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The 8 Similarities of Surfing and Entrepreneurship

Daniel Nix Businessman - Earthling
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Daniel Nix is an entrepreneur and lifestyle enthusiast who started his first business in 2011 and never looked back. Daniel is a highschool dropout with a masters from Google University. Working towards his goal of creating his “Dream Center” (a counseling center designed to help mentor and disciple to young entrepreneurs), Daniel is passionate about maintaining and building his business and lifestyle.


Up until now, there are few experiences in my life that have been as equally thrilling and satisfying as learning how to surf. It’s tough to compare that special feeling of waiting in the ocean for that perfect wave to come, the pods of dolphins swimming by, reflecting on the beauty and vast terror of nature, and experiencing first-hand the rush of surfing the face of an unbroken six-foot wave. Starting your own business can be similarly terrifying and gratifying. In this article, we’ll look at eight similarities of surfing and entrepreneurship. Who doesn’t enjoy a good metaphor?

  1. You learn what you need to know then GO!
  2. Real world experience trumps everything.
  3. Your passion is your fuel.
  4. It’s not a race, it’s about the amount of time you invest.
  5. You only deserve what you earn.
  6. You can’t escape the growing pains.
  7. You can’t afford unnecessary risks.
  8. You must prepare to succeed.

Surfing, unfortunately, isn’t anywhere near as easy it looks on TV. Back in the day, those 11-year-olds on “Rocket Power” chugged soda and had casual conversations with each other while riding 50-footers that could probably wipe out towns. Some might confuse surfing with riding in the whitewash on your family vacation. Real surfing is paddling past the break, waiting for that perfect wave (you’ll know when it’s the most terrifying one), and riding it all the way back to the beach.

Before I decided to learn how to surf, I knew it’d be a massive commitment. I approached it in much the same way I would start a business—it’s something new and exciting and always sounds a lot easier than it turns out being. When you embark on learning something new, be it surfing, starting a business, learning a foreign language, or writing a “Rocket Power” spec-script, where do you begin? You hit the books and learn from the experts. Before sticking a single toe in the water, I studied. And studied. I researched different types of surfboards, the push and pull of the ocean, risks involved, emergency protocols, do dolphins ever bite humans, are dolphins as smart as science-fiction literature seems to make them out to be, can dolphins learn how to surf, and a bunch of other things that cluttered my Google search history. I watched hours of surf tutorials on YouTube and read dozens of articles on the matter before even purchasing a board. All this prior mental legwork reminded me of the preparation it takes to start a business—of doing market research where the goal is to check if a business is viable—to test the waters, so to speak. Excited for the new venture, a part of me couldn’t wait to dive in the water and hop up on the first massive wave I saw. I knew, however, that I couldn’t betray one of my life mantras: “Knowledge is power.”

Success, I told myself, could come only when I had enough power—the synonymously aforementioned knowledge. It is amazing how far a little research can go; just a single video tutorial or article can change the speed at which you absorb information. Even the most seemingly benign tip could turn out to be what every surfing vet considers paramount to the pastime. For instance, I learned you’re meant to wax the top of your board, the opposite of my misconception that a waxed underside would help the board glide more smoothly on the water. The wax, of course, has nothing to do with friction with the water, but instead it helps to keep the surfer from slipping. In retrospect, this info is a no-brainer, and I admittedly feel silly for not logically working this out. But that’s an excellent example of why you should always begin a new hobby by studying it. That goes for a business you’re considering starting—research is an absolute game changer.

1. You learn what you need to know then GO!

The time is now! While I can’t recommend proactive research on a new business venture or hobby highly enough, you still have to get your feet wet eventually. There’s a fine line between procrastination and researching, and you’ll know when you’re ready to put the books back on the shelves and dive in. The telltale sign is when you notice recurring topics pop up that you skip past because they’ve become rudimentary to you. It’s not because they’re any less useful than other topics, it’s just that you’re becoming so familiar with the information that it’s starting to be ingrained. One tip for avoiding feeling overwhelmed with new information is to write down your top six takeaways from your research. These takeaways should be ranked in order of importance. Information overload occurs when new information threatens to break into your unwritten, as of yet, top six. When the list finally exists, and nothing threatens to be included, you’re good. Keeping this information at the forefront of your mind will be important when experiencing sensory overload.

