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Riding the Waves of Confident Achievement
(And Other Surfing Lessons)

By Dr. Gary Goodman

© 2012 Nightingale-Conant Corporation

Surfers can teach us a lot.  When I was visiting Coronado Island and Hawaii, I took some surfing lessons.  Now, naturally, I was clumsy at first.  But I was able to catch some waves, and I ended up having a blast.  Recently, I was watching surfers from my living room window.  Simply by being so close to them, I was able to know them in an unconventional way.  One thing I noticed was their incredible patience.

For instance, when the surf isn’t up, the swells are small and the sets of waves seem to be few and far between. Nonetheless, on any given day, there will be two dozen riders in view who are placidly waiting for their next chance to catch a wave.  It seems to me that the average surfer waits about five minutes to have anything to paddle into.  Then it takes an average of three attempts to catch a wave.  So every 15 minutes, the typical enthusiast rides only a single wave.  To me, as a very occasional surfer, this doesn’t seem to be all that much fun.  Catching four waves per hour isn’t very many.  Add to this the fact that most rides seem to last for less than three seconds, and you’re talking about 12 seconds of fun every 60 minutes.

Now my math tells me there are 3,600 seconds in every hour.  So 0.00333, or a little more than three-one-thousandths of the total time a surfer spends in the water, consists of riding waves.  Now riding waves is the goal of surfing, but most of the time that’s spent in the water entails waiting for the waves and attempting to catch them.  Yet the fact remains that this can be one of the most exciting sports.  Am I right?  Why is there such an apparent disconnection between the patience and effort and time invested and the total return in terms of actual performance? In other words, it takes large numbers simply to come away with a minimal surfing experience, yet people are so passionate about it.  And it certainly beats a day at the office for most. 

I think the answer is really counterintuitive.  Most of us assume that we need lots of positive reinforcement to feel that we’re good at something and that it’s enjoyable.  Surfers demonstrate a willingness to forego frequent reinforcements.  They settle for the occasional reinforcement, possibly because the enjoyment they get from it is still emotionally proportionate to their investment.  I suspect seasoned surfers really don’t count their wipeouts or the missed waves or the overall time in the water unless they’re on a tight schedule.  They measure the total value of the experience.  Gazing at a limitless horizon, unimpeded by buildings, cars, and people is really very enjoyable.

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The sheer uncertainty ushered in by whether you will or won’t catch a wave can be exhilarating.  And not knowing how long a ride can last is also very appealing because it, too, is a happy variable that keeps you interested in the activity.  Also, surfers know that they’re a breed apart.  Not everyone can surf, at least with ease and poise, unless they too make a large numbers investment.  So, if you’re willing to pay this price, then you can join what is still a fairly exclusive club.


You’ve heard the expression “no pain, no gain.” Speaking to you as an athlete who enjoys karate, running, weight training, and just about any activity that involves throwing, kicking, or catching a ball, I can say this — the conditioning that it takes to prepare for the sport is a big part of the fun.  There’s actual joy in that phrase, “no pain, no gain.”  You know that by being willing to pay the price of achieving victory, it makes you part of an elite.

Before bodybuilding became so popular, people used to snicker, “Why would anyone want to get that big and muscular?”  One answer is because they can, if they try hard.  They can become big. And if they try harder, they can become even bigger, the biggest, and yes, set records and become legends.  They may have to be willing to work through the pain of doing the largest numbers.  If they’re weight training, they do more repetitions, more sets, and consistently add more weight. Colorado Rockies baseball star Todd Helton took batting practice until his hands bled. He’s one of the best in history. Successful people put in these efforts. Sustaining occasional injuries and recovering from setbacks increases the enjoyment and appreciation of the sport.

Many of us simply don’t respect what comes easily.  Vince Lombardi, the legendary Green Bay Packers coach, said that there’s something inside of true competitors that makes them love the grind, that makes them get a thrill from leaving the field of battle exhausted but victorious.  We should appreciate that the desire to win is worth nothing without the desire to prepare.

A number of years ago Robert Pirsig wrote a novel, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  It tells the story of a cross-country motorcycle trip that the narrator took with his son.  But the book is really a deep exploration of what constitutes quality.  Pirsig asks whether quality is subjective or objective.  He wonders whether it’s something inherent in an object or a machine, or something positive that people derive from using it.

Finally, he seems to conclude that quality involves caring.  Typically, when you care about building or fixing a motorcycle, or anything for that matter, you do a better job of it than when you just try to rush through the process and get it over with.  Quality, Pirsig found, is the coming together of desire and skill, combining the two halves of the brain, rationality and spirituality.  When we’re committed to achieving quality, a certain peace accompanies our work and play, and we can wholeheartedly do whatever it takes to achieve positive results.  Pirsig’s book serves as a reminder that the desire to win must be accompanied by the desire to prepare.  We need to teach our kids and ourselves to appreciate the process of doing something instead of obsessing about getting immediate or easy results.

A large-numbers philosophy contributes to creating a quality frame of mind, whether we’re surfing, weight training, or simply repairing machines.  Inevitably, when we start with a committed attitude, our achievements reflect it, and we can then rightly say that we have quality.

If we want more oil, we should dig more oil wells.  There was once a scandal involving a giant multinational oil company.  Apparently it had overstated the amount of proven reserves of crude oil that it had asserted was in the ground.  Over the years, one of the ways that oil firms have extracted more oil has been by digging more deeply into existing wells.  Technological advances and equipment and computer modeling have enabled them to tap into additional deposits.  But now there’s some doubt that added reserves, even if they do exist, can be extracted without bringing up huge amounts of water at the same time, thus diluting the value of the crude component.

