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Surfing the waves of innovation

"You can't stop the waves... but you can learn to surf!" My take on the transferable skills from surfing to life and innovation.

Transferable skills

When I studied philosophy I wasn't preparing myself for a certain job. So after I graduated I had to convince my clients that I could transfer the skills I picked up to other fields. Fields that are more relevant to their business, like data and analytics. There is a lot to say about these transferable skills from philosophy to data and analytics. But here I will focus on the transferable skills from surfing to innovation.


As a surfer I can assure you that learning how to surf is not at all easy. Depending on the height and power of the waves you may be in well over your head - literally - before you even know what hit you. A quick calculation learns us that a volume of 1 m³ of water weighs 1.000kg. Now imagine a wave of 3m crashing on your head, let alone a wave of 25m. You better get comfortable holding your breath and staying calm while trying to find out which side is up. When you're in the water when you come to the conclusion you can't stop the waves, that might be a bit late.

Surfing is a good metaphor for innovation. But I'm not talking about surfing in Nazaré in Portugal, with it's waves of 30 meters. This is so far from the daily reality of almost any surfer, that the metaphor quickly seems far-fetched. To know when to go into the water, and when to check your ego and stay on the beach is the first decision you have to make if you're looking at the waves. And in the case of Nazaré this decision is quite simple. Unless you have been training for years to surf this ginormous mutant wave, stay out. Don't put yourself or the people who will try to save you in danger.

Sports as a metaphor

I love to read about sports. I'm inspired by books like Scott Jureks 'Eat and run' about running ultra-marathons. Or like Phil Jacksons 'Sacred hoops' about his spiritual approach to coaching basketball. Or closer to home Kim Hertogs small book 'How I started surfing'.

But I have had mixed feelings about using sports as a metaphor for business for a long time. The main reason is that in sports the players are playing a finite game with a clear set of rules. A game has a certain duration, you know how to win, the playing field is clear. Business is different. You don't know how long you will have to perform. It's not always clear how you can win. And apart from the legal framework there is no playing field.

When we look at sports as the activity instead of the competition, the perspective shifts. Looking at the skills and attitudes needed to perform a sport, we can identify aspects that transfer to other aspects of life and business. For me competition is secondary to giving everything I've got on my level (Crossfit). To finishing a hard event together (trailrunning). Or to simply having fun (surfing).

From surfing ...

A couple of skills that transfer from surfing are:

Know yourself. Surfing is physically demanding. Work on your strengths, and patch your weaknesses. For me in the context of surfing this means keep my power and stamina and work on flexibility and explosive. This I can achieve by regularly attending the Crossfit trainings at Crossfit Cargo.

Look for ways to practice. The waves are different every time you hit the surf. The wind, sandbanks and swell are never the same. This makes is very hard to practice in the water. Of all the time you invest in surfing you'll probably be on your board for less than 10%. That's why I took up skateboarding to practice the balance on a board and learn to steer better in my turns.

Give yourself some time to learn to read the waves. First you will have to get in the right position. Then you have to learn to pick the right wave. Then you have to know when exactly to go for it. You will not get this right the first time. It will take dedication and humility to learn. Also, to get to the bigger waves in the back you have to cross a lot of smaller waves while paddling out. Sometimes I get tempted to take off on one of those easier waves, but then I have to start all over again to get in the back. It can even get dangerous when you are getting dragged out with the currents and you have to fight to stay within reach of the beach. Always be sure there is someone nearby who knows you're out there and you can call to get help.

Once you commit, you have to be all in. More often than not, it's not you who chooses the wave but the other way around. Once you're in a certain spot you can't but go for it. Any hesitation will throw you off. This is another similarity with skating. To drop in to a half pipe you have to commit fully. Mind you that concrete is harder than water to break your fall when you don't make it.

Keep working when you fail at first. Learning to surf is failing by design. I'm not particularly talented so I had to really want it to get to the point where I can consistently stand up on a wave. Then I could start practicing some turns and pop ups on somewhat bigger waves. I also know when to rest. When I'm starting to force things or get frustrated I go sit on my board on the beach for a couple of minutes to catch my breath and enjoy the view. After that I can loosen up again and go for it!

... to innovation

In innovation this translates as follows:

Develop a vision. Know yourself, double down on the reasons your customers choose for you. But at the same time set your sights on the mid term to design an experience your customers don't even know they will want.

Be ready but patient. Look for ways to practice, build trust with a couple of key customers to be able to experiment with the. Without risking too much of your reputation. Build partnerships.

Have a growth mindset and be bold. Give yourself some time to learn to read the waves. Don't be afraid to take on a couple of tasks that are more than you can chew, you'll learn a lot. Always communicate when it becomes clear you are in over your head.

Look for flow. Once you commit, you have to be all in. Once you're in the right position, look for that feeling of focus and flow you have chosen this line of work for in the first place. Commit some deep work to get things moving and enjoy.

Put in the work but stay loose. Keep working when you fail at first. You knew it wasn't going to be easy. Identify what is going wrong, take a step back if need be and go for it!

See you in the water!