You Are Never Too Old To Learn To Surf (aka: Don’t Be Afraid To Suck)


A version of this article previously appeared on Forbes.

I have a confession: I used to quickly become frustrated whenever I tried something new and I didn’t quickly excel. Rather than attempting to master the new activity, I would moved on to another task, seeking a gentler learning curve.

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My frustration with new activities was heightened by my desire to be “the best.” This was especially true when I was younger. However, as I have matured (translation: become old), my desire has evolved from wanting to “be the best” to simply, “doing my best.”

This was a difficult and gradual transition. It wasn’t until I turned 50 that I fully adopted basketball legend John Wooden’s definition of victory: “Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best you are capable of becoming.”

Consciousness Can Be A Bummer

Self-awareness is a vital trait which successful serial entrepreneurs must embrace. Unfortunately, the more self-aware you are, the more difficult it is to deal with the frustration associated with honing a new skill.

As shown below, most people do not realize their incompetence at the outset of a new activity. For instance, proficient surfers make it looks easy, effortlessly glide through the waves and look graceful, even when they wipeout.

The Killer Curve is where I previously quit challenging activities. This is the point when you know how badly you suck and you begin to appreciate what it is going to take for you to unsuck – lots and lots of hard work.


I travelled up the Killer Curve by incrementally celebrating extremely small successes. At first, simply falling off my SUP fewer times than the prior time I surfed was a victory. When I finally paddled through choppy waves and did not fall, I felt like Kelly Slater.

Lesson: Break the Killer Curve into numerous small victories and celebrate each and everyone one of them.

Public Sucking

Learning a new activity is even more difficult when you go through the consciously incompetent stage in public. Good waves generally attract a group of surfers, so surfing is seldom a solitary activity. If you launch into a wave and are unable to ride it, you will quickly find yourself unpopular with the wave-hungry, competent surfers.

I limited my public embarrassment by first surfing on a standup paddle board (SUP). It is easier (especially for an old guy) because the paddle acts as an additional point of balance. It also allowed me to surf waves which were too small for regular surfers, often without an audience.

Lesson: Minimize public displays of your incompetence and remember that everyone was a beginner at some point and they also sucked when they were a newbie.

Unslumping Yourself

You’ll be on your way up!
You’ll be seeing great sights!
You’ll join the high fliers
who soar to high heights.

Except when you don’t
Because, sometimes, you won’t.

And the chances are, then,
that you’ll be in a Slump.

And when you’re in a Slump,
you’re not in for much fun.
Un-slumping yourself
is not easily done.

Excerpt from Dr. Seuss’ “The Places You Will Go”

Kirsty Spraggon, celebrated author and host of KirstyTV recently described how she motivated herself to overcome her conscious incompetence while speaking to aspiring entrepreneurs at UC Santa Barbara. For her, the stakes were especially high because she bet it all when she moved from Perth to Hollywood. Per Kirsty, “I sold everything I owned. Left Australia. Left a highly successful career. Moved to America with two suitcases to build an online TV show.”

According to Kirsty, “When I first started public speaking… it was not good. I had to be consciously incompetent in front of hundreds of people. But if I had stopped there, I never would have realized my dreams. I wouldn’t have achieved what I wanted to achieve.”

Kirsty overcame the frustration of her conscious incompetence by singing high energy songs to herself, such as Madonna’s “Like A Virgin.” She also allowed herself occasional downtime on the couch with some apple pie, a comforter and a good movie. She noted that a key to successfully moving out of the, “I am aware I suck” stage is to develop coping mechanisms that help you quickly “unslump.”

Lesson: In Kirsty’s words, “We have to be willing to be really uncomfortable with people seeing how incompetent we are” in order to gain the skills necessary for success. Reduce the discomfort of sucking by finding “unslumping” tools that rapidly recharge you.

You can watch a 4-minute excerpt of Kirsty’s talk below:

Humility & Empathy

In addition to the intrinsic joy associated with becoming consciously competent, the process will also remind you of the importance of humility and empathy. As noted in this article by Jeremy Dean, there are a number of beneficial psychological effects associated with humility. It is healthy to pursue a challenging task, as it reminds you how frustrating and intimidating it is to be a beginner. The more accomplished you are, the more important it is to be mindful of the frustrations of a novice.

Empathy is equally important. Nothing reinforces compassion as walking in someone else’s shoes. Experiencing the feelings of a neophyte will make you more sympathetic the next time you coach someone at a task in which you excel.

Lesson: Embrace opportunities to experience humility and empathy, especially as you become more accomplished in your career.

Avoid The Self-guided Tour

You’re Never Too Old For A Mentor, describes the benefits of working with an experienced sherpa to conquer a new and challenging phase of your life. When taking on a new task, take a similar approach and seek out a friendly guru.

Lesson: Connect with a friend who is proficient in the task you want to master. A few well timed tips can result in immediate improvements early in your learning process.

Follow my startup-oriented Twitter feed here: @johngreathouse. I promise I will never Tweet about people too cool to try anything new or that killer burrito I just ate.

John Greathouse

John Greathouse is a Partner at Rincon Venture Partners, a venture capital firm investing in early stage, web-based businesses. Previously, John co-founded RevUpNet, a performance-based online marketing agency sold to Coull. During the prior twenty years, he held senior executive positions with several successful startups, spearheading transactions that generated more than $350 million of shareholder value, including an IPO and a multi-hundred-million-dollar acquisition.

John is a CPA and holds an M.B.A. from the Wharton School. He is a member of the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Faculty where he teaches several entrepreneurial courses.

Note: All of my advice in this blog is that of a layman. I am not a lawyer and I never played one on TV. You should always assess the veracity of any third-party advice that might have far-reaching implications (be it legal, accounting, personnel, tax or otherwise) with your trusted professional of choice.

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