I’ve been surfing for many years, but not consistently as I’ve never lived close to a surfing beach, and I’ve never had anything beyond a beginner lesson. I’ve been feeling a lot like someone who’s been skiing their whole life but can only do blue runs, with the occasional black run thrown in there (with VERY mixed results!). And I want to be better, so I keep going out, every chance I get. I get some good, fun rides, but I had plateaued.
One day recently I was out surfing, and though there were plenty of waves I wasn’t catching any. Sure, it was kind of choppy and windy but some other people were catching waves. Why wasn’t I? I noticed a paddle boarder who kept catching waves, and I tried to resist the urge to assume that it was easier because of the paddle. And anyway, it was a beautiful day, so I was pretty happy to just be out there in the warm waters of the Big Island of Hawai’i.
And yet, each time a wave swelled up under me I would paddle for it and it would roll on without me, sometimes breaking, sometimes not. But always without me.
Then along came Nick, the pilot on the paddle board (that’s not how he introduced himself). We struck up a conversation about surfing and life and he generously offered me some advice after watching me paddle for, and miss, too many waves. Fortunately I was open to receiving it, because it was a game changer. What he offered was this: “when you think you’ve missed it and you’re about to give up, give it 3 more fast strokes”.
It seemed too simple. I’d heard similar advice before but it was always, “paddle harder,” or “paddle more,” or “start sooner,” but this was different because it was specific. I didn’t really know how much harder, or longer, or sooner but I know what 3 more is. And it’s not that much. It felt doable.
So, I tried it. And guess what? It didn’t work. At least not every time. But it did work sometimes, and I suddenly found myself catching waves that I was missing before. Not every wave, but a lot more than I had been catching. And it was just 3 more strokes.
What I love about it is that 3 strokes is easy, even when you’re tired. It’s also measurable, not at all abstract or subjective. 3 more strokes. Nick explained that it was giving me just a bit more momentum to help me, because you have to be moving already in order to catch a wave. If you are sitting still or moving too slowly it will just roll right under (or over) you (what a metaphor for life, but I’ll get to that).
I had so much fun that day, even though the waves were small, because I could catch them. Nick’s words kept coming back to me, “When you think you’ve missed it and you’re about to give up, give it 3 more fast strokes”. Later, I sat on the beach watching the sun drop lower in the sky as the surfers still in the water became silhouettes, bobbing lightly in the swell. And I started to think about how this idea of giving it 3 more strokes could help me on land, in other parts of my life.
How often have I wanted something and then backed off or given up before I really gave it my all? And what makes me do that? What might be different for me if I gave it 3 more strokes more often?
I thought of the times I have; like last fall when I found out my dear dog Bodhi had only a month or two to live because the cancer was overpowering the chemo. I could have just taken him home and waited it out, sad and dreading the end. Instead in that moment I knew exactly what I had to do - I took him to the Oregon Coast for 10 days of bliss in one of his favorite places. We found so much joy there, we LIVED fully each day because I wasn’t willing to stop paddling just yet. And it had to happen right away, there was no time to delay. We had to go for it then, while he still felt good. And what a gift that was.
3 more strokes. There are so many times that I haven’t taken that 3 more strokes, and someone else got the contract, or the client, or the wave, or whatever. What makes me, or any of us, stop paddling? Fear? Lack of belief in ourselves? A belief that it’s too hard, or that we’re not good enough? For me it’s probably all of those things. But that doesn’t move me forward.
3 more strokes. I know it doesn’t work every time, but nothing really does, does it? And are we really supposed to catch every wave? Get every contract? I’m not so sure that’s necessary. It’s still important to feel it out and decide which ones are for us, and sometimes that is out of our hands, because paddle as hard as we might, that wave might not break for us. And that doesn’t mean that we suck, or aren’t good enough, or don’t deserve it. Sometimes that wave just doesn’t break. But another one will come.
There are no guarantees. What I do know is that for the next week after I took on that advice and adopted the mantra of 3 more strokes, I caught way more waves than I would have.
I also met more people and had more interesting conversations because I hung in there longer. I felt better about myself, I felt more confident because my success rate went up, and I felt lighter because I had no regrets. And I followed up on some things that I had started to let go of…giving up before the wave broke for me. And I caught some of those waves too.
What I’m learning is that I don’t have to go for every wave. I can pick and choose, but if I decide to go, I will give it my all, plus 3 more strokes. I believe we all have that in us, and we can all sense (if we pay attention) when we should go for it.