I’ve been thinking a lot about excellence, lately, and what we think of as excellence for ourselves. I recently finished a playwriting workshop, where the professor, who is a prolific and incredibly talented playwright, told us her criterion for excellence in a play. She was adamant about one thing specifically—that her criteria for excellence did not have to be our own—and she reminded us that for this class only did we need to follow her guidelines.
The reality of it was, she made sure we knew, that our criteria need not align with hers when it came to our own future writing endeavors. I’m bringing this concept to my surfing more and more these days—the concept of excellence—and it’s made me realize (and simply remember) several things about my own surfing journey.
1. Your best is your best is your best.
For a long time, I would get out in the water and hold myself to different standards depending on the day. If I was feeling the stoke and feeling hyped up, I set my goals high. I set them so high some days, in fact, that they were too difficult to meet. I set myself up to be unsatisfied, frustrated, and disappointed in myself. What do I now strive to take with me?
My best. That’s it. I strive to bring out my best with me in the lineup, no matter the waves or the hangover or the size of the swell or the length of the session. I bring out my best, for that day, and I aim to achieve whatever that is. If it’s kooking out on every turn and catching rail so much I spend more time in the white wash than on my board, then that was my best for the day. If that day my best is clean take-offs and some pretty killer turns, then that was my best. If being a buoy for the day is my best, then it must be good enough, because it already is good enough.
2. No one is as critical of you as you are.
Maybe in the upper echelons of surfing, where scrutiny and critique is the game, or where mistakes are life-or-death situations, some people are going to critique others’ surfing more intensely than ourselves. I used to paddle out and constantly worry about what others thought of me: “Did anyone see me wipeout?” “Am I paddling correctly?” “These guys must think I’m a joke” are just a few of many thoughts which would run through my mind. But, what I’ve come to see more and more is that everyone is focused on their own criteria for excellence for themselves. No one cares about what I’m doing, because we’re all out there trying to achieve our own goals for that day. From simply standing up on a wave to landing an air, everyone around me is doing their own thing. So, why waste my time wondering what others think of my surfing as long as I’m having fun?
3. Sometimes just getting there is enough.
I’ve had plenty of days when surfing wasn’t easy. I had homework, or had to go to work. I was exhausted and sore or frustrated and stressed out. The waves looked sub-par, or the conditions were less than desirable. But on those days when my expectations were lowest, on the days when my only goal was to get into the ocean, whether for 30 minutes or 4 hours, were some of my best surf days. Not because I surfed well, or because the conditions were stellar, but because I made a conscious effort to do something that sounded difficult, and I made it enjoyable for myself.
4. Wipeouts can be some of the greatest opportunities for growth.
No one likes wiping out. Going over the falls or taking a tumble in the whitewash is generally not the goal when we paddle out. I used to hate falling because I got embarrassed; I felt stupid and about what other people thought about me; sometimes I got injured. But there’s nothing quite like getting worked and getting back out there. Getting caught on the inside after a fall and making it back out after taking 2 or 5 or 15 waves to the head teaches you so many things. Wiping out teaches me what to I need improve and what I need to fix. It pushes me to get better. Wiping out makes me want to work that much harder to make the next wave my best one.
Laughing at Myself
There’s also almost nothing more satisfying (besides getting an epic ride) than laughing at myself. Laughing at myself makes me stop taking everything so seriously. When I wipeout and pop back up after taking a spill, I can’t help but feel that I’m still doing something right. Because I must be. Every surfer on the planet has wipeouts; there isn’t anyone out there who never falls or never gets hurt or never makes a silly mistake. Sure, the level of surfing might vary, and a mistake for a pro isn’t going to be the same as a mistake for me, but what matters is that we all get back up and keep trying.
Which leads me to my own criteria for excellence, in surfing and in life. My criteria are to have as few criteria as possible, to improve on one small aspect of my surfing every time I paddle out. One day it might be simply getting more comfortable in bigger surf. I’ll only catch one wave, but that one wave will be a 7-foot face and I’ll land it and that’s all I need for the day. Another day it’ll be my backside take-offs, and another day it’ll be simply enjoying the present moment of the ocean, regardless of my wave count.
This is what surfing is about for me. Surfing is the opportunity to push myself to the degree that I want to push myself for that day, and to be grateful I’m in the ocean, regardless of whether I 100% reach what I’m driving myself towards. My criteria for excellence is always changing, because as a surfer I believe that every time I paddle out I get a tiny microscopic amount better, purely because I got another hour of water time under my belt.
Realistic + Optimistic
It’s important that whatever skill level or ability we are, at anything, that we evaluate what our own realities and goals are, that we don’t get ourselves caught up in someone else’s measures for excellence. Because we can’t know the expectations of others as well as we know our own expectations, so we probably can’t achieve those as well as our own, either. Sure, it’s important to keep enhancing one’s surfing skill, but if we never give ourselves a moment to appreciate how much we’ve improved, if we are constantly reaching for that next higher level, then when will we ever find the time to enjoy ourselves?