What the Ocean Taught Me About Life

There is something to be said about a britches-crapping moment that thrusts into to our conscious, a lifetime of lessons that have been subconsciously influencing our behavior for as long as we can recall.

Caught inside. It is not the place in the ocean that you want to be when the biggest set of waves appear on the horizon. This is even more the case when it has been about a decade since you last found yourself in this position. Crap, crap, craaaaap! Paddle dummyYour family is on the beach and shouldn’t have to see the lifeguards pull your lifeless body to shore. Oh wait! There are no lifeguards.  The state of Hawaii has closed all beach parks to help combat COVID-19. This means no lifeguards on duty.

You. Are. On. Your. Own.  The sky disappears.  Just the darkening face of the wave topped with a sledgehammer that had transformed itself into a run-away locomotive bearing down on me. Kicking and paddling furiously, hoping to tuck under the lip before it met the reef below,  my heart rate went through the roof. My breath shortened into quick rapid gasps. There was about a 12 inch window of opportunity. Get under the lip and survive. Don’t get under and, well….  

It is amazing how fast your mind can fire in a fight or flight situation. Do I go all in, burn every match and hope to make it?  If I don’t make it I’ll be out of breath for the hold-down of my decade that I’m not sure I am conditioned to endure. Should I instead gather myself, take a few extra breaths and take a go into the imminent licking better prepared?

I grew up on the North Shore of the island of Oahu, Hawaii. Waialua High and Intermediate School, class of 1995. Growing up, the ocean was my second home. Bodyboarding anytime there were waves. Free diving during the summer months when it was calm and flat. It was what we did in our free time. Problem was, I hadn’t been back home when the waves were up for a long time. At the youthful age of 42, it would be accurate to say, I was not as good as I once was and now found myself in quite a pickle.

Before getting myself into this life-or-death quandary, I sat on the beach and watched a round of sets roll in.  They weren’t big by North Shore standards but they weren’t small either. I had been out when it was plenty bigger.  Ah it’s just like riding a bike, I told myself.  Once you get the feel of it, it all comes back and you will be fine.  I wasn’t completely wrong but, any experienced cyclist will also tell you that while you might be able to keep it upright after ten years of not riding a bike, that doesn’t mean you are ready to ride in the peloton of your local criterium race. Some lessons you just have to re-learn the hard way.

I chose the option of paddling my ass off.  I knew I didn’t have a North Shore hold-down in me at this stage of my life.  This was also the first wave of the set. That is right, I said “set.” Waves don’t roll in one at a time.  They travel in packs. Someday, someone will have to explain to me why that is, but needless to say when the big waves come, they come in multiples.  Each one tends to break further out as well, or at least it appears that way. Getting caught inside on the first one means a thorough whooping x 5! Nope, I wasn’t ready for that.  Being calm, controlling breathing, remaining “in the moment,” went out the window. I kicked and paddled like my life depended on it because I was convinced it did. The wave lurched and jacked up in front of me.  The blue at the top turned to white as the lip began to break, heading straight down toward my bald head like a wrecking ball toward the last remaining brick of the wall. Butt in the air, bodyboard pushed toward the reef below, I dove.  I’ve always sucked at duck-diving, but now was not the time to dwell on my shortcomings.

When you just make it under a wave an interesting phenomenon occurs.  There is an eerie silence as you dive underwater.  The pressure builds in your ears as you go deeper under water as the wave hopefully passes overhead.  You feel the surge and pull of the liquid mass passing over you.  It feels like the ocean is trying to de-pants you, tugging on your boardshorts. That sensation flows down to your feet as the ocean attempts to suck your feet back into the wave.  As you come up on the other side, the passing wave continues to pull you back toward the shore. Come up too quick and you have the unpleasant experience of being sucked back up, and over the falls of the wave.  Not pleasant but something experienced by every waterman/woman at some point in their life. That feeling never leaves you either. Each close call leaves you wondering if you mistimed it and are going to be sucked back over.  Close calls are puckering events for sure.

