a surfing lesson

I went surfing yesterday with a friend (thanks for joining Pascal!). It’s been a while. I caught a few waves, not much by the standards of some of my friends, but exactly what I wanted. We ended up spending most of the time floating past where the sets were coming in, surveying the horizon, just talking.

After riding the nth wave and as I approached the beach I had a choice: do I paddle back out for another wave, or do I head back in? I stood up in the shallow, frigid Pacific water. It was awesome just surveying the overcast scenery for a minute: the Pacifica cliff faces, birds overhead, the sound of water all around.

I wondered, just how much do I want to catch another wave?

If you’ve ever gone surfing then you know it takes a lot of work to catch a wave. You don’t just show up. I ran some quick mental math weighing effort vs desire. I knew the effort part but the desire was less clear and worth considering. How much pleasure would I get from another wave (literally that’s what I was thinking while standing in 50-something degree water, my hands turning purple)?

The more I thought about it the more I felt like it wasn’t desire that was driving me to go back out – I wasn’t pulled to do it but felt like I had to push to convince myself. If I really wanted it, I’d be compelled to just do it. I’d already be visualizing what it would feel like to ride that wave; my ideas would branch into new areas of inquiry, say about the physics of my body balancing on the board, and the board on the wave; I’d be thinking about where to position my board most optimally to catch the waves; I’d deeply consider my paddling form; angle of entry to the wave. If I wanted it I’d be obsessing about the details. And if I really wanted it there would be emotion driving the decision to just get out there. In short this wouldn’t be a question – I’d be doing it instead of standing around, literally freezing my toes off!

It’s worth asking the question about what’s pulling you to do just one more: whether it’s one more set in the gym, another mile repeat, one more climb up the wall, another practice problem, sales call. I think that’s a really interesting heuristic to gauge deep interest. To what are you compelled to do just one more without really thinking about it deeply? That’s a good indicator about whether you’re doing the right things or not. In effect the effort part of the equation becomes small, perhaps even irrelevant.

For example when I go running it’s seldom a question – I’ll always tend to throw in one more fartlek. Or if I don’t it’s because I know what I’m trying to achieve for that workout and know to reign myself in. I think this distills down to something along the lines of “I do it just because I like doing x activity”. That seems like a reasonable enough definition of a compulsion, or obsession.

In the end , while the thought of going out again seemed fun it wasn’t going to be enough to offset the effort required to do it.

I did however feel compelled to write this post.