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zen and the art of surfing [and working]   --   story published 04.11.2004

about this story...

This is a story about a recent event in my life - "learning to surf"...never thought the experience would be much more than just surfing, but it was enough of a gift that I feel should be here it is...

why you should read this...

If you are feeling frustrated with work and/or life in any way or if you are trying to achieve something worthwhile, this story is for you. It is about an amazing life lesson that I was recently given as a gift, and I would like pass the gift on to others. So far, I’ve shared it with about a dozen people in person – all of them have come back to say thanks - that it made a difference in their journey.

images from:
Growing up, my family shared something interesting with me – stories. Not just Dr. Suess or “The Giving Tree” or even something more adolescent like “The Catcher in the Rye.” Maybe it was my interests or maybe it was some greater consciousness, but I read many stories about inventions, entrepreneurs, business achievers, and overcomers. This gave me a few things, but namely it gave me an almost insatiable over-achievement orientation and the knowledge that: many people on this planet have accomplished something amazing, and I can too (...actually, anyone can). This is both a good and bad thing – good to want to accomplish something in life...bad that the expectations are quite high, that the self-made stress is considerable, and that you can often put achievements ahead of things in life that truly are more important.
The Conflict
After a successful early career, the economy stalled. I shouldn’t complain...look at what I’ve been lucky enough to have – a great wife, awesome family, great friends, an interesting and growing career...great health, nice home, good income, etc. I was, however, deeply depressed. Perhaps it was merely a depression as deep as a rain-puddle, but I had never, ever in my life experienced several months of just feeling down, trapped, unhappy – feeling like I was not accomplishing what I wanted out of life and that I couldn’t do anything about it. To me, it was an ocean of the least a fairly dark and murky any case it really sucked.

So, here’s what I though to myself: “What? Mr. Achievement? Mr. ’I’ve read all the success stories there are’? Ha!!! C’mon, you know many people have overcome much worse and accomplished much greater...get over it you wuss!!!” But, I couldn’t right away...believe me, I tried. I reflected on many of the stories from my past - typically, these alleviated any negative attitude I was dwelling on. Particularly, there was one about a teenager with parents who ran away...this kid worked in highschool to pay for rent, buy food, and raise his 3 younger siblings...the guy is now a doctor with a degree from Harvard. So I continued, “Come on, get over it. Argh. Move on.”
“You can learn a lot just by watching.” – Yogi Berra
“You can learn a lot just by doing.” – Me
Well, I started to move on – accepting “my current state” for what it was, looking for the best in the situation, but hoping to overcome the feeling of being uninspired. We had scheduled a vacation to Costa Rica, and I was looking forward to a much needed break – not necessarily some type of personal revival. My sister went on the vacation with us, and we had discussed going surfing. When I booked surf lessons for us, I was checking-off an accomplishment from my “list of things to do in life” – very cool. I had to talk her out of canceling because we weren’t sure how safe it would be. But I just knew it would be worth the experience of trying...even if we got out to the beach and the waves were gone, it would be worth the experience.

Then, something quite amazing happened – very cliché, but amazing nonetheless. I had a so called ‘life experience’ while I was learning to surf. It was insanely much meaning baked into one little two-hour much stress and depression overcome by doing something so simple. Had I known that I would learn what I learned, I would have done this a long time ago. There is a “zen of surfing” much like the famous zen gardens ( is’s funny, but it’s true (and I don’t mean that life is all about surfing.)
We went to the town of Jaco (, and had a short lunch. We visited the surf shop I had found and booked lessons at the day before. Our instructor called a cab to the beach up the road which had smaller waves (i.e. safer waves). My sister knows spanish pretty well, so I figured we would be fine (as I know very little).

Our instructor was Brazilian...a handsome chap who’s birth-language was Portuguese...he had lived in Costa Rica for a while and said he had been surfing for 17 years. My sister immediately had a crush and was eager to use her spanish which we would drastically need. One thing I recognized right away...surfers look like they are in shape for a good reason...they are in shape.

