Missing opportunities

I love surfing, though I started relatively late in life. But, from my first session (despite how disgustingly difficult it was), I was hooked. I went every day between classes at UCSD, often for four hour sessions, and sometimes twice a day. I’m not great at it, but that’s not why I do it.

Surfing every day became more difficult when I moved to Seattle. With surf spots at least a couple hours away, law school made even monthly sessions nearly impossible. I stopped surfing regularly and lost my fitness.

Here’s the thing about surfing: it’s nearly all paddling. If you analyze an average session, 98-99% of it is paddling and waiting, while actually riding a wave comprises 1-2%. And, of that 98-99%, most of it is spent jockeying for favorable position, trying for waves that don’t work out, or paddling down the beach as tides, wind, and swell shift. If you can’t paddle strongly, even 30 minutes in the water is exhausting (and disappointing).

Every now and then when we get the chance to head back home to visit family in Southern California, I get the exquisite chance to surf again. These would otherwise be squandered opportunities if not for a memorable day in the fall of 2015. 

On a Friday evening, my wife surprised me with a birthday trip to the coast two and a half hours from Seattle. The next morning, we drove a few miles down the road to a slightly hidden surf spot and it was absolutely firing (translation: the waves were well-shaped, consistent, and sizable — about eight feet on the sets). Better yet, there were only about five people out, which meant it was an all-you-can-surf buffet.

I struggled to paddle out to where the waves broke and, when I eventually made it, my chin was barely off the board, my arms like tight rubber bands and my lower back throbbing. I had to wait through a few sets — about 15 minutes — before I was able to go for a wave. Even then, when I went for my wave, my burst of paddling sapped what little energy I’d recovered, leaving me weak and feeble as I popped to my feet. 

I was lucky to experience the elevator drop before a quick, sloppy bottom turn and then annihilation. After a thorough pummeling, I paddled in, demoralized, defeated, and physically exhausted. I promised myself that day to never feel like that again, and spent the next three years swimming three days a week so I was always in surf shape.

In his lovely memoir, Barbarian Days, author-surfer (or, surfer-author) William Finnegan writes of his away-from-waves regimen of swimming one mile every day to stay in big wave surfing shape. As he focused on his career and moved to ever-inconvenient places like New York, this habit enabled his annual surf adventures around the world.

And guess what? It works for mere mortals like myself, too. I seized every opportunity that came my way in the ensuing years, from a surf trip to France and Spain, a getaway to Canada, and surfing at home in California. I was often able to paddle around people who surfed a whole lot more frequently than I did.

The ability to seize opportunities requires consistent preparation and hard work, especially when a faraway opportunity feels elusive. I think this is poignant when building a company early on because it can feel like laps in a pool: you’re moving a whole lot, your heart’s racing, but you aren’t covering a lot of actual distance. 

Early on, as you struggle to bring something new into the world and build something people want, it can seem like you’re throwing things into the void, watching as they gradually, silently fade from view. But every decision, every action can compound, setting you up for your faraway opportunity. It could be the one meeting in two months that produces your first customer, or that one prospect who answered your cold call, interested enough to ask for a demo, or all that market research that wins over you first investor or hire.

The hard work you put in today is setting you up for those moments so you can make the most of them and, hopefully, use them as a step towards your next series of opportunities. It takes consistent work and preparation to make it happen. 

A few days ago I relearned that lesson the hard way, on a trip back home to California, squandering my first surf in over half a year, and made the same promise to myself that I did in 2015.

This week I’m getting back in the pool.