Learning to Surf

Designing with your head up

My first job after finishing grad school took me from Sweden to Los Angeles. Like any good new resident of Southern California, I tried learning to surf. The first time I went out, a friend and I hired an instructor to help us get started. Before going out into the water we all laid our boards down on the beach and he taught us the basic steps for surfing:

  1. Lie on the board
  2. Look back at the wave
  3. Paddle, paddle, paddle
  4. Jump up!
  5. Plant your feet shoulder width apart
  6. Bend your knees
  7. Lean, rotate and shift your weight to steer

Seemed simple enough. We practiced this process a handful of times to make sure we had the form right and felt comfortable. Easy. Time to rip it up. We waded out into the water and then….proceeded to be tossed around violently on our asses for the next hour and a half.

While the basic process of surfing is fairly straightforward, it turns out actually surfing is quite a bit more complicated than that. The part you don’t learn by pretending on the beach is how to feel the waves, how to read the sets in the distance, how to time your drop, putting all those motions together while flying down the wave, and how the hell you’re supposed to get out to the break in the first place. In other words, learning to surf is less about the steps and more about building a relationship with the environment. When you get started, you waste all your energy trying to catch every wave, falling on your face, and then fighting miserably back through the chop to reach the break again. Over time, you learn that some waves aren’t worth going after. Or that you’re not in the right place to grab it. So you shrug it off and look for the next. You learn how to smoothly dive under the waves when swimming back. You learn to read which direction a break is headed, and you get a lot faster at putting your body together when you do catch a wave. You learn to spot the big waves sneaking up from a distance, and when the tide has washed everything out. Most importantly, you learn that some days are just not going to be good days, and it’s better to stay out of the water and enjoy a long breakfast instead.

Truth is, I’m not a very good surfer. A “bad” surfer would probably be the more accurate description. I don’t get out nearly often enough. But surfing has become a regular theme when I think about my work, especially when stuck in the hardest problems. It helps me put things in perspective. Design is hard. We fight so many fights. In the name of the user, and for the pride of the craft, we will put all our energy into doing what we believe is right. There’s the usual design challenges of figuring out the right problems to solve, working through design explorations, iterating, refining. There’s the challenge of working with other designers to come to a shared point of view. There’s the challenge of working with people from other disciplines, who may not share your particular view of the world. There’s the challenge of working on big, complicated, constantly moving systems. Each of these things on their own are hard work, but all of those sit inside the context of how design fits in to the company you’re working for — that’s your design environment.

Does your CEO care about Design? Do other leaders at your company care about Design? Do you have a strong Design leader? On the ground, do the Product Managers and Engineers you work with care about Design? Do you have a process that is conducive to good design? Does Design have a role in shaping the company strategy? Does Design have a voice in deciding what ships, and what doesn’t? If you answered yes to a lot of these questions, you have a lot of momentum working for you. If you answered no, then no matter how good of a designer you are, you have a lot working against you. At most places, the answers will be a mix of yes and no, so you need to learn to work with the momentum of the yeses where you have them.


Over the last 10 years I’ve seen many designers completely burn themselves out, fighting against the momentum of a wave that is crashing down on top of them. I don’t want to burn out. I don’t want my team to burn out. But I don’t want us to stop pushing either. So I try as best I can to understand the environment we’re working in. It’s important to be as familiar as possible with the way the companies you design for work: the business model, its priorities, its values, the organizational structure, the way it reacts to change, the way it builds things. The conditions of an organization change over time as they evolve. Sometimes the weather won’t be great for doing good design work. That’s fine / it’s normal / it happens everywhere / don’t freak out. If you learn the patterns you can learn how to apply your work in the right places, with the right people, at the right time. Some days, even some months, the environment you’re in might be working against the things you care about. So relax. Save some energy. Stay out of the choppy stuff if you can. Give yourself some space to watch what’s happening, and invest your time in work or skills you think will be useful later.

Reading the Waves

Watch for the waves of change that you can catch, and when they come, ride them as far as you can. Put your energy into the projects and people that are moving in a direction you want to go. Then look for the next opportunity, and the next one, and the next one. Over time you get smarter, quicker, and better at seeing the patterns. If you think about your own company and teams, you can probably recognize which circumstances have been easier to work in, and which aren’t. In the myriad ways I’ve tried to improve as a designer over my career, the thing that has helped me the most is paying attention to the way the organizations around me work. I’m getting better at recognizing when to rest and when to push, and some of my colleagues have gotten used to me talking about surfing quite a lot. When things are rough, we do some homework. When things line up right, we go all in.

While in Mexico a few years ago, I spent a week surfing with a local instructor, trying to move myself on to some bigger waves. Taking a break from a particularly rough set one morning, Beto gave me some suggestions to improve my timing. I interrupted to let him know what I thought I needed to be doing. He turned to my wife and knocked on his head with his fist two times: “This guy, hard headed. He fights the wave. He’ll learn.” I did. I stopped focusing on myself and got better at paying attention to what was happening around me. I learned about this moment when you’re just at the tip of the break: You’ve done the work to get out there, you’ve waited for the right swell, you’ve paddle hard to get in front of it, and just as you start thinking you need to force yourself on to it…you wait just a moment longer and suddenly the wave drops you, and carries you down the face. That moment is really nice.

Take a moment to look around at the company you’re working in. Where are things lining up with the projects you care about, and where is it pushing against them? Can you see momentum moving your way that you can drop on to? You can’t force a company to your will any more than you can pick up the ocean and make it wave. But if you pay attention, you’ll start to get a feel for how things move. Stay prepared, and work with that.

“You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf”
— John Kabat-Zinn