I am no Kelly Slater. It wasn’t a tough decision as to whether I go to college or try my hand full-time on the pro tour. I went to college. But, as a competitive longboarder, I did win the NSSA National Championships at the college level and placed in the quarter-finals once or twice in the Professional Surfing Tour of America.
Here’s why surfing is different than other sports: surfers need to be able to manage a random process.
You normally have something like 20 minutes to be scored on three waves, but can catch no more than 10. And, four to six other competitors are out surfing at the same time. During this 20 minutes, waves might come in continuously, or hardly any waves may break at all. Normally, in California at least, the contests would be at beach breaks where multiple peaks are possible takeoff spots. A lot of strategy exists to manage the randomness of the surf: which peak do you sit at based on your observations of earlier heats; what is the tide doing; how will that change the underlying expectations of where the best waves will break? Then, there is playing the other competitors. If everybody else is fighting over the “optimal” peak, do you take a “slightly-sub-optimal” peak where you don’t have to deal with the randomness of the competitor queue? As I’ll point out later, this strategy for controlling random variables is what makes surfing like entrepreneurship.
The toughest part of my surfing career was going from the amateur levels to the elite and professional level. Being a great amateur is largely about skill. It’s a formula to showcase your skill. Take off a little early, run up to the nose for a noseride, run back to the tail, and do a turn or two then do a floater as the wave closes out. You have shown complete mastery or style and a flare for progressiveness. Even if another competitor catches a much better wave than you, the judges evaluate the raw skill differential and, on average, you can control against the randomness of the waves by just being better. No patience is required, just show your raw skill level and you’ll get to the finals.
Professional surfing was different. Everybody had skill. And it was judged differently because of that. The expectation was that everyone had the technical proficiency at style, progressive maneuvers, and navigating the most critical parts of the wave. So there were no points for stuffing in the formula. Big scores were awarded for showcasing professional-level skills. To put it in more mathematical terms, amateur surfing would be a standard average of style, wave, progression, etc. Where the highest scores were for those who were on average better surfers. In the pro’s, the scores were based on an amplification of the most critical maneuvers. Technical proficiency wasn’t good enough. Everyone had that.
I still remember the line from Joel Tudor (one of my favorite surfers at the time) about how to make the transition to the pros. He said, “Winning world titles was about waiting for the section to develop and being minimalistic.” Winning world titles is about patience. It’s not about proving how good you are. It was about waiting until the ocean’s randomness presents itself in a way that you can most fully exploit, to do something amazing.
Now, let that sink in.
Great amateurs are super busy and get great accolades continuously. To win a world championship, sure you need that underlying skill, but it’s about not attacking the frivolous. It’s about having the patience and vision to see something develop. Then, it’s about applying all of your energy where it will generate the most spectacular outcome.
I’m hoping the relationship to entrepreneurship here is self-evident. If not, consider this: The world is filled with smart people. Diligent people. Hard working people. People who rightly get accolades and are told that they have great instincts. But, in order to take an idea, turn that idea into a product, and build a company, you need to be able to see the larger set of waves on the horizon. You need to watch them stack up on the sandbar and, without even thinking, move into position to set-up for the section of the day. Entrepreneurship, like competitive surfing, is about having the courage to watch good waves go by, to be best positioned for something great.
Also read: “Why I started Truthlab”