We grabbed two boards and hopped in the cab for about 1/4 mile to an uncrowded beach just south of (Playa Hermosa). Waves were hitting this beach continuously...they were smaller (3-4 feet), but frequent...maybe 30 feet apart...there was no down-time between waves.

We hit the beach – a dark, volcanic sand. Our instructor led us through some yoga stretching for about 20 minutes which was great – he took safety sincerely which was awesome.

“Muy importante señor” was what our instructor would tell us as we stretched – flexibility was important. Then we practiced popping up on the board while still on the beach – “Muy importante señor – tempo.” Having done a good bit of boogie-boarding, I knew (at least I thought I knew) what he meant – catch the wave on time.

We went through more lessons...“muy importante señor – equilibrio.” “Equi-what? What the heck does that mean?” By his arm movement out to the sides it was clear that he meant balance. “Oh, I got it, balance, equilibrium, cool. OK, what else?”

“Muy importante señor...tran-kee.” “Tran-kee-o?,” I thought, “what the heck am I doing out here with a guy that doesn’t speak english Trankeeo? Trankee, trankee...hmmm...oh, wait, he is signalling.” My sister and I looked at other inquisitively, “oh, tranquil, calm, oh, ok, cool.” He wanted us to paddle, jump, and surf calmly – now, I'm not sure that I understand completely how you "paddle as hard as you can" and be calm at the same time, but ok.

“Muy importante señor... estilo.” “Steelay, esteelay?” He’s making some freaky movement and posing. “Posing? Style? I need to have style my first time surfing? Whatever dude, I just want to get up. I am sure to look like a schmuck.”

Ok, my sister and I checked our list:
•  flexibility
•  good tempo/timing
•  balance
•  try hard but be calm
•  do it with style

Then we walked into the surf...
Up, Up and Away...
After paddling out, I try and fall after 2 feet. My sis got up, she's standing, she's riding in all the way. Holy cow, she did it on her first time. “Way to go sis!!!” Ok, it's my turn...for the next 20 minutes I get into a cycle – paddle like crazy out, paddle like crazy to catch a wave, jump, ride 0-10 feet, fall, come up, paddle like crazy back out. Well, here's the important point...I tried as hard as I could with every paddle, with every jump, with every move...fighting past waves on the way out to catch the next one. Dog-gone-it, if I was only going to be out there for a few hours, I was going to give it everything I had. Here's the problem – I was toast. After 30 minutes of craziness, I was beat up, stressed out, and as worn out as I'd been in a while...I was frustrated...I had tried so hard and barely achieved any success. To add to my frustration, the instructor would keep yelling those words, “eq-kwee-lee-bree-o, tran-kee-o.” I thought, “yea, yea, yea...I got it dude...balance, calm, yea, ok. I am too tired to deal with you. Well, if this is all I do, I've accomplished something...I got up a few times.”

I felt drained physically and emotionally...I had to go in to the beach...I was exhausted. I thought, “dang-it...I may not have another chance to surf in a long time, and, even though I am worn flat out, I am a wuss if I don't get back out there. Rest up and get back out there.” I rested, I wondered if I would go back out there...the beach was so felt good chilling in the sun. I had gotten respectable results...many would have given up before I did...I made excuse after excuse about it.