I made the first one.  Repeated the sequence for the second and third waves in the set.  The fourth and final ended with the embarrassing board-throw and dive for the bottom out of desperation.  Embarrassing but effective none-the-less.  Bursting to the surface, gathering myself, wide-eyed, out of breath and reminded how far out of my element I had become, a long-lost feeling of relief, apprehension, and accomplishment came rushing through my body.  I survived! Then came the flood of uncertainty. Is it picking upIs it just going to be getting bigger from here on out? Maybe I should just call it a day and head in.  Then the adrenaline kicked in.  I’m in perfect position now if a bomb comes throughGimme a bomb!

The ocean is a classroom unlike any other.  The rewards are immense, unmatched and unavailable elsewhere.  The Creator outdid itself with this saltwater wonderland. The lessons taught however, tend to be in the form of life-questioning hard knocks.  Those tend to be the most effective life lessons though.  During the aftermath of my recent, previously described, panic-stricken survival moment, the thought hit me – I have really learned a lot of lessons from the ocean that apply to life as well as my business of practicing law.  Then distraction.  I wonder if the shave ice place is still open.  Pre-occupied with deliciousness swirly through my mind, I didn’t think much of it until the flight home. We had six hours until we landed in Phoenix, I couldn’t sleep, why not start writing a few of them out?  So, I did. One by one, the list continued to grow like sets of waves lining the horizon. This article could go on for days but I’ll keep it to my top 10.  Here they are.

