I have (attempted to) surf exactly three times in my life. The first time I went surfing, I was fifteen and “along for the ride” with my friends. I was moderately successful. The second was a short lived defeat. I was too anxious to stand in the crashing waves much less actually surf them. The third attempt was my most profound experience yet. It was a sort of "successful failure".
Let me explain:
Just a few months ago, my friend and I traveled down to Santa Cruz, California for a three-day getaway from our very stressful, very lonely, and very compressed lives. It was a much needed few days of rest and adventure, and I only know of one place that can accommodate rest and adventure: the beach.
We busted out her surf boards, bought ourselves some wet suits and headed down to the coast. We landed on a very low-traffic beach in Santa Cruz county, next to our AirBnB and I found it to be the perfect place to give surfing another go.
My friend, who is far more experienced than I at surfing, gave me a quick overview of the basics and set out for the first obstacle, paddling out past the breakers. Because the last time I went surfing I experienced a mild anxiety attack in the water, I decided to warm up my confidence by boogie boarding first. Within minutes, my friend was up on her board and about a half mile down the way from me. She was determined and she moved quick. I was inspired by her grit and instantly bored with boogie boarding. So, I swapped boards and headed out for the breakers. However, as the water got deeper, my confidence started to shake (I’m not the best swimmer). Balancing on the 7 foot surfboard was a lot trickier than the boogie board, and I didn’t understand how to time the waves at all.
I kept trying to paddle past the breakers and even surf a few of the big waves, but it was confidence that was causing me to stumble more than my skill. “What am I doing? I don’t even know where to start. People have only told me what to do once I caught the wave. They never told me how to get out there.” And finally, it dawned on me: “This water is too deep for me to learn. I need to fail in the shallow water.”
With those thoughts, a profound sense of clarity erupted: I needed to fail in the shallow water if I ever wanted to succeed in the deep. My friend made her way over to me and told me how difficult it was for her to paddle past the breakers, but she encouraged me to try to paddle to the deep with her. I very quickly explained that I needed some time to pick up the basics in the shallow end. She was very understanding and admitted she wished she would have learned that way. So, she joined me.
Every time I had tried surfing, people were not giving me room to fail. With their good intentions, they taught with precision each and every skill necessary for surfing. However, they forgot about the actual experience.. All of their explanation was circled around deep end perfection. They neglected the lessons from the shallow waters. They taught with such ferocious passion and an overwhelming desire for my immediate success that they didn’t leave any margin for error.
In their song What I'm Here For, I think NeedtoBreathe sums up my soul’s learning style well: "I just need room to be wrong sometimes.”
I need the shallow water.
In the shallow water, I learned how to balance on the board while paddling out to the wave. (Something every surf teacher in my life has neglected to explain).
In the shallow water, I learned how to find the right wave to surf. (You can expend a lot of energy going for the wrong waves that don’t have enough momentum).
In the shallow water, I learned how to time paddling to catch the wave, get up on my knees while riding the wave, and even begin to stand. (I felt a lot freer to try in the shallow because I knew that if I did fall, I could quickly get my footing on the sand.)
In the shallow water, I got tossed by waves and thrown under only to get right back up again. (I was able to feel that I was okay after going under thus silencing my fears about potentially drowning.)
I needed the shallow water. Someday, I will get to the deep but only because of the lessons that the shallow end taught me and the confidence it built.
Sometimes choosing less will actually sustain more in the long run, and perhaps, make it more enjoyable. I will someday be able to approach the deep end with more confidence and less anxiety because of the lessons I have learned in the shallow end.
And you know what…
I actually felt proud of myself that day. Proud for trying again. Proud for now knowing myself enough to know MY PACE. And proud for choosing the shallow waters instead of racing to the deep too quickly.
Do some inventory: Is there anywhere in your life where you have jumped into the deep end before learning in the shallow end? Failure is often the best teacher. But when the stakes are high, we may not feel free to fail. My encouragement to you is to venture into your own successful failures.
Look for ways to embrace the shallow end, and at the right time, paddle out for the deep. You’ll have what it takes.
So, surf's up!
Jen is a pastor, worship leader, writer, and songwriter living in Napa, California.