When learning new things and trying to process everything at once, it’s easy for your brain to feel overloaded. This can lead to forgetting some of the more critical takeaways of your research at the most inopportune times possible. During my surfing research, one tip that recurred was the necessity of popping up quickly to avoid being taken out by a wave and tossed around like a sock in a washing machine. I’ve experienced the washing machine fate more than once (shout out to socks everywhere - I stand with you). The root issue was not that I didn’t pop up quickly enough; it was sensory overload. I’d be too intently focused on paddling, getting my timing right, or being intimidated by the massive wave with my name on it. It’s sometimes hard to remember the most important things you’ve learned when you’ve learned so much, and now you need to execute gracefully in a split second’s notice. In business, you can’t afford to forget your mentors’ words or ignore best practices. It’s important to keep in mind that many had come before you, failed, and learned from their mistakes. Their input is invaluable, and you can save a ton of time and money in the long run by making the process of internalizing that input a priority.

2. Real world experience trumps everything.

Now it’s time to get your hands dirty, or rather wet since, you know, surfing. So now you’ve done your research and generally grasp best practices. You’ve tested the waters, employed those best practices, yet... you’re terrible. After researching and learning from successful people, it seemed likely you’d be an expert overnight. Wrong! It’s not always fun, but now is when you have to grind. Starting a business seems fun at the outset, and granted, some moments are undoubtedly fun—the freedom, the potential income, the fantasy of crawling out of the wage cage. All of these rewards won’t simply be given to you, they must be EARNED through grinding. One of the very few handouts you get in this life will be the opportunity to succeed, and what you do with that opportunity is up to you.

3. Your passion is your fuel.

I wanted to learn how to surf. I had dreams of paddling out, catching that unbroken wave, getting barreled. I wanted it to come naturally. I wanted to know what I was doing AND look like I knew what I was doing. In my opinion, sincere passion is vital when it comes to what you’re trying to accomplish. Passion is the fuel that keeps you going when you’re totally out of gas. Without passion, you ultimately abandon ship or roll back down the hill, tragically never accomplishing what you initially set out to do. Even when all seems lost and you’re miserable, your passion will fuel you to the finish line. Why is misery worth enduring? You’re on the cusp of earning something truly great!

It’s no coincidence that this is the point when most people quit. According to the University of Scranton, 92% of people that set New Year's goals never actually achieve them. Only with genuine, warm-blooded passion will you join the ranks of that 8% who succeeds. The idea of becoming a successful business owner making millions of dollars sounds great. The idea of actually surfing, not just riding the whitewash on family vacation, also sounds great. You need to ask yourself what you’re willing to do to make those ideas become a reality. Can you visualize what it’s like to achieve that goal? Does that visualization fire you up, producing a joy that will fuel your desire to make it a reality? An essential aspect of learning is that it prompts growth, and growth is difficult. This is why we endure misery—it represents growth, and your passion is the fuel that burns deep within your soul that helps you push through to the other side.

4. It’s not a race, it’s about the amount of time you invest.

When I was learning to surf, I forced consistency on myself—five days a week in the water for 3-4 hours at a time until I was able to surf an unbroken wave. Admittedly this was an extreme approach, but I generally go all in when I commit to learning something. While I did surf extensively in a very short amount of time, it’s important to note that at the end of the day, it’s not about how fast you learn, it’s about putting in that time. If you knew it would take 60 hours of work to learn how to surf, would that change the way you think about doing it? No matter how many dozens of hours of research you put in, there’s nothing that compares to real-world experience. Take it one day at a time and chip away at logging hours of experience. The more hours you train, the more experience you have, and the better you become. This is also true with entrepreneurship. There are countless examples of people with no clue how to start and run a healthy business despite finishing college with an MBA. While knowledge is power and you can’t ever have enough of it, knowledge without application is MEANINGLESS. With prolonged patience and careful repetition of actually doing the thing you researched doing, you’ll eventually hit your goals and accomplish something truly great.