I find this very interesting because I distinctly remember hearing the old adage that if you want more oil, you need to dig more holes.  It’s ironic that this large-numbers assertion seems as true today as it was when it was first coined.  Whenever you sense that your reserves of cash, of opportunities, of enjoyments, or even of enthusiasm are dwindling, ask yourself, am I digging enough wells, or am I kidding myself that by staying in the holes I’m already in I’ll improve my circumstances?

Self-discipline is enhanced by a large-numbers campaign.  It takes perseverance to overcome our tendency to cut and run and to settle for having a small-number experience.  Really, there’s a kindred virtue that we need to recognize is an essential part of the scheme: It’s self-discipline.

One of the most prominent experiences I had when I was consulting was working for a former marine who became an entrepreneur.  As I was observing him, he trained his salespeople, and, at a crucial moment, he barked out, “Discipline is the most important thing in life.”  I thought he may have been overstating it, but as I’ve matured and witnessed my own highs and lows in achievement, I’m giving his opinion even more weight.

Let me put it this way, self-discipline is certainly one of the most important virtues that you can cultivate.  Happily, by committing to implement the wisdom of the Law of Large Numbers, you’ll be exerting self-discipline. Fulfilling the grunt work of doing things repeatedly will then increase your store of self-discipline, enabling you to take on even greater challenges thereafter.

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I was watching a public television program on obesity the other night, and a number of weight-loss program administrators were interviewed.  When one gentleman was asked whether all good programs really boil down to eating good things in smaller portions and exercising, he said that basically, they do.  But then he observed, “But nobody ever got rich by selling self-discipline.”  So we see countless ads for crack diets and exercise machines that promise instant results with no sacrifices required.  “Eat all you want and whatever you want” is exactly what would be ideal.  And it’s what dieters want to hear.  “Never exercise again!” is another attractive lure.  But inside we know that we have to do certain things differently if we want to achieve different and better results.  Producing change while staying the same cancel each other out.

However, I disagree with the gentleman who said nobody gets rich by selling self-discipline.  Perhaps that’s valid if we’re trying to sell miracle cures or diets.  But most of the people I know who’ve grown wealthy have done it by selling self-discipline to themselves.  This is the key.  The marine sold himself on the virtue of being disciplined and made it a pivotal part of his overall philosophy of life.  He grew a company through discipline, and he grew rich.  And if we were to examine the actual mechanics of how he put discipline into practice, it would appear as several large-numbers commitments and performances.

If we’re lucky, at some point we’ll wake up and we’ll understand that we’re simply going to have to do things the hard way.  If we want success, to find a great mate, to have dear friends, to serve others, and to just get the most from life, we’ll need to exert continuous effort.

I remember when I was 17 and I was about to graduate from high school.  My older brother sat me down for a heart-to-heart talk. He said that nothing in life was going to be handed to me.  There wouldn’t be any money available for higher education, and if I wanted to attend, I’d have to put myself through community college first and then work my way through the ranks to a four-year public university.  I didn’t like hearing this, but something deep within me knew he was on the level.  I’d have to do everything the hard way if I wanted to make any kind of life for myself.

I resolved to buckle down, to get the job done.  Working at a succession of menial full-time jobs, I rented a one-room apartment and went to school full time.  Les Brown puts it this way, “Sure it was hard, but you did it hard.” I love that phrase because it sums up the attitude you need to have to get the most from the large-numbers idea.  You need to be prepared to do it hard, to do it relentlessly, to do it come what may.  And what is it that you need to do?  You need to do your thing, whatever you decided it is.  Your enemy will be ambivalence. 

Recently I read a book that said that some people work very hard climbing the ladder of success only to find later on that it was leaning against the wrong wall.  In other words, they chose the wrong goal.  This can happen, I suppose.  But for some, the goal was perfectly fine when they started their ascent.  It was simply no longer relevant to their needs by the time they reached the top.  I believe a more profound problem is not having a clear goal to begin with. Or you could have too many goals. Or you could foster goals that conflict with each other.

For instance, I ran a seminar where one participant wore about five hats.  She was involved in real estate, tax preparation, personal fitness training, and a few other endeavors.  She sensed she needed to focus, but I could detect that she was really not energized by any one thing that she did.  Actually, after a lot of probing, what came out was the fact that she really longed to travel.  The fix seemed to be refocusing her business interests so they would facilitate instead of hinder her ability to get away.  Once she saw that, she was re-energized.  We need to clarify our goals in order to feel free to throw ourselves into a large-numbers campaign.  If we don’t, we’ll stop short of achieving substantial results.

We need to remember “no pain, no gain.”  The conditioning that it takes to prepare for any activity is a big part of the fun.  There’s actual joy in the grunt work, the sweating, the grit, and the determination that it takes in order to achieve.

If you want to improve your circumstances, make sure that you try new things.  It’s just like the oil companies have found over time, there’s only one true statement: If you want to get more oil, dig more oil wells.  Make more opportunities than you find.

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Remember what Dolly Parton said, “If you want rainbows, you have to put up with the rain.”  Everything desirable is going to take a certain amount of discomfort to achieve.  Try to remove the word easy from your vocabulary.  Every time you see someone who is touting an easy cure or an easy road to riches or anything that is easy, so easy that it sounds incredible, it probably is.  We all should be seeking a truer path to success.  It’s a path that may be hard, but as Les Brown puts it, “It was hard, but you did it hard.”  If you do it the hard way, you’re bound to achieve proper things.  By doing it the hard way, you’re bound to achieve everything that you desire.

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