My friend got speared in the abdomen by the sharp tip of a surfboard. And it wasn’t accidental, it was payback for one of the sport’s cardinal sins: dropping in on another surfer who had caught the wave. My friend had apologized profusely for his transgression, but it wasn’t enough. On his next wave, a sharp piece of fiberglass got thrust into his left flank, leaving him writhing in pain. When he looked up, the saw the smirking aggressor, who then paddled away.
I think about it all the time when I step into the water. For starters, as the child of first generation immigrants, I’m very much a “stay in your lane” kind of guy. Non-confrontational. People-pleasing. Especially when I find myself at the bottom of a new social hierarchy, like I do as a beginner surfer (pejoratively known as a kook). On land (and at a PTA meeting), people might still care that I was a managing director at Blackrock. In the ocean, nobody give AF.
But at many points in our lives, we’ll be bottom-feeders in new social hierarchies. Changing jobs. Moving. Learning a new skill. Presenting to a client for the first time. Which means we’ll f**k up occasionally. Or maybe often. Especially if you’re putting yourself out there more. But will that land us a spear to the left flank?
Rest assured: I’ve found a mantra that can save us in these moments when we mess up and serve ourselves that unhealthy dose of self-loathing. It’s courtesy of Neil Brennan (HT: my wife Lisa), co-creator of The Chapelle Show (and warning, it contains an F-Bomb):
I could’ve used this jingle during my last encounter as a kook. I was paddling back out into the ocean on a day with big waves and got caught in the classic beginner’s dilemma. Someone was coming directly at me and like a deer in headlights, I couldn’t determine if they were going left or right. So in my state of panic, I just froze.
The good surfer jumped off of his board to avoid me, missing out on a sweet wave and then threw his hands up in despair.
For the next 20 minutes, all I could think about was if was going to get speared.
Dejected, I just left the water. I replayed the incident in my head hundreds of times. What should I have done differently? Why didn’t you just pick a direction? What happens if you see that guy again, will the spear still be waiting?
The next morning, I shook it off and went back into the water. There was only one person there. I recognized his pink board. My spear-guy.
My people pleasing instincts sprung into over-drive. I paddled towards him and said, “Hey man, I’m totally sorry I screwed up your wave yesterday.”
I took a deep breath (and subtly guarded my flank).
Confused, he responded: “Huh, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Nobody’s mad at you, nobody’s mad at you, you’re having a private experience…
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