What My Surfing Lesson Actually Taught Me

I surfed! I actually did it! I was nervous and afraid, yet I got myself to the beach and into the water and on that board. And I fell, and I fell, and I fell … in an hour, I was able to get up about four times, and stayed up long enough to ride to shore twice. I probably tried to get up 50 times, so my success rate was pretty low, percentage-wise. But man, did I feel successful afterwards!

Remember how I said the waves here aren’t very big? Well, of course, on that day they were. They were higher than usual, and more haphazard. My instructor apologized in advance for the less-than-optimal conditions. She had just finished running the kids’ surf camp for the day and said it had been pretty nerve-wracking. So, I lowered my already-low expectations. I’d hoped to get up at least once; now I decided that if I didn’t, I would try again another day.

I have to admit, part of me was glad the conditions were rough. My small self thought, “Sweet, now I have an excuse if I totally suck! I can blame the weather.” And after my first fall, an epic sideways collapse that took me deep under and sent saltwater rushing through my sinuses, she thought, “We can always say it’s too rough and go home now!” But I admonished her and explained that I was going to keep trying unless my instructor told me to stop. It wasn’t like the swells were ten feet high; I mean, this isn’t Hawaii or Australia or anything. They just weren’t beginner-friendly.

So I got back on the board (which thankfully was foam, so I wasn’t worried about braining myself and ending up in the hospital—well, OK, I was still worried about ending up in the hospital, but the actual risk was lessened) and I tried again. And again and again … over and over I tried to get up and fell immediately. I’m not a big swimmer, and when we go to the beach I may cool off in the ocean, but I don’t usually spend much time in the water. This was up close and personal with saltwater. In my eyes, up my nose, down my throat…after every fall I was hawking and spitting like a ball player. It stung and burned and I felt vaguely nauseated. But still I persisted!

I was amazed at how physically tiring it was. I know, I should have expected that, but I guess I didn’t realize how much effort it takes to push the board out through the waves, then get on, then try to get up, then fall and flail around—and repeat and repeat. I began to worry that I would wear out before the hour was up—how embarrassing that would be! So I told myself it wasn’t an option, did some deep breathing, prayed for help, and kept going.

Part of it was pride. My instructor was in her mid-twenties, was a soccer player, and had been surfing for 10 years. This 40-something non-athlete wasn’t going to show weakness in front of her, and I wasn’t going to quit if I could help it. And part of it was determination. I had been wanting to do this for so long; I was finally out there, and I was damned if it was going to be a bust. I wanted to be able to say I gave it my all.

Finally, I managed to stay up and ride for a few seconds. It was glorious! I was so proud. (And I think my instructor was very relieved.) I was able to do it again, and rode almost all the way to shore before the wave gave out. It felt incredible—I had time to think about what I was doing, and when I almost lost balance I willed myself to stay upright. That was my shining moment. I was able to get up a couple more times, but the waves petered out quickly so the rides weren’t as long.

When the hour was over, I was tired but triumphant. I sat on the sand and guzzled water, catching my breath and watching those waves. I realized that I had once again shown myself that I am much stronger than I give myself credit for. I have more stamina—both mentally and physically—than I think. I tend to forget that, and doubt my own power. I may never surf again—or I might, who knows—but I will always treasure that feeling of triumph and that reminder.

So, here’s my takeaway: first, it feels amazing to accomplish something you’ve been dreaming of, especially if it turns out to be harder than you imagined and pushes you physically and mentally. Second, it’s always rewarding to break through fear and insecurity to try something new. Even if I had never gotten up on that board, I would have been proud of myself for trying. (Whether or not I would have tried again, we will never know. ;-) )

But to succeed—that really did boost my self-esteem. I feel stronger, more adventurous, and more confident. And as we get older, those feelings don’t come as easily. If we want to continue to grow and live a rich and joyful life, we have to consciously cultivate them.

That’s one of the reasons I decided to try something new every month this year, and I highly recommend it. It doesn’t matter what we want to do. What matters is pushing past our fear or anxiety, going outside our usual bubble of comfort, and feeling that gleeful oomph of “I did it!”

Success is not found in how we do it, but rather in that we try. Just the act of stepping out onto the limb—of striving for the branch just beyond our reach even though we’re scared—gets us out of our rut. Regularly challenging ourselves and experiencing new things keeps us engaged and enthusiastic. So now my challenge is—what in the world shall I try in July??