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The Surfer’s Guide to Taking Risks

Feeling anxious about taking your next risk? Think like a surfer and always be chasing the next "wave." 

Life is like the ocean: sometimes it’s stormy, choppy, and a complete mess. Other times it’s calm and perfect. In the ocean, risk and opportunity go hand-in-hand. The more waves you go for, the more you’ll catch. Every day in the water and every wave presents a new opportunity.

As a surfer, every time I get in the water it’s a risk, every time I paddle for a wave it’s a risk, and every time I catch wave it’s a risk. Surfing is completely unpredictable, which keeps me constantly coming back for more. But there’s a strong correlation between your success and your tolerance for risks in both the ocean and life – and both require the same approach and process:

1. Get In the water

As you stand on the shore suiting up, you can watch other surfers catch wave after wave, in anticipation of the perfect ride. But you’re not going to catch any waves unless you’re in the water.

The more waves you go for, the more you’ll catch.

The game of life is quite similar. It’s exciting to watch people start companies, push their limits, and experience new things. But living vicariously through other people just means you’ll be standing on the shore watching others catch waves your entire life.

2. Understand and accept the fear

When you initially get in the water on a bigger-than-average surf day, the excitement you felt on shore dissipates and turns into fear. Mother Nature shows her temperamental side and you’ll often find yourself submerged, waiting for that moment when you’ll be able to come up for air. Every surfer strives to align themselves perfectly for the “take off point” of a wave, but in order to get there you have to get past the rough whitewater.With any risk, once the excitement of a new opportunity passes, fear sets in. What if you fail when you start your new company, attempt to write a book, or catch your wave? Like the whitewater, you will face obstacles that seem like they’re there to keep you from getting to your goal. But you have to realize they’re just a part of taking risks.

3. Go for it 

Waves are completely unpredictable, which makes surfing thrilling and terrifying at the same time. As each wave rolls in and you contemplate going for it, you’ll have an initial tinge of doubt. The only way to know if you’ll make it is to go for it. The author Jamail Yogis:

The take-off is arguably the most scary and difficult part of riding a wave. Too far forward or back can be the difference between a smooth glide down the face [of the wave] or being pitched—what surfers call “going over the falls.” It’s best to catch a wave just as it’s setting up, when there is enough incline to catch it, but before the wave goes concave. In the take-off, and really throughout the entire ride on the wave, the surfer, like the Zen student, must constantly find the middle way.

When opportunities present themselves, you’ll experience doubt. This is completely natural. Instead of fighting the doubt, let it be. If we embrace it, it tends to dissipate.

4. Embrace uncertainty 

There’s a moment on a wave known as “the drop.” It’s the moment when either our hopes are crushed or our hard work comes to fruition. It’s also the most uncertain moment of a wave. A wave’s shape is in constant flux and the surfer must adjust accordingly. But the shape also has a tendency to disappear or “close out,” meaning that a seemingly perfect wave can crumble into whitewater, leaving a surfer scrambling.

Nothing in life is guaranteed and living your life according to a predetermined formula is not a guarantee of success. You can’t predict your company will succeed, your art will fly off gallery walls, or your love will be returned. You have to embrace the uncertainty of it all and remember that the more waves you go for, the more you’ll catch.

5. Enjoy the bliss

Ask any surfer what it feels like to ride a wave and you’ll start to wonder if they’re talking about sex or surfing. The moment you stand up on your board something magical happens: fear, doubt and uncertainty dissolve, transforming into absolute happiness. Some researchers call this being “in the zone” or “in flow.”

Standing up on your board is the moment when your risk pays off. For the entrepreneur, it could be the day the company goes public or turns a profit. For the author, it could be the day the book gets published. Everything you went through to get there will seem worth it.

Ask any surfer what it feels like to ride a wave and you’ll start to wonder if they’re talking about sex or surfing.

6. Reflect on the choice

One of my friends once said that “surfing is the greatest natural high in the world.” Maybe it’s because it forces us to be truly present – there’s nothing else on our minds when riding a wave, both literally and figuratively. Catching that perfect wave can bring a peaceful calm to your life.

