Let’s face it, we humans enjoy doing activities we’re good at because it makes us feel good about ourselves.
Fragile little sapien egos need constant affirmation. I’m no different.
With the increasingly limited windows I seem to have for recreation, I choose to spend my free time doing the things that are familiar to me—mountain biking, skiing, rock-climbing. That’s no big surprise. The return, in terms of a sense of achievement and satisfaction versus time invested, usually nets out in my favour.
However, surfing bucks this trend in a big way. I have, arguably, been a surfer on and off for 25 years. Yet calling myself a surfer takes a huge leap of the imagination, like splattering a canvas with paints and calling myself Caravaggio.
In fact, answering “Yes” to the question “Do you surf?” almost makes me laugh with embarrassment. I can think of no other activity where 20 productive seconds from a two-hour session could be considered remotely successful.
In other words, I’ll chalk it up as time well spent even if I stand up for only a few wobbly moments after hours of effort and trying to decipher the mysteries of a fast-closing beach break.
The optics are absurd. I once drove from Vancouver Island’s Comox Valley for a day- mission to surf Tofino’s Cox Bay. It was a five-hour round trip, all for two-and-a-half exhausting hours of getting pummelled and half-drowned by a violent winter Pacific swell, not even close to catching a wave. Still, I dragged myself onto the beach, arms so fatigued I could barely extricate myself from a wetsuit, feeling inexplicably exhilarated; the way I would had I summitted a peak and dropped into an un-skied couloir.
Yet on I go, soldiering along in my Sisyphean quest to be able to answer the question, “Are you a surfer?” in the affirmative, and with a straight face. Surfing sits in a category all its own when it comes to action sports. It is the very definition of dynamic, standing on a fragile slice of fibreglass and moving across a surface that is itself moving. It is at once profoundly simple and extraordinarily complex. For equipment, all that’s required are board shorts (or as northern latitude surfer, a wetsuit) and a board. However, reading the intricacies of tide, swell, wind and currents can seem, to occasional surfers like me, as difficult as learning a new language based on unfamiliar characters—like Mandarin to an Englishman.
At a talk on Oahu’s North Shore, I once heard surfing legend Gerry Lopez speak beautifully about the curious Zen of surfing, the feeling of sitting astride a board and waiting patiently for a wave that began as a ripple on the ocean’s surface thousands of kilometres away, as though it was generated specifically for you. There is a certain magic in that sensation; feeling the weight of an ocean propelling you toward the beach. In fact there have been times when I was content to float on my surfboard off Chesterman Beach on a crisp and clear winter day, looking at snow-dusted Sitka spruce and redcedars, and the peaks of Strathcona Provincial Park rising in the distance above Clayoquot Sound. On that day, catching a wave would have seemed a bonus.
But that doesn’t change the fact that I continue to suck at a sport that I have pursued on and off for longer than I care to remember. So why do I keep driving across Vancouver Island to the west side, shoehorning into a six-millimetre wetsuit and hitting the waves like I’m Laird Hamilton? Sucker for punishment—perhaps?
However, there’s something else at play. Deep in my subconscious, I must realize the profound importance to the human condition of being terrible at something, to be reminded of the vulnerability and humility necessary to open yourself to new experiences and learn new skills. Especially as we get older and try to mask the fact that we are aging out of our athletic prime. For a long time, it was believed that the adult brain reaches a threshold of development, then stops. That’s a decidedly depressing notion.
Thankfully we now know this not to be true. Turns out learning is good for the brain throughout life. Physiologically, the brain never stops changing. Scientists call this “neuroplasticity” and changes associated with learning occur mostly at the level of neural connections and pathways. When new connections form, the internal structure of the existing synapses change. And how the brain’s internal structure changes is highly dependent on how we use our grey matter.
For example, researchers have demonstrated that London taxi drivers have a larger hippocampus than London bus drivers. That’s because one particular region of the hippocampus specializes in acquiring and processing spatial information. This is explained by the fact that taxi drivers navigate the clogged arteries of London streets, whereas bus drivers follow set routes. How things like Google Maps and Siri will impact brain development is still unknown, but I suspect it won’t be in the most positive manner.
It’s easy to get cocky about your abilities when you routinely gravitate to the activities you’re good at, calling upon skills that started forming not long after you took your first unassisted steps as a human being. That’s me and skiing, for example. I’m far from flawless—a level IV instructor could put me on the slab and dissect my technique like a forensic scientist. However, even though I’ll never be invited to join the Canadian Ski Instructor Alliance’s demonstration team, I’m good at skiing. I can hit the local hill for first chair on a powder day, bang off a half-dozen first-track laps and be back on the keyboard working at my home office in under two hours, feeling refreshed and energized. Great return for time invested.
But let’s return to the beach. Whenever I want a thorough smackdown and a reminder as sharp as the splash of cold north Pacific that I’m not the multi-sport virtuoso that I think I am, I go surfing. Maybe I’ll just sit astride my board and wait for that wave to roll in from Hawaii with my name on it. In any case I’ll look around and see dozens of other equally inept hacks flailing around in the water.
Proof positive that it’s important to be terrible at something and keep your beginner brain engaged.