5. You only deserve what you earn.

I was on my second week of surfing, and I’d logged about 20 hours of real-world experience. It was a day where the waves were significantly larger than ever, with wave after wave sending everything in its path straight to the sandy shores. I’d been paddling for hours and still couldn’t make it past the break. Every time I got close, a massive wave would start me back from scratch. It felt as if the ocean was screaming, “Go home you kook!” (Kook is a term seasoned surfers give to inexperienced newbies who mistakenly think they’re pros).

I was physically and mentally exhausted. I still vividly remember getting beat over and over again, paddling in vain for hours trying to get past the break. Nothing I did helped me get closer to my goal. I’d done my research, spent 20 hours implementing what I learned, yet here I was unable to surf a single wave. Why couldn’t I do it? The answer was simple: I didn’t deserve to. I hadn’t spent enough time in the ocean to know where exactly to paddle out. My endurance hadn’t been built to the point where I could make it past the smaller waves that were handily propelling me back to shore, ruining all my painstaking progress. My technique hadn’t developed to the point where I could adeptly go under the wave before it came crashing down on me. Even though I had SOME experience, I didn’t have ENOUGH. I simply didn’t deserve being able to surf that day.

In the business world, I come across many individuals just starting. There’s a common startup-stage mindset flaw where people say things like, “I should be making 10x what I’m making now,” or “My product is amazing, I should be a millionaire by now.” They’ve applied what they’ve learned, their product is supposedly great, yet they’re failing. Then they give up! Of course, knowing how to do something and having experience doing that thing is completely different. Assuming you should be more successful than you are is a broken and shortsighted mindset. Until you earn your success, you are not entitled to it. Success in business, and really in any new skill, is earned through blood, sweat, tears, commitment, passion, persistence, desire, and the unwillingness to fail.

In undertaking any endeavor, you have two options: success or quitting. There is no third in-between option where you deserve something you haven’t earned. That day when the ocean was in a particularly bad mood, I didn’t deserve to surf. I did, however, accept that reality with respect to the surfers I saw who were able to. After three hours of fruitlessly paddling and getting barraged by wave after wave, I stood in the sand exhausted, overlooking my vast foe with contentment in knowing I didn’t deserve to surf that day. The people aptly surfing had earned, thus deserved, their success just like a businessman with complete financial freedom driving his Lambo down the PCH. If your mindset is fixed on thinking you deserve to surf without earning it, you are crippled from ever being able to learn. You’ll give up before putting in the necessary grinding, coming to the conclusion that it’s impossible. It’ll feel like it didn’t make sense, or that you’re just not good enough. Knowing that the great things in this life are earned will help you see the truth on your journey in finding success.

6. You can’t escape the growing pains.

My failed surfing experience didn’t make me give up. I took it for what it was—a lesson in the importance of putting in more time. After three hours of paddling, and a two-mile walk back to my car in silent reflection, I made it home and had the best sleep of my life. The next morning greeted me with incomparable soreness. I like to call this soreness the growing pains. Just like how I spent three hours with zero success surfing, you can attempt a new business strategy without any luck and feel completely burnt out. This physical and mental exhaustion, as much as it sucks, is a good thing. I promise! Here’s why: pain signals the moment you’re growing. A few days passed before my muscles healed enough for me to venture out again. Instead of surfing successfully, my goal was to simply clock 100 hours of practice. This took the emotional pressure out of failing. I made it to the beach and observed the waves were, believe it or not, more unforgiving than the day where I’d essentially gotten taunted by an inanimate body of water. My goal, having already figured out how to handle the whitewash, was to surf an unbroken wave. That goal wouldn’t be accomplished this day, however. I had no intention of reliving my previous surfing experience.

