Improving at a sport with a steep no learning curve and high skill ceiling taught me 3 fundamental lessons about building better tech products.
Almost 10 years ago, I moved to Australia from London, to start a new job and take up a new sport. The job, as a strategy consultant, put me on a path which wound its way from mine sites to websites and ultimately my current role as a product manager. But the sport, surfing, has had just as much of an impact in my outlook on life and work.
Lesson #1 Absorb, and act
Surfing is competitive, with everyone battling for position to have priority on the wave. If you are in the wrong position, you don’t get the wave, you don’t surf. To anticipate where the next wave will be, you have to process a constant stream of data: the movements of other surfers, the conditions, the shapes of incoming waves, the currents and the wind. But knowing where the wave will be is not enough, you must act on that knowledge.
It’s easy not to act. You can second guess yourself — is it actually going to break? You can remove the urgency — there’s going to be another one right behind, right? You can write off your chances — is that other guy going to go for it? Or you can give in to self doubt — I’ll probably mess it up anyway. Overcoming these mental hurdles and the paralysis they bring is necessary. You need to constantly be assessing and moving, so you are where the wave will be. You will get it wrong sometimes, but trying and failing is better than not trying at all.
Professionally, the data is different: we have web analytics, sale and revenue numbers, churn and retention rates, competitor press releases and feedback from our customers. Translating this data into a strategy and direction is one trick, but a mediocre plan well executed is better than a perfect plan never tried. Don’t fall into the trap of analysis paralysis — remember to act. As Sheryl Sandberg says, “Done is better than perfect.”
Lesson #2 Practice with focus
There have been times over the years where I’ve felt like I’ve hit a ceiling: putting in time to go surfing but not getting any better. Reflecting on this, I found I had lost sight of the pathway to my ultimate goal. I was practicing, but it was more like I was going through the motions. I was no longer being deliberate in my learning.
A recent trip to Bali bought this into perspective. Surfing with local guides, I’d receive immediate feedback on what I could improve: stance, balance and even the angle of my take off. Rather than trying to be a better surfer, a nebulous concept which is hard to measure, I started focusing on nailing these elements of my technique. The result, I rode more waves, felt better in the water, improved my surfing surfing and had more fun at the same time.
At work, I feel this translates again — both to my own development and for my product. Having a big, aspirational goal is important, but visualising the steps to get there are just as important. This gives you something achievable to focus on in the short time. It helps you remain motivated because you can see the progress you are making. And you receive feedback faster, and more frequently which means you can adjust course based on what’s working.
Lesson #3 Get uncomfortable
More than anything else, I believe surfing is mentally challenging: when you are at the edge of your ability, surfing is terrifying. You lay flat on a thin piece of fibreglass, with what feels like huge waves rolling towards you, apparently intent on landing on your head. If you go for one, as you are popping up, you see a steep drop and vertigo sets in. And if you overcome all of that, the chances are you’ll wipe out frequently: stuck underwater not knowing which way is up as your lungs burn for lack of air. But the only way you push yourself to get better is by making yourself uncomfortable. Staying comfortable means you never paddle for a scary wave, or you chicken out when in the perfect position, or you give up after your first mistake. Ultimately, if you never make yourself uncomfortable, you’re not pushing boundaries and you’re probably not getting better.
At work, how often have you kept silent rather than ask a question in a meeting? How often have you not give that piece of feedback? Or avoided taking a position on an important issue because you feel uncomfortable and your mind plays through everything which could go wrong? By avoiding discomfort, you make fewer mistakes and fail less, but every mistake and every failure is a lesson. By avoiding discomfort, you are missing out on hundreds of little lessons which will make you better. Instead, please embrace the discomfort. Accept you will be wrong sometimes, and you might be surprised how often you are actually right and your contributions are appreciated.
Bring your surfer’s spirit to work
Whether it’s been my surfing, my career or my product, adopting these three principles has helped me remain motivated to push myself develop and improve. I push myself to take action, because I learn from doing, not thinking about doing. I do have a big, overarching vision but also focus on the next, most impactful thing I can do in pursuit of that goal to keep momentum. Finally I get uncomfortable and embrace the possibility of failure and embarrassment, and more often than not I’m pleasantly surprised when things work out positively.
TL;DR — You don’t have to surf to learn these lessons; you just have to adopt a surfer’s spirit:
Absorb and act: Absorb everything around you, anticipate what’s next and act on all the knowledge you have in the present moment
Practice with focus: Don’t just practice for the sake of it, practice with a smaller goal in mind. Nail the little things one by one, and you’ll reach your greater vision faster.
Get uncomfortable: If you feel discomfort, act on it and never let fear hold you back from giving something a try.