Sometimes, you need to stop the car, get out and watch for a while.
I was driving along the California coast on a day with dozens of surfers just off the shore, so I parked the car and took in the show. A few hundred feet out from the beach, the surfers straddled their boards and waited. And waited. And waited. I’d see a wave coming up behind them and think they would try to ride it into shore, but they let it pass. I’d see another wave and think, “Yeah, this is the one they’ve been waiting for,” but they’d let that one pass, as well.
Finally, after three or five minutes of this, a surfer would climb aboard a board and try to keep her balance for about 15 seconds. Roughly 99% of the time, the surfers would fall into the water well short of their goals, then paddle back out to wait again for a suitable wave.
The whole process was fascinating and challenging. Why this wave and not that one? Why is this surfer so close to shore and the other one further out? What makes this place a good spot for surfing and that other area down the beach has no surfers at all? After waiting five minutes for the right wave, does the pressure build to grab whatever comes next, or to wait even longer for the absolutely perfect opportunity?
It occurred to me that the surfers were experts in the art of waiting. They were patient, studying the specifics of the waves, weighing the ratio of potential enjoyment to missed opportunity. Riding the wave is part of the experience, but it quickly became clear that the waiting, sizing up the next crest, timing the action...all of these were critical to the experience. It was like watching a batter waiting for the right pitch, sizing up the pitcher, looking for the perfect moment.
As with much of life, it reminded me of business challenges. When is it too soon, or too late, to make an investment, make a hire, or let someone go? How do we size up our opportunities when both risk and reward are rushing toward us, usually intertwined? How can we master the art of waiting for the big fat pitch? And, after we get our results, how can we analyze the process unemotionally, avoiding the temptation to recast our experiences into an unbroken string of successes?
I had a million questions, but I suspect I'd need to learn to surf in order to get the answers I sought. Even without answers, though, the session was educational. It’s exciting to watch a video of a guy barreling through the surf without wiping out, just as it's inspiring to watch a business leader at the top of his game. Still, those feats are even more impressive when you’ve watched all the failures that led up to the success. We spend much of our lives watching the highlight reels, but the real story unfolds outside our view.