher quality.
The other one is that you have to be rubbish at the start – for years, sometimes. But if you practise every day you’ll consistently improve. And it’s the same with your work. Keep at it and the quality of what you do will always improve.
I’m very grateful for the lessons surfing has taught me and I hope you find these useful too.
Ali holds a Bachelor of Economics degree from the University of Sydney as well as a Master of Arts in Communication Management from the University of Technology, Sydney.