The first time I ever went surfing, it took me at least five minutes to get into my wetsuit. Bare feet on cold gravel in the parking lot of Westport Beach, Washington, I struggled with neoprene and clammy hands and eventually got my hair caught in the zipper. I was 16, and the wetsuit wrestle was only the beginning. My dad had to hold one end of my longboard as we carried it over the windswept dunes—the gut of it was wider than my arms were wide, and the first blustery March gust almost threw me off my feet. I spent the next four hours sputtering, trying to paddle out past relentless whitewater and mushy, short-interval closeouts. I stood up on the board for a split second, if that, and I came out of the ocean numb, waterlogged, and grinning. I was really, really bad at surfing. But it was a rush.
When you’re working toward mastery of a new skill, there’s something called a growth mindset at play. Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck wrote a paper about it in 2008, focusing in on groups of students learning math and science. Students who believed that intellectual abilities were fixed—some people were born able to do math, others weren’t—improved much slower than students who approached their studies with the belief that abilities can be developed through good teaching and practice. And maybe it’s a stretch, but when I read about this the first thing I thought of was surfing, and climbing, and backcountry skiing: all pursuits I’ve picked up in late adolescence and adulthood.
If I came into my first few surf sessions believing I would excel naturally if I were talented enough to surf (and if I weren’t then it’s a total bust and I’ll never try again), I would never have ridden that picture-perfect point break tucked into a corner of coast north of Cabo. I never would have paddled out into the surf spot that first gave me a true brain freeze (thank you, Oregon coast) with my older brother and actually ridden a few frigid redemption waves. No, I’d have quit after the first few brutal sessions.
I’ve never tried kiteboarding or base jumping, or even rugby for that matter, but I’m pretty convinced surfing is the hardest sport to learn. Not only does it require fitness and coordination—paddling out, paddling into a wave, hopping up on your board and riding it are all exhausting and difficult—but surfing also asks you to know something about the ocean, about your surf spot, about how the waves come in and why. Sure, your landing is pretty soft, but tumbling underwater with a wayward board yanking at its leash is terrifying. It requires excellent timing and, above all, patience. You can’t pretend you’re not a beginner. You have to put in the time, climb the ranks of the lineup, and take quite a few beatings before you’re even remotely confident on your board. Surfing’s a great equalizer in that respect, and that’s a beautiful thing.
I’m still a pretty bad surfer, but adopting a growth mindset has given me a little more freedom to look at every day in the water as a success. A day on my surfboard when I don’t catch a single wave (which still happens more often than I’d like to admit) isn’t a bust, because the end goal was never to go out and have a picture-perfect, awesome session. The goal was to get out there, push myself, and learn something.
It’s easy to feel this way when you’re a true beginner. There are no stakes, no expectations, and no past performance to weigh against what you’re doing today. It’s what I love about being a total rookie—you’re allowed to ask questions, make mistakes, and, if you really settle into your kook status, look at failures as successes in some small way. When I try to catch a wave and pin it headfirst into the water, I know I’ve messed up. But I also know that the more I pearl, the more I’ll know about how not to do it in the future. It’s all a part of mastery, which isn’t about being a master at something but the act of becoming that. When you make mastery your goal rather than proficiency, a setback is still a step in the right direction. The means are the end.
Plus, major bonus: the learning curve with new sports is so steep that most days you will have a tiny triumph. It’s easiest for me to see this in rock climbing, where I’m often working on the same problem, day after day, and most of my efforts are graded on a numerical scale. Almost every day I find myself on the wall, I accomplish something I wasn’t able to do before. Compare that with, say, skiing or running: nailing a new trick or breaking a PR happens much less frequently with activities I’ve been doing for a lifetime. Being a beginner in one realm, though, helps me adopt a more progressive and more forgiving attitude towards the pursuits I’d call myself an expert in. Bringing a rookie’s attitude to my ski season this year had me going for stuff I’d deemed out of the realm of possibility for my “fixed” skillset, and doing so with less ego, more patience, and more humor than I had before.
I’m headed to Montauk, New York, to get my boyfriend on a surfboard for the first time. I’m not remotely qualified to teach, but I’m pretty darn good at being a beginner. We’ll catch three footers, or maybe give each other a push into sloppy, waist-deep whitewater, but we’ll sure as hell have huge smiles on our faces. If I’m lucky, I’ll keep the hair out of my wetsuit zipper. If things really go my way, maybe he’ll decide being a beginner is the sweetest way to be, too.
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