Surfing, hacking, and what they demand of us

7 April 2021
7 Apr 2021
Poipu, Kaua'i, Hawai'i
4 mins

During April, I spent a couple of weeks away from my usual habitus, and traveled to Hawai’i, working and getting to know my team at Ideaflow. In between the commits and deploys, we spent a lot of time surfing. (Or, I should say, in between all the surfing, we made some commits.)

I had never touched a surfboard before, though apparently Hawai’i is the spot to learn to surf. It still took me a full week of time on the water and lots of saltwater-swallowing to start catching waves.

Sunset at Poipu Beach, Kaua’i, with the sun hanging on the horizon

Surfing, like startups, is a sprint. You paddle out into the water, far out into the ocean where the waves haven’t broken yet and the rocks beneath won’t scratch you you if you fall. You wait until the right set of waves come to you. And when the right time comes, you sprint sprint sprint with your arms digging into the water to get just ahead of the crest of the wave before it rises underneath your board. Many times, the wave will just push you up and forward slightly towards the shore before passing under you or breaking into white water. But if you get your balance just right through that small window in time and space, the water will catch the board on its way to the shore, and carry you forward.

When you catch one, it feels like riding a waterslide while hovering across the top of the water. If you catch that small window, the water pushes you like a sail catching the wind – a wind made out of jets of water. If you, like me most of the time, miss that chance, you simply be patient and paddle out again. Your job is now to wait until the next one comes your way.

The hard thing about all this is that you’ll spend most of the time you’re in the water paddling or waiting. When you’re paddling, it’s hard to even know whether you’re moving or how quickly, because all you can see in the water are waves moving in their own directions. Many times, you’re also paddling against the waves, working twice as hard to go against the water’s forces.

Despite all that, to catch the waves, you need to keep paddling for the right place and the right time. In the beginning, most of this feels mundane, and it feels like you’re working way too hard just for the occasional reward of gracefully shooting across the water once in a while. But I think to really enjoy it, surfing demands that you love every part of the process, not just the occasional wins. The best surfers seem to be the ones who enjoy the work in between the waves just as much as the joy of riding them.

Dusk at Poipu Beach, Kaua’i, moonlit ocean visible through silhouettes of palm trees

When I got tired from paddling and pushing (which was often during my first week in the water), I loved to just sit on the board and watch the sun inch down over the horizon. This was my favorite time to be out in the water. The sun was never too bright to be hot, and the water was always warm. I remember looking out over the Pacific horizon and being overwhelmed by the pink-orange reflections of the clouds. The light colored everything in the sky and painted the crests in the waves in an intense red, and I remember thinking there could be no better place to enjoy the gentle warmth of a sunset than on that water, in that moment.

Trying and trying and failing and enjoying every part of the process – I think many things ask this of us. Surfing, writing, building projects, building companies. These things require practice and luck and inspiration in equal parts, and they demand that we love every part of the process, because it’s the only way to paddle and wait long enough to enjoy the benefits. More importantly, it’s the only way to stay in the game long enough to become great.

I think people make the best things when they love the process, when they willingly shoulder the inherent uncertainty and pain that comes with it. It’s almost like a form of prayer: you offer up what you can even though the reward is uncertain. You do it out of love.

– Ava, on effort

Creative craft is not a process with exact inputs and outputs. Sometimes you labor for days without satisfaction, and other times, a seeming stroke of luck makes the other days worth it. But we ought not think of it as a gamble, where the wins might make up for the losses. On our best days, we should find ourselves loving even the moments when we have to paddle out into uncertain waves and wait patiently for the next window of opportunity to push us into the air. It’s only with love that we can do anything for long enough, and it’s only by doing it long enough that we can become as great as we want to be.

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