Failing Forward

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I suck at surfing.

Surfing is a challenging sport to perform; it requires a high degree of endurance and balance, it’s incredibly exhausting, it’s scary when ten-foot waves are crashing on top of you, and during the chilly autumn season here in Canada it can be pretty uncomfortable getting in and out of the water. 

That said, I love doing it.

It was precisely that combination – sucking at surfing while simultaneously loving it – that taught me a valuable life lesson over the past month. 

Through my recent travels across Canada, I ended up in a small town on the coast of Vancouver Island called Tofino. The locals here sometimes refer to Tofino as ‘the end of the road’ as it’s about as far West as one can go in Canada. I didn’t intend to stay here as long as I have, the original plan was to visit with a friend for a weekend of surfing. However, after I got my first taste of the sport that October weekend, I knew I had to stay – there was work to be done! 

Before that first weekend, I had next to no surfing experience, so you can probably imagine how that first weekend went – not incredibly well. The weekend wasn’t spent eloquently riding under the barrels of waves. Instead, most of my time on the water was spent overexerting myself while swimming, losing my balance, trying to stand up, and swallowing a whole lot of saltwater. 

Now, after having spent a month trying to surf, I can confidently say that I am much better than when I started. I have progressed from barely being able to stand up on my board, to now (semi-frequently) riding ‘green waves’ (unbroken swells) for five to ten seconds. By no means would I now refer to myself as a skilled surfer, I still have much more room for improvement. However, what I can say is that I am skilled at learning how to surf, and that is due to the critical life lesson surfing taught me. 

The lesson is: To enthusiastically embrace repeated failures. Although this lesson presented itself through surfing, I believe it applies to all aspects of life and not solely reserved for aquatic activities.

During the past month, I have gotten out on the water with my surfboard nearly every day. When I get up in the morning, I don’t bother checking the weather or tide forecast online – I head down to the beach regardless of the conditions. I do so with my beat-up rental board and ripped wetsuit. I do so regardless of the day, if the conditions are perfect or if they are miserable. I do so regardless is the sun is shining or if it is torrentially raining. I do so regardless of the wave’s shape, size, or direction. For me to learn how to surf, I don’t require the ideal conditions; I only require waves. 

 I am not out there to get up and have a smooth ride on every wave. I am out there to fall off my board, take on a face full of water, and fail. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter whether or not I get up on a wave ten times on that day or if I didn’t get up on a wave at all that day. What matters is that I am out there repeatedly failing, doing so with a smile on my face and a shaka formed in my hand. 

The point is repetition makes me better – even if those repetitions are “failures.” 

In my eyes, every wave I see approaching the shore represents one potential failure. With every wave, if I try my best and fail to get up on it, my body and mind are training themselves to become better. With each of those failures, I am learning from my actions, movements, and emotions. Every failure teaches me how to do better for the next time, whether at the conscious or subconscious level. Each failure improves my muscle memory, hones my center of balance, and fortifies my willpower. If each failure leads to even a slight improvement, perhaps even 0.01% of an improvement, then I am progressing in the right direction, and it is a failure worth repeating.  

 I improve when I overexert myself paddling, when I mistime my chance to stand up, when I get up on one knee, when I lose my balance and fall from my board, when I take a face full of water, when my board gets snagged in the whitewash dragging me halfway to shore underwater by my leashed left leg, when I emerge on the shore rubbing the salt from my eyes, and when I run back out into the ocean with a smile on my face to do it all over again. That’s how I learned how to surf. 

I learned how to surf by enthusiastically embracing repeated failure.

My take away from this experience is to apply this methodology – enthusiastically embracing repeated failure – in all aspects of my life. Failure must no longer be seen as a negative and must be willfully applied in the other areas of life I wish to improve. 

Failing at something sucks. When you fail at something, it can bring on self-doubt, resurface insecurities, and challenge your resolve. Sometimes it can be much easier to take the safe option not to try, instead of trying and then failing. However, if an improvement is what one desires, then failure must be enthusiastically embraced.

Skills require grinding to improve. That grinding inherently involves failing, and you best be enthusiastic about it if you are going to do it in repetition willingly. Success isn’t obtained by taking the safer, more comfortable route. You cannot become skilled at something by never failing at it first. Those who are skilled did not get to the level they are because they are ‘a natural’ at it; they got there because they failed at it, a lot. I don’t believe there is such a thing as being ‘a natural’ at something. In my opinion, there are no ‘naturals’ at things; there are only people who suck at things and people who fail at things. Equating the idea of success to ‘natural talent’ both self-disqualifies yourself from your true potential and diminishes the efforts of others who have put in the work. Success comes when instead of quitting after you fail at something once, you willingly choose to fail at it again. 

Upon reflection, I have been guilty of quitting after failing many times in my life, in many different areas. I stop myself from progressing certain areas of my life because of failure. I have been scared of failing. I have been scared of falling off my bike, playing the wrong notes on my guitar, crashing into a tree on my snowboard, looking goofy while trying to dance, singing off-key, preparing a poor tasting meal for another, stumbling through an important presentation, the list goes on.

I have even been scared to fail when it comes to my writing of this blog. I have been scared to publish a piece and have it go unread, to have it contain grammatical mistakes, and to have my ideas criticized.  

Going forward, I am not going to be that way anymore – surfing has taught me that when I write, I have to be willing to enthusiastically embrace repeated failures in my writing because that’s how I am going to improve. It doesn’t matter if 100 people read a post, or if 0 people read it. It doesn’t matter if it has perfect formatting, or if there are spelling mistakes every second sentence. It doesn’t matter if people agree with the ideas I write or not. What matters is that I am writing. If I imagine each post I write to be a wave, then just like in surfing, every time I try to write a post, I am improving. Even if that improvement is merely 0.01% each time, then it is worth it to write. 

The main thing is that I am living my life, not in fear of failure, but instead embracing it, repeatedly and enthusiastically. That is the lesson that surfing for a month in Tofino taught me.

I am going to end this post with one of my all-time favourite motivational quotes that I love to share with people. The quote is said by an amorphic cartoon dog on a show called Adventure Time, who tells his human companion Finn: 

” Dude, suckin’ at something is the first step to being sorta good at something”

– Jake The Dog

So get out there and start sucking at something!

With humility,

bravenewmatt


PS: I’d be curious to know if there are any areas of your life that you feel could be improved through this method. Have you done this before to improve any skills? Please share your experience with me; I would love to hear from you! 

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