Lessons From Surfers in San Diego
December 27, 2021


After two years of staying home in Singapore, I was super excited to finally embark on our long-awaited family holiday to the USA in early December. Many things that we were concerned about happened smoothly (Covid-testing for example), and some things we encountered upon arrival in the US were surprising (unexpected cold weather for example).  

Our travels took us from the San Francisco Bay Area to Texas and westwards again to San Diego, Southern California. The quaint AirbnB at which we stayed had a pretty ocean theme for all the furnishings and artwork in the house along with surf boards and towels for beach use.

On our first morning, we walked two blocks towards the ocean at around 7.30 a.m. The parking lot was full of cars with people getting into wetsuits, unloading their surfboards from their vehicles and running towards the waves that seemed awfully close. 

As we soaked in the rising warmth of the sun through our jackets, I watched the surfers, more than 50 of whom were spread out on the water in small groups or in twos or even by themselves. From that day on, at other beaches in the vicinity, I remained mesmerised by  brave surfers who stepped into the beautiful blue waters which beckoned me too but I found it to be quite cold given the season.

What is common to surfing and being an author

I had taken on the tag of ‘author’ after publishing my book, Rewriting My Happily Ever After in 2021 yet there was so much I was learning about being an author that was quite unsettling. After watching the surfers for hours, I realised that surfing was a good metaphor for the writing life.

Here are some lessons I learned from the surfers of San Diego:

  1. You don’t need to crowd with other surfers to catch a wave – I saw large groups of surfers huddled together in a small area fairly deep into the ocean. Initially I thought they had some inside  knowledge of the workings of the ocean and were poised to find ‘the one’ – a special giant wave that would make their day. Yet, as minutes passed, I found that most were just lounging around waiting for something to happen and were mostly idle.  It reminded me of much of the book marketing advice that I had come across that seemed formulaic and lacked imagination but was touted as the ‘best’ or ‘must’ do activity even though my instinct said otherwise.
  2. There is a special wave for each surfer that matches their skill, ability and interest. Every so often I would see surfers much closer to the shore rise up and calmly ride a perfect wave. I cheered for them while appreciating their skill in navigating the surf. Every author needs to find their sweet spot, a zone of operation where they are comfortable in doing what is required of them. While they may not ride huge waves (of popularity or commercial success), they may still have an enjoyable ride. Their special wave may be far away from the hordes and look very different from the standard wave, yet be completely satisfying.
  3. The ride may be short and exciting or long and satisfying based on the choices you make. Everyone does not wish or need to have the same experience. From selecting the place you want to tackle, to the kind of wave you want to ride and figuring out the feeling you want to feel, you need to make a series of decisions which will guide you towards your most desired experience. This applies to both surfers and authors.
  4. Doesn’t matter if you fall off the board, keep getting back up and try various iterations. With practise, your skill improves and so does your instinct. As a writer, you face so many rejections before you begin getting better at writing, publishing and feeling confident about the whole process. The repeated learning cycles of the surfers as they plunged into the water multiple times reminded me of this important lesson about staying in the water in order to improve.
  5. No matter how lucky or experienced you are as a surfer, you need to exit the water at some point. Sometimes you may fall in a messy heap, at other times, you may gracefully ease off the surfboard, but the fact remains that you need to move to dry ground at some point. As an author, I find that in addition to writing, I need to do other things that feed my soul. Sitting with a laptop or a pen at all times of the day and night does not make me a better writer or fulfill all my needs or even. Life needs to be peppered with varied experiences in order to make it interesting enough to write about.

The key lesson I have taken to heart from the surfers is one that we all know but hardly ever acknowledge, is that each journey is unique. Whether we travel in groups or measure our progress with respect to peers, the uniqueness of our life cannot be categorised and compared with others.

The blessing lies in the opportunity to be in the race in the first place. As I fumble and find my way as an author, I find that I had much in common with the surfers, who all seemed to return from the beach wet and sandy but always with a big smile, happy to have enjoyed their time in the water.

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