Once you know the consequences of your risk (whether good or bad), you’re overcome by a sense of calm. You’re no longer forced to confront a fear of the unknown. For the performer, it could be the standing ovation. For the entrepreneur, it could be knowing that the value created will result in job security for employees for years to come.

7. Do it all again 

After you catch that first wave and the adrenaline kicks in, all you can think about is catching the next one. You’re overcome by a sense of confidence that anything is possible. A surfer may call this being “stoked.” You realize what you’re capable of and become interested in continuing to defy your own limits.

There’s nothing else on our minds when riding a wave, both literally and figuratively.

It’s why entrepreneurs start multiple companies, authors write multiple books, and musicians produce multiple albums. There really is no moment when you’ve arrived. The journey is the destination and now you just have the confidence that becomes a part of who you are when you take the scenic route through life.

Talk to a surfer and he or she will tell you “all it takes is one good wave and you’ll be hooked.” The way you develop a tolerance for risk is by going for your wave.

The wipeouts of life and business are inevitable, but they’re never as bad as you think. It’s all just a part of surfing – and a part of living.

What do you think?

How do you approach risks you take in your life?

More Posts by Srinivas Rao

Srinivas Rao is the host and founder of The Unmistakable Creative Podcast. You can subscribe to the show on iTunes.  You can download his free guide to being more prolific and productive here.

Comments (62)
  • Srinivas Rao

    Awesome. There are so many parallels between surfing, life and business. Starting a company is quite a bit like riding a wave.

  • Srinivas Rao

    Good one. The other as i’ve said above show up early, show up often, stay late :)..thanks I think you just gave m the idea for my next post on my own blog.

  • Srinivas Rao

    Hey Peter

    I’m very familiar with Linchpin which is a fantastic book. i’ll be sure to check out your facebook page. Great to connect with you.

  • ofizzle

    I loved this article! We all know in the back of your mind you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take but once in awhile its nice to remind yourself that.

  • Jacob Painter

    Pretty cool, enjoyed reading this. Might have to quote a bit from it when I write my article on risks in business.


  • Storm Beach

    Totally embodies the work that I do!

  • Amy C (Expand Outdoors)

    Beautiful article! I am passionate about helping others learn to assess their risk tolerance and push past the comfort zone to take more healthy risks (it’s the only way we grow, right?) in the outdoors and in life.

    Thank you for offering such an articulate example of why risk is so essential to us as humans. 🙂

    And as a novice surfer no longer living near the water, thank you for keeping my stoke alive.

  • Kyle

    At some point of our life we have to take the risk. There is no point in hanging around. Face the problems and solve it.

  • Yana Kirakovskaya

    Sorry for this comment, but I just want to say F**k yeaaah!!! I am amazed and happy to realize that surfers think similar as I feel that we are on the same page. Besides you refer to Jamail Yogic book that inspired me greatly and calm my mind)) I am going through another wipe out at workb and initially loosing the balance and my position in the “ocean”. But then I realized that I need to paddle out again and wait for another wave to come,the new wave as an opportunity. till this moment I will be fighting for my rights, happinness and taking life as it is with all these ups and downs, yes and nos and of course enjoy the moment, pure moment of existence! Thanks a lot for this article, stoked))

  • Duncs

    One of the best articles I have ever read at a time in my life when I need it most.

  • Ved

    great article…one of the things that is taught in India from childhood is to NOT take risk. Be safe in everything you do. Study hard so you can become an engineer, get a great high paying secure job and eventuall marry a nice girl. When you asked how you tackle risk? I don’t know how to answer it because I think I never have. I’ve gone close to the edge but have never jumped.

  • Micah

    this is so beautifully written. Makes you want to dive headfirst into doing what you’ve always dreamed of, all with an open heart despite absolute uncertainty.

  • Patsy

    This article perfectly describes why I love surfing so much and how it has influenced my life outside the ocean. Nicely done!

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