Surfer Mindset: A Metaphor for Success and Happiness

The origin of the ‘surfer mindset’ theory

Surfers are notorious for their infallibly relaxed attitudes. They exude an enviable ‘go with the flow’ energy, which Reddit cofounder Alexis Ohanian says has benefits for all of us – both in and out of the water. 

In a keynote address at the University of Virginia, Ohanian touted that the ‘surfer mindset’ is the mindset to adopt for both a successful business and a happy life. The reasons for this are numerous. Inherently, surfers must make friends with challenging circumstances and practice discipline, patience, and intense focus to choose which waves are worth riding and which they should let pass by. This is directly relatable to the unpredictable journey of life that we navigate day to day. 

How does the ‘surfer mindset’ apply to life?

As in life, “…some waves come by…and you are just killing it…you feel good about yourself,” Ohanian says. Surfers are extremely focused on their wave while riding it, and they enjoy it fully while it lasts, seeing it out until the end. These are the highs of life, where you feel most in flow, aligned, and productive.

Surfers know that this feeling eventually comes to an end, and you might have to “…paddle back out…and wait five hours for another good wave”, but they don’t let it ruin the wave they’re riding. They simply accept that this is the nature of the water.  

In this way, Ohanian emphasizes the importance of practicing focus, non-attachment to circumstances, and being at peace with the fact that, after peaks, come inevitable troughs where you may fail or feel stagnant. 

How can adopting the ‘surfer mindset’ help us to reframe failure?

It is important to practice resilience during times of failure and not give up during hard times. As Ohanian says, “…you might miss some waves… some other waves come by…and you wipe out…”. Persisting after failure and reframing failures as opportunities for growth could be the most important traits of a good surfer and, analogously, a successful entrepreneur. 

Many of the world’s greatest entrepreneurs have weighed in on the importance of failure to growing a business and reaching eventual ‘success.’ As the highly successful tech giant and innovator extraordinaire Elon Musk says, “If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough.”

Good surfers are not attached to their failures. They don’t agonize over a bad ride or a missed wave, as living in the past makes them less capable of effectively catching the next one, which may present itself. In short, learning from your past failures is valuable, but so is moving forward.

Ohanian, again, puts this eloquently; “If you spend all your time on that board, just being anxious about the wave you just missed, you’re going to miss the next one. If you spend it just daydreaming and trying to relive that one amazing wave you just had, you might miss the next one.” 

Ohanian’s metaphor implores us to keep looking forward, to not spend too much time dwelling on our failures or successes, and to trust that more waves – or opportunities – are always forming on the horizon.  

How can non-surfers adopt the ‘Surfer Mindset’? 

So, adopting a ‘surfer mindset’ seems like the way to go if you want to lead a happier, more successful life. But how can non-surfers go about practicing this way of being so that it becomes a new normal? 

1. Practice meditation

At the heart of the surfer mindset is presence. Many tools exist to help us let go of past experiences and focus on the now, one being meditation. There are numerous forms of meditation, with the common goal being to quieten the mind and let go of attachment to the past and future.

Practicing meditation daily can help us release unhelpful thoughts and feelings so that we can focus on the wave that we are currently riding or hop on the next one that presents itself. Just five minutes of meditation per day has been proven to reduce anxiety about the past and future.

2. Try new things

In surfing, the one certainty is that no two waves are the same. Surfers are constantly adapting and trying new ways of moving, reading, and riding each wave. Translating this into your own life and trying new tasks that may feel uncomfortable will increase your resilience and skill set. This brings us to the next tip…

3. Take educated risks

Surfing is an inherently risky endeavor, yet that doesn’t stop surfers from heading out into the waves each day, only to get tossed about all over again. No successful business or entrepreneur has ever made it ‘big’ by playing it safe. Take risks and ride waves that intimidate you! Often, the rewards are greater than the consequences. Of course, be mindful that you have the skills and support to handle the endeavor. 

4. Make friends with failure

Failure is a surfer’s best friend. Even after an amazing ride comes a fall, and each session has a mixture of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ waves. Often, the ‘bad’ ones yield the most insight into where improvements could be made. This applies to life, too. Try to view failure not as a weakness but as an opportunity to grow and improve. 

5. Practice acceptance

If you fail, try your best to objectively accept that you have failed without attaching any negative emotions to it. Analyze why this happened and how you would do things differently next time. It could be that this was simply the wrong course of action for you, or perhaps you could have been more calculated in your approach. It doesn’t have to be that deep! 

6. Lastly, be patient and enjoy the process

Surfers know that you can’t rush things. The ocean dictates how many waves you get, and sometimes, waiting for the right wave is far more fruitful than getting the messier ones that precede it. Slow down. Don’t rush your process. It is far easier to make better decisions and enjoy life when you take your time. Trust that an opportunity that is right for you is just over the horizon, and, in the meantime, enjoy the ride!

James Davis

Written by James Davis

I'm a true California local, and I've spent my life riding the waves along our stunning coastline. Surfing has always been my greatest love, and in my writing, I try to capture its genuine essence. My words aim to transport you into the heart of the surf culture, where the ocean and surfers come together in perfect harmony.

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