Surfing and the art of business


My brother is currently visiting the UK from Australia, and over a cup of tea we got talking about business and (of course), surfing.

Our business conversation covered how some people just seem to be lucky, while others slave away for years to no apparent end.  I mentioned the excellent TED talk by Bill Gross  on the biggest reason startups succeed (spoiler alert – it’s timing), and we drifted into surfing speak…..

According to Surfer Today, surfers only spend 8% of their time in the water riding waves.   54% of their time is spent paddling out, and 28% of their time is spent waiting for the right wave.  I’m not sure what the remaining 10% of the time is used for – perhaps looking cool or tanning?

Paddle out

In all the conversations I have had with business leaders, it is clear that an inordinate amount of time is spent generating new ideas, trying out different approaches, learning new disciplines, examining new markets.  This is likely to be happening at the same time as normal business is continuing, but for a startup, it represents a pure labour of love or “sweat equity”. This “paddling out” may never be worthwhile, but has got to happen in order to allow the good stuff later.  


Whilst the paddling out analogy will be familiar to most, I wonder how many leaders have had the self-discipline to wait for the right wave?  In our tea-time conversation, my brother and I debated this at some length. His view was that a surfer will use pure feeling to observe how a wave takes form and then make a snap decision to ride it or not.  In my view they are using a vast store of knowledge and experience to help them make that decision. Consider all the factors involved – the motion of the sea immediately around them, the shape, speed, size and angle of the wave approaching them; the presence of other surfers around them and the chance of a wave becoming crowded.  I’m sure a professional surfer could wax lyrical (or just wax!) about this all day, and it is probably a mix of both experience and gut-feel that gets the best result.

But it’s interesting to note that a surfer will spend 28% of their time waiting – letting opportunities pass by because they just don’t seem right. When money is waiting to be made, the pressure to ride the “first wave” is much more extreme.

Paddle hard

Once the wave has been selected, it’s time to line up the board and paddle hard.  Getting the board speed to match the wave speed then allows the surfer to pop-up and ride.  It’s a short period of intense activity that requires strength, skill and balance.


This is of course why most of us love business – that feeling of riding a wave of success. It’s still not straightforward and requires a lot of practice, but the rush of excitement is a huge motivator – so huge that when the wave eventually dies away, the first instinct is to paddle out again.

The dangers and disappointments

Surfing, it would seem, is the metaphor that keeps on giving!  

We’ve all been in business when sharks are in the water.

We’ve tried to surf a wave that is too busy with other surfers and have got hurt in some collision.

Many of us have tried to ride a wave that is dangerously too big and have had the very unpleasant experience of being half-drowned by the sheer power of what is going on around us.

So What?

If you’ve never done actual surfing, I highly recommend a weekend giving it a go – just being in the water will make you feel alive again.

But you may be asking “what’s the point writing this? So what if there is a nice metaphorical link between surfing and business?  How can it make me better about what I do?”

Well, there’s probably lots of parallels you can apply to be better at business, but I’m not going there today.

For me, it’s just a great reminder.  You don’t start surfing to be a world-champion surfer.  You start because it’s fun, it’s healthily addictive, and when you catch “that wave” it’ll change your life – swear to God.


Have an awesome day dude.