  1. Respect and Prepare.  Rule #1 must always be, Respect.  Failure to respect the ocean will kill you.  The same goes with life. We must always live life and conduct our business dealings with respect.  We never turn our back to the ocean and the same goes with family, employees and adversaries. Preparation is driven by respect.  We always seem to prepare better when we respect our opponents or other anticipated challenges. We can never underestimate the challenges that await as the minute we do is the minute the freak-set appears on the horizon.
  2. It all starts with paddling out.  Get in the game.  Nothing is achieved sitting on the beach.  If you are satisfied with simply walking the line between suntan and sunburn, then the sidelines of the sand are where you belong.  However to ride a mountain we must first paddle out. Paddling out means getting through the roughest of waters before reaching the line up. Timing helps but inevitably waves will break in front of us before we reach that zone.  Even sitting in the line-up once it is reached, we run the risk of new challenges popping up on the horizon and catching us inside. This is part of the game that we must accept and embrace. Success in life and business cannot and does not occur without first placing ourselves in uncomfortable positions that involve risk.  Hop in. Welcome and withstand the difficulties. Battle enthusiastically with everything you have. Overcome those adversities and ultimately, conquer. Always remain alert because the next opportunity to either land the ultimate ride or take one on the head is just over the horizon. 
  3. Success requires us to roll with, and adapt to, circumstances outside of your control.  There could not be a more important time to understand this lesson than the present.  While we like to think we have control over everything, the reality is that we only control how we respond to our environment.  In the ocean as in life, if we are honest with ourselves, we will appreciate that we are continuously in circumstances that no matter how hard we work, what is going to happen is going to happen.  Remember, we put ourselves in this position. We chose to paddle out and get in the game. We must learn to feel the currents, the pulls and pushes of life, and use them to the best of our abilities.  Adaptation is the key to not just surviving but thriving. We cannot and will not be able to control and change everything. We must be willing to surrender the illusion of control and instead focus on adaptation.  Focusing on what we can truly control will maximize our ability to harness and capitalize on opportunities for success when they are identified.
  4. Reward requires risk.  Great reward never comes without a corresponding risk. To experience our ultimate ride, we must first put ourselves in a precarious position.  Positioned in the danger zone where timing is everything. Too late and we miss the ride. The wave passes by. Too early and the wave gives us a pounding we won’t soon forget.  We must make the conscious decision to put ourselves in that precarious position to experience the reward of a great wave. The bigger and badder the wave, the bigger and badder the corresponding risk.  The same goes with life and business. If we want the reward of success, we must first be willing to take greater risks for the greater rewards. 
  5. Hard decisions must be made.  Make them. Own them. There is always a point of no return, we either commit or bail. Sometimes bailing is the right choice and sometimes it is just the easy way out. The discernment to make the right go/no-go decision is only achieved through experience and a few over-the-falls moments.  As one of my favorite cycling events says, “hesitation is devastation.” In life and in business, there comes a time to make a decision. Make it! Commit and go with what you believe is right and be willing to live with the consequences. If we can’t stomach the thought of living with the consequence of a decision, we should stay on the beach.  We must always take accountability for our decisions and own them. We cannot transfer the impact of the wave to anyone else. 
  6. There is no such thing as failure if you paddle back out.  Lickens (slang for whooping, spanking, thumping, butt-kicking …) are a part of life.  Shaking off a thumping and getting right back in the game is the best way to learn and condition ourselves for future successes.  Run from a whipping and the whipping wins. Dusting it off and getting back in the lineup with that lesson fresh in our head allows us to immediately put that lesson to good use and override the negative with a positive experience in its place. The only time failure truly exists is when we quit in the face of adversity and never try again.  Never be afraid of failing. Be afraid of not trying and missing the opportunity to accomplish that which you previously thought was impossible!
  7. We can survive more than we ever thought possible.  We can never truly know what we can withstand until we get through what we previously would have thought was unbearable.  The hard times are never enjoyable. Being held down at the bottom of the ocean as your lungs scream that they have reached their capacity, only to pop to the surface and taste that glorious breath of air, teaches us our physical limits are mostly just self-imposed mind-games.  The same goes for the tough times in life and business. Until we battle in the moment to adapt to changes and come out successful on the other side, we will never truly know what is possible. Necessity breeds ingenuity. It is the mother of all invention. When we find ourselves facing down the “impossible” we should remind ourselves of the previous challenges that we have already moved to the “possible” category.  
  8. Experience is a building block.  Perceived limits must be pushed to be successful.  Each surpassed perceived limit builds upon those that preceded them.  These experiences minimize our future risks. If we learn by experiencing what to look for, where to be, when to commit, and when to bail, those lessons will never be forgotten.  In life and in business, it is the lessons that sting that teach us the most. Taking one on the head quickly teaches us to avoid placing ourselves in that position again. The same goes with accomplishments.  Each accomplishment conditions us to appreciate the fact that success is attainable. Each new success is a building block to bigger and better things. Nobody goes out and rides a 10-foot wave on the first day.  We must work our way up, building upon the lessons and successes of the previous days.
  9. Others must experience a pounding themselves.  It is human nature to want to protect and shelter those that we love.  Certainly, we should not be throwing anybody into a situation that we know is impossible to manage or unsafe.  That being said, nature only permits living organisms to grow as much as their environment will permit. Excessive shelter inhibits growth.  There comes a time in life and business where others must be permitted to experience success and setbacks on their own. We don’t learn sitting on the beach.  We don’t learn if we don’t take an occasional pounding. If we truly care about the future success of those around us, there comes a time to let them learn and experience the successes and setbacks on their own.  These important lessons are not learned if the actual process and corresponding results are not physically experienced.  
  10. Turn off the lights and look up.  The last, but quite possibly the most important lesson taught to me by the ocean, doesn’t come from waves at all.  It comes from the calmest of waters on the quietest of nights. Night diving. The dead of night is when fish sleep and lobsters scurry from their holes.  Armed with a Hawaiian Sling and an underwater flashlight, calm nights were for night diving. Once out past the breakers, in the middle of a still dark night, we would take a moment to turn off our lights and look up.  There is no greater sight on earth. You hear the waves breaking on the reef to the inside. It is peaceful and still and the sky is illuminated with the billions and trillions of stars. More shooting stars than you can count.   We all need to remember to take the time to turn off our distractions, soak in the moment, and enjoy what is around us. We must take the time to turn off the lights and look up

Life, love and our livelihoods are continuous opportunities to better ourselves.  A little quiet reflection can go a long ways.  Now more than ever we can all benefit from taking advantage of the down times in our lives to reflect, recharge and re-calibrate.  Cheers to the past lessons and to all the future holds.  Stay healthy and stay driven!