I started to think about my entrepreneurial journey. I asked myself, “How did I get from point A to B before?” The answer was that I’d relied on my mentors, trusting in the guidance from people much smarter than me. This time, I wasn’t going to jump back in the ocean and paddle my way to success. This time, I decided to step back and come up with a plan of action. I studied my research notes, Googled a couple of things, and observed the surfers out there that day. A major part of my new plan was to follow a surfer I knew was able to get past the break. Of the 6 surfers on the water, only one was having success. He was my guy. I waited for him to catch a wave so he’d be closer to the beach, then I jumped in. I immediately noticed something different—I was stronger! I quickly observed the ease in which I could move through the water and how my energy reserves felt relatively limitless compared to last time. I no longer had to stop every minute to take a break. I developed what I like to call “rhino skin.”

When first starting a business, sometimes the smallest things can drain you. Only through prolonged exposure to these things can you develop rhino skin that protects and gives you strength to overcome them. After 25 total hours of practice, my muscles were attuned to paddling. I felt strong enough, finally, to get past the break. I followed the experienced surfer, paddling as hard as I could. Wave after wave crashed down on me as I stayed on his tail. I mimicked his every move, keeping the most important points of my research in mind, as I focused on my great prize of learning how to surf. A half hour of paddling later, I felt like my energy had yet again been sapped. There was one last wave coming, and how I’d handle it would determine if I’d lose all my progress. If it got the best of me, I’d be sent all the way back to the beach, First Class. My surfer mark was about 10 yards ahead of me, and appeared to duck just under the wave. I saw my opportunity. Going 110%, I paddled as hard as I could, head down, and prayed I’d make it out. The wave crashed just inches behind me, and I couldn’t help but smile ear to ear. The environment and energy beyond the crashing wave, currently laying wake to all in its warpath, was contrastingly calm. I sat on my surfboard with a sense of accomplishment and took a minute to catch my breath. What I didn’t know at the time was I’d made a fatal mistake. The rush of stories flooded my mind of surfers who went too big, too fast. I now have a new but familiar feeling associated with surfing: FEAR.

7. You can’t afford unnecessary risks.

Are there rewards without risk? When I think about risk, I think of fear. When we assess risk, we ultimately evaluate our ability to overcome fear. When starting a business, you risk wasting time and money, often believed to be the two most valuable things in this world. You may fear to be unable to provide for your family. You may fear failing and to have your reputation tarnished. Yes, there are countless fears associated with starting a business, but without overcoming them you won’t experience the opportunity to reap the rewards.

Sitting in the middle of the ocean near some professional surfers as 7-foot waves crashed down around me, I came to the realization of the biggest risk I was confronting in achieving my goal of learning how to surf. It had never really hit me when watching people surf in-person or on TV, or reading articles about tips and techniques. The genuine fear I was feeling reminded me of the very real reward I would get if I took the risk, faced my fear, and continued to put my hours in. It didn’t hit me until then, that this is a hobby that can kill even the experienced. My goal that day graduated from merely putting in hours of practice to sheer survival. After making it past the break, my heart humming with accomplishment, I soon found myself in very real danger. Another set of waves were coming for me, and maneuvering incorrectly meant I’d be toast. The pods of dolphins would have a field day gossiping. From my research, I knew the waves bearing down on me were big enough to take a person underwater longer than the length of time the average person is able to hold their breath. As soon as you come up for air, the next wave hits you and smashes you to the ground under the shallow waters.

