Years ago, on vacation in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, I awoke at dawn to go for a walk on the beach, and I saw a curious sight. A guy on a bike was pedaling across the parking lot from the street, pumping away with one hand on the handlebars and the other gripping a surfboard perched precariously on his shoulder. The board was at least twelve feet long.
I glanced seaward and saw six or so surfers out in the cold, gray, early morning waters. NSB is known for two things: surfing and shark bites.
The cyclist chained his bike to a post and carried his board over to where I was staring out at the early-bird surfers. Some were prone on their boards paddling out into the breakers, some were sitting straddle-legged, bobbing in the swell, just beyond the whitecaps, looking out to sea over their shoulders towards the rising sun.
I stood there for a few minutes watching, when I noticed the guy with the ultra-long board hadn’t budged. I said, ”Aren’t you gonna join them?”
He kicked at some sand, kept peering intently at the sea, and said, ”Nah man, there’s no set.”
I realized I hadn’t actually seen anyone up on their board riding a wave yet. Waves were breaking but the kids in the water kept re-positioning themselves, occasionally paddling furiously to try to catch a whitecap and giving up.
”That’d just be a lot of wasted time,” the leather-tanned surfer said, squinting into the morning sun, ”Maybe later.” And with that he turned and padded barefoot back to his bike.
That morning has stuck with me as a metaphor for wasted effort. The people in the water weren’t ”surfing”. They were wet, they had surf boards, they were cresting whitecaps, but they weren’t surfing. Surfing happens when you match your timing, positioning, and skill with energy that the wave provides. And when the waves are broken and irregular and without a ”set”, you spend more energy than the ocean does.
Mr. Longboard had come to surf, not just to get wet. Since the conditions weren’t cooperative, he wasn’t wasting his time and effort. He was experienced enough to know it would have been a lost cause.
Similar events happen in our lives. Times when we are maxing out effort but there is no flow, and few results. We’re busy, but not productive. Sometimes, it’s a conversation where the other person just isn’t hearing, no matter how many different ways you try to say it. Sometimes, it’s adverse market conditions. Or when the environment makes it impossible to concentrate and do your best work. And sometimes we give it our all, but things beyond our control prevent the results we’re hoping for. It’s important to recognize that it isn’t always about you.
We can learn to maximize the return on our efforts. We can be aware of opportunities to meld effort, skill, and timing to get the best results. And we can learn to spot when there is a ”set” and be ready to ride.