“Hmmm...yea, yea...I got to,” I told myself, “I can't pass up this opportunity...I would regret it...OK, I am going back out. Now, if I am going to get back out there, what can I do better, different? That sucker keeps yelling those words...why does he keep yelling tran-kee-o more than the other words?” Trankee, calm...what the heck does that mean anyway ‘surf calmly'? How do you do that? How do you do anything athletic and be calm? Huh? I scratched my head...well, you hit a golf ball further when you can windsurf longer when you can just relax against the weight of the buddy gave me some zen “shpeel” one day about water is both powerful enough to move a mountain and flexible enough to go around it...some martial arts use the weight of the opponent against calm, relax, chill, don't fight it, go with the flow. Hmmm...I will try it.”
take two
So, I did. I went out, I “paddled calmly.” I tried to “go with the wave” on the way out. Most importantly, I didn’t overwork which saved a tremendous amount of energy. I had another question for him though before I tried again, “Sis, ask him why the wave sometimes leaves me?” After a few mutterings to our instructor, he replied, “Si.” “Sis, what did he say yes to?” She replied, “I told him that the waves go without you sometimes. He just said yes to my question.” “Hmmm,” I thought, “he said they leave without me and that is ok, IT”S OK !!!???”

I tried this new theory...I paddled firmly, but if the wave passed me, it passed me. “What, whoa!!! That was an innovative, paradigm-shifting, out-of-the-box thought process.” I waited for the next wave. “Hmmm...waiting...that was easy. Calm. I don’t have to waste energy at all going or coming. I can stay out here much longer,” I thought.

I missed wave...whoa...that’s it? I paddled calmly and waited for the next wave, the “next opportunity.” When it came, I paddled calmly...with power, but calmly...I tried to catch it...I jumped calmly, balanced, not trying too hard. It just took me all the way into the beach...I hadn’t done that yet...“whoa-doooood!!!” I tried to use as little energy as possible to get back out for another opportunity...not wasting effort when waves were directly opposing me...just slipping by them. Sometimes I missed a wave and waited for the next one. I was calm, I relaxed, I surfed waves in again and again....sometimes missing a ride, but hitting many...and for the next hour, I was a true surfer...I was “one with the ocean” – cool.
share the love
Over the remainder of the vacation, I shared the story - as other friends and family had curious questions. As I shared the story of surfing, I started to realize that this had much greater meaning – that there was a story within the story. I continued to share the main story while my mind considered the underlying themes. The principal storyline was physical, but there was also an emotional journey – I had been frustrated with surfing and overcame that really accomplish something...I thought, “was this what was going on in my career and in my life?”

Over next several weeks I thought about this story. Then a friend asked me to go to lunch one day, and I shared this story...he discarded much of his frustrations almost immediately. I saw him the next day, he mentioned that the story had changed his perspective...that he was applying the principles and something positive was brewing. He was in control if he just exercised flexibility, good tempo, balance, worked hard but calmly, and did it with style (i.e. had fun and enjoyed the ride).

I thought more about this and shared the story a bit more. Each time I told it, it reverberated with others’ depressions, problems, stresses, and challenges. All of them work hard to make their career and life enjoyable and successful – to get into the beach (i.e. achieve the goal and enjoy it). This surfing experience had amazing meaning and tremendous connections to life...holy cow!!! This is one “unreal” experience!!!
Applying Harmony...

I said to myself, “surfing is my zen experience for life?...ha! Whatever, I'll take it.” I reflected and continue to reflect on this “a-Mazing” experience for surfing and life:

•  Be flexible or you can get hurt...bend don't break. Flexibility takes time. Stretch before you work.
•  Have good tempo. Timing is everything. If a wave passes you, there is another one coming.
•  Balance: conversations, work-load, and “life-load.” Apparently, waving your hands around helps – chaotic hand movement on the periphery brings balance and order to the middle. It's “cha-ordic.”
•  The definition of style: a unique or distinctive manner of expression or behavior. When you meet someone with a certain style, you know may not be able to describe it, but that person is unique in your mind - it could be humor, fashion, or other unique characteristics.

Most importantly, I learned “be trankee” which is very hard to do all the time – it takes discipline. Be calm and paddle hard...but be calm. Don't be frantic in what you do because it will wear you out. As well, sometimes the wave picks you...paddle hard against every wave you can and be prepared for it when it comes...but don't stress out if you miss one.

Cool, I can do that...