My new goal was to get back to shore in one piece to surf another day. A good-sized wave smashed me to the ocean floor, causing my fiberglass board to punch me in the face. With some quick maneuvering, I’m thankful to say I made it out of that unforgiving ocean with a busted eyebrow and minor wrist sprain. I don’t think any dolphins saw it. I’d learned another vital lesson and conquered my newfound fear of surfing. In business, we sometimes are so eager to succeed that our goal is to expand and succeed as fast as possible. It’s easy to think, after some success, that expansion will mean you can bank on the positive ROI you’re seeing. Then you bite off a little more than you can chew, all hell breaks loose, and your goal switches from success to mere survival. I recall this from my early days of entrepreneurship when a friend and I had started a shaved ice/coffee business called Harper’s Hut. After our first year in business, we looked at our numbers and thought it’d be smart to go BIG. So the next year, we went from one location and 20 employees to three locations and 60 employees. This was a massive mistake because our training wheels were still on. In the infant stage of a business, the smallest mistake can bankrupt it. Our goals quickly pivoted from success to survival, an all-too-familiar feeling of too big, too fast. There are no shortcuts in life and knowing when to grow is vital to success in business and also life in general.

Despite my confidence in learning how to surf, I simply was not ready to play with the big dogs. I should have been testing myself on smaller waves on smaller days, taking things one step at a time. In business, there’s a saying: “It’s not a race, but a marathon.” My approach to surfing is now the same—focusing on building a solid foundation and moving forward at a comfortable, sustainable pace. If you run out of money in business, you can’t operate; if you suffer a major injury in surfing, you can’t surf. If you truly desire success, you’ll find value in creating a consistent and safe path to it.

8. You must prepare to succeed.

The key to success is ongoing education, practice, and persistence. Three weeks after stepping into the ocean with my surfboard and determination to succeed, I finally rode my first unbroken wave. By this point, I’d put in an estimated 20 hours of research through watching surf tutorials, reading blogs, etc., and 50 hours of in-ocean experience. I achieved my goal, and I can attest that there is nothing quite like strapping the board to the top of your car, driving to the beach, jumping in the water, and riding that perfect wave. You first power through the smaller waves with the paddling strength you’ve earned. Then, you make it past the break and wait for that perfect wave, the one with your name on it. You sit and reflect on the beauty of this earth while pods of dolphins swim by. Then the feeling bubbles in your soul, a mixture of terror and exhilaration, as very soon your wave is coming. Then you see it and you know that it wants nothing more than to end your very existence. So you brace and start paddling for your life, taking a look over your shoulder as you paddle harder still. The wave creeps behind you and you’re no longer in control as it starts to peak on you. Every second of laboring practice mixes with instinct, as you brush away your fear and pop up on your board JUST before the wave crashes over you. You’re up on the unbroken wave now, riding its face as the barrel crashes inches behind you. You ride the wave out and feel overwhelmed with a sensation only surfing can give you: fear, excitement, strength, and success all combined into one emotion. This unnamed feeling is the reward—it’s a feeling only you and people who have put in the same amount of time and effort can possibly feel. This is the feeling of successfully surfing.

Learning an extreme sport like surfing has its risks, and so does starting a business. Why do we attempt that which has such high risks? That one’s easy: high rewards. We’re especially drawn to rewards that are rare and difficult to describe to those who haven’t also felt them. Each success has its own story with its own set of challenges. If you have the goal of starting a new venture, you must remember a few things that might help on your journey. You’re not entitled to anything, and the only way to truly experience the reward of accomplishing a goal is to EARN it. You can earn this great reward by taking the RISK, conquering your FEARS, and putting in the TIME. While no specific amount of time guarantees success, rest assured that the only way to lose is to quit (or in the case of surfing—you go too big, too fast and… good luck). Do your research, put in the hours, don’t try to grow too fast, focus on consistency, and be prepared to succeed. You will absolutely achieve your goals when you deserve to achieve them, and that’s what makes the reward that much greater. Surfing has been an incredible experience so far, and I look forward to growing one small step at a time just as I do in my entrepreneurial endeavors. Now let’s get out there and catch some waves, close some deals, and get one step closer to achieving our goals.

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Daniel Nix
Nix the World™
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