I still remember my early days as a surfer and the first time I paddled out past the breakers to the surf lineup. It was the beginning of the summer between my freshman and sophomore year of college and I had gotten a job at a camp at the beach working with middle school students. While I was excited about the job and getting to work with kids all summer I was also eager to go after longtime goal – to learn to surf.
I had grown up going to the Oregon Coast and spent lots of time in the ocean. From an early age my parents instilled in me a healthy fear and respect for the ocean. “Don’t go out past your knees” they would say as my friends and I headed out to boogie board knowing that if we went too much deeper a large wave could overtake us or we could get pushed into a current that could pull us out.
That conservative approach was totally logical and helpful when I was younger. But as I reached my teenage years I started noticing the surfers farther out catching bigger and better waves and I desperately wanted to join them.
The problem was I had developed this idea that paddling out that far was truly dangerous.
It was partly because I was a nervous and conservative kid when it came to trying new physical challenges. But it was also because I had experienced a rather traumatizing incident when I was younger and less experienced where I got caught in a riptide while boogie boarding and pulled about 100 yards off shore before being spit out and shoved back in by a wave.
But now I was older, stronger and more experienced and understood the ocean better. Still as I stepped into the frigid Pacific water that June day with my new friends I could feel my heart pounding in my chest and sense the panic trying to set in. I knew I was going to do something I’d never done and would have to push past a fear that had made deep roots in my psyche over a long period of time.
My strategy for getting past the fear and learning how to surf was to find some people that were experienced and literally follow them and do exactly what they did in the water. That day I was with just such a group and I told myself no matter how terrified I felt I was going to push through and follow my new friends.
So that’s exactly what I did. I hung on to them (not literally) like an anchor watching and knowing that if they seemed like everything was OK then it probably was.
The waves were fairly small that day which was good and the journey out to the lineup wasn’t near as difficult as I’d expected. We pushed through probably one or two sets of waves and then we were “outside”.
When we got to the lineup I discovered something amazing.
Unlike the often violent, washing machine-like environment I had spent so much of my childhood playing in close to shore, outside the breakers was actually very calm and even peaceful.
Sure, once in a while a set of waves would come through that was bigger than expected and we’d have to frantically paddle past, but for the most part is was a pretty tranquil place. Best of all I got to experience riding a wave from its beginning, from the point where it just starts to break. The smoothness, speed and power is something that is difficult to describe.
That day was a turning point for me, one where a simple yet profound step of courage led to discovering one of the great joys of my life.
If I had stayed closer to shore I never would have gotten to experience the greatness of what existed past the breakers.
This story illustrates an important truth that I’m still learning. So often we don’t feel confident when faced with a new challenge or a goal we’d like to accomplish and we stop there. We think if we don’t feel like we can do it then we must not be able to. So we never try. Or at the most we give it a half try, like dipping our toes in the water, and when it doesn’t quite go right we give up and assume it was never meant to be.
But I’m learning that just the opposite is true.
Confidence is built over time by taking risks and through practice.
The first step usually requires the most courage then, over time, it tends to get easier. We have to learn to push through the discomfort and even start to see it as a good thing. It is a sign that we’re on the right track.
I wasn’t instantly confident when I got past the breakers that first time. In fact even though it was much more peaceful out there than I expected there was still a serious sense of nervousness right under the surface. But as I spent more time in the water the fear began to subside. Soon I was improving very rapidly as a surfer and before long was riding waves like I would never have imagined.
As I remember lessons like these they propel me forward to take more risks and remember that I’m much stronger and more capable than I think I am. All it takes is some courage and practice.
The same is true for you. I encourage you to take a courageous step this week in an area that you’ve wanted to step out. I think the results will surprise you.