Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Wipeouts: Portals of Discovery

Parts of this article will appear in 'Why Lawyers Should Surf'' (co-authored with Dr Michelle Tempest) which is now available on Waterstone's website here or can be ordered from XPL Publishing on 0870 079 8897 (p&p is included). Extracts from the book can be found here. To see a review of the book in The Independent click here.

Surfers know their place in the ocean. They know that however good they are, the waves can sometimes be mightier. Wiping out is as much a part of surfing as gliding along the face of a perfect wave. This humility in the face of such enormous forces means that surfers are prepared for the worst. They know the value of the English proverb that “A smooth sea never made a skilled mariner”. Or Confucius, “Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall” or Dr Martin Luther King, Jr, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands in times of challenge and controversy.”

This was vividly illustrated by Allan C. Weisbecker in In Search of Captain Zero when he describes experiencing his worst wipeout in thirty years of surfing. The next day, still dripping blood from his wounds from the day before he paddled out once again into the vicious reef break, describing not only the usual fear but always second time around, the “fear of fear”. It was in facing this down and committing to continue his odyssey which showed his character and ultimately gained the respect of the local surf crew.

Ernest Hemingway knew this when he said that, “The world breaks everyone and afterward some are strong at the broken places...” Rather than wipeouts being seen as failures, they are quite properly seen as the times when most is learnt by a surfer, James Joyce’s “portals of discovery”. Perhaps they got into the wave just a little too late and went ‘over the falls’. Or perhaps they were leaning too far forward on take off and the nose pitched into the face of the wave sending them head over heels. Maybe they just misjudged the size of the wave. Whatever it was, the experience always brings another small distinction which can be made. It is the full collection of these distinctions or lessons which ultimately lead to expertise. As Buckminster Fuller once wrote, “Whatever humans have learned had to be learned as a consequence of trial and error experience. Humans have learned through mistakes.”


pupilblogger said...

The Dr Martin Luther King Jr reference seems a bit inappropriate! The level of adversity to which he was referring was perhaps a little different and greater than that faced by a surfer.

Rock climbing can be seen to perform a similar function to that you seem to be proposing for surfing. The prospect of a significant leader fall, particularly when trad climbing on gear that you have placed yourself and may therefore pop out, certainly concentrates the mind. In particular, putting in some air time (i.e. falling off) but immediately getting back on the route to finish it requires similar mental fortitude. I wouldn't go so far as to say that climbing rocks makes one a better lawyer, though, which seems to be your thesis for surfing and lawyering. Personally, I enjoy it in part because it is very effective in taking my mind off other things. Such as pupillage. I doubt it does anything to improve my mental discipline or similar.

Tim Kevan said...

Very many thanks for your thoughtful comment, Pupilblogger. It is because of the extreme nature of Dr King's challenges that he provides such powerful inspiration. As for surfing, I like the comparison with climbing which seems very accurate. Both provide powerful metaphors which might help us see our own day to day lives in a different context.

Tom Anderson said...

I'm not sure I agree pupilblogger - I'm not a lawyer, but I find challenges related to surfing, especially surfing dangerous barelling waves can benefit all aspects of life - as can challenges from elsewhere in life affect good surfing, and a gung-ho mentality.

Speaking of wipeouts and surfing challenges, Tim, I suggest you try to get hold of a copy of 'Second Thoughts' - a DVD made by a lad from Huntington Beach, CA, called Timmy Turner. With three friends, Turner goes camping at an undisclosed location in Indonesia, and find's a wave which nobody can make - but they still give it a good go! I did mention in in the Indo chapter of RTMC briefly.

Turner was fighting for his life at the start of 2006 with staph infection - but I hear his situation is improving.

This kind of adversity would make anyone better at anything!