It's hard to imagine doing business today without surfing the Net. But if you're serious about cutting it in the world of cutting-edge competition, then maybe it's time to try real surfing. Surfer culture exudes youthful energy, vibrant individualism, and a taste for risk and speed. Sound relevant to your environment at work? Getting "stoked" on a longboard just might help you catch a wave right into the boardroom.
Nowhere does free-spirited surf culture mesh more seamlessly with tough-minded business culture than in La Jolla, California, just northwest of San Diego. For decades the legendary Windansea break has attracted surf bums from around the world. But these days, as the San Diego area experiences a startup boom in telecommunications, software, and biotechnology, surf bums are giving way to surfing CEOs and entrepreneurs.
Sam Armstrong, 41, a financial consultant with Smith Barney, and John Otterson, 33, a senior vice president at Silicon Valley Bank, personify this new breed of business surfer. For them, surfing is not a retreat from the world; it is integrated into the world of work. At least four mornings a week, Armstrong and Otterson ride their first wave by 5:30 — and the elevator by 7:30. Debbie Duryea, 28, customer service manager for the biotech firm Pharmigen, prefers the night shift. She decompresses in the waves at Windansea at least three times a week after long days with customers.
Robert Hecht-Nielsen, 50, founder of HNC Software, a fast-growing company with a market cap of $650 million, also likes to zip up his wet suit, wax his board, and shred waves. "It lets me switch contexts," he says. "I can go from the business world to the academic world to the surfing world."
Even politicians are catching the wave. "Surfing is a lifestyle and a mind-set," says U.S. Representative Brian Bilbray (R-CA), 46, a Windansea regular whenever he escapes from Washington, DC. In fact, Bilbray's chief of staff (not a surfer) has been known to paddle out with his boss and brief him on pressing issues while he waits for a killer wave.
Sound offbeat? "Surfers are independent thinkers," Bilbray says. "We're mavericks. We're not very good followers, but we know how to break the rules."
Bilbray doesn't mind if beltway insiders ridicule his love of the stoke. He emphasizes the parallels between surfing and politics. "You have to be able to spot a swell when it's coming," he says. "And you need the guts to be in front, where you can get hurt. No one behind a wave has ever caught one. And no one behind a wave has ever been wiped out by one. If you want to ride a wave, you have to risk it."
Most of La Jolla's business surfers transfer wisdom from the ocean to the office. For one thing, they say, surfing teaches respect for the larger forces against which you maneuver. Surfers don't call the ocean "Big Mama" for nothing. The elemental bond with a force as powerful as the sea produces a combination of ecstasy and terror, not unlike encounters with the fast-moving marketplace. "It's the greatest reality check in the world," Bilbray explains. "No amount of PR can help you. If you're going to have a good day, it is up to you."
The key to survival, adds Smith Barney's Armstrong, is to become a futurist — not the kind who predicts events, but the kind who anticipates and accepts turbulence. You also have to learn to read the signs of change: "In the water — and in business — if you don't pay attention to cycles you will get wiped out again and again."
Riding the waves also teaches you to stay serene under pressure. Surfing is all about spotting opportunities in turbulent environments. "In big-wave surfing, you have to stay calm in the chaos," says Silicon Valley Bank's Otterson. "We call it 'calm production.' If you're caught inside on a big-wave day, you have to maintain your presence. If you panic, you make the wrong decision."
It's not unlike what he faces in commercial banking, Otterson believes. "Our clients are early-stage growth companies, which means we deal with lots of volatility. If you focus on just the numbers, which by traditional standards may indicate problems, you can make bad decisions. But if you remain calm enough to analyze the underlying causes, you can make intelligent decisions."
Surfing is a demanding physical activity. But it's also a state of mind. More than anything it's about achieving an almost trancelike connection between the rough elements of the ocean and the smooth mechanics of board and body. It's the same kind of concentration you need to achieve a creative breakthrough or close a high-pressure deal.
Surfers call this Zen-like high "stoke." Robert Hecht-Nielson calls it "absolutely primal. Surfing is a spiritual experience. Out there, you really disconnect from the world. You get into a mode where you have genuinely fresh perspectives."
Finally, surfing requires absolute dedication to achieve even modest proficiency. Says Bilbray: "The big attraction to surfing is that you never master it. That's why people get so hooked. As soon as you think that you have everything wired, a wave will come along and clean house." In other words, it's just like business.
Alex Frankel (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a writer based in San Francisco. For surf forecasts visit the Web http://www.surfline.com or call 800-940-SURF.
A version of this article appeared in the August/September 1997 issue of Fast Company magazine.