[Article Series – Part 1] “Unprecedented” is undoubtedly the word of the year that characterized the tumultuous 2020–from the COVID-19 global pandemic to social unrest that rattled the U.S., many of us have witnessed things that we’ve never experienced before. As a society, we learned the vulnerability of our health care system, the brevity of human lives, and the fragility of social harmony. On the flip side, 2020 has given us a deeper appreciation for life and the everyday normalcy that lots of us used to take for granted.
Instead of traveling during this holiday season, I let my mind wander and used this opportunity to reflect on a year unlike any other. I realized in this unprecedented year, I have also done many things “unprecedented” for me personally: first time surfing, moving to New Year City, taking martial arts classes, becoming a Fellow of the Society of Actuaries, managing a summer intern at work, becoming a product manager, investing in my first multifamily real estate deal… Each of these first-time experiences was filled with memorable moments, and each has taught me something unique. I hope to summarize a few lessons that hopefully will be valuable for my future self and others who are in similar journeys as me.
Surfing: falling is part of the game; pick your waves.
Surfing is one of those sports that always seem glamorous to the outside world. We’ve all watched videos of pro surfers having a blast while surfing overhead waves, but what we can’t see from these viral videos is the number of failed attempts in each successful shot and the water temperature surfers have to sometimes endure. While on my 2019 Christmas/2020 New Year vacation, I took a surf class in San Diego. Even though I wore a wet suit, I still found my body shivering and teeth chattering after the 90-minute lesson. After my body temperature returned to normal, I realized that surfing is probably the best sport to learn what Julie Bowden once said, “Success is getting up one more time than you fall down.” Each wave only lasts so long, so you will almost always fall–sometimes after the wave subsides but often in the midst of it. What do you do when you fall? You get back up on the board and try again. Unlike other sports, in which you get from point A to point B, surfing always takes you back to your starting point, the beach. I came to appreciate that in this sport and in life in general, it’s not about “getting somewhere,” it’s all about the journey. Fall is almost inevitable, but as long as you are willing to stand back up, the more you fall, the better you become.
Surfing is also a unique sport in that the external environment matters tremendously. There will always be waves, but they aren’t created equal. You need to watch out for the wave coming up and decide whether to give it a go according its size, direction, etc. Understanding the external environment and macro-trends sounds awfully familiar to a business nerd like me. In a McKinsey research article, “Strategy to Beat the Odds,” the majority of the world’s 2,393 largest corporations made almost no economic profit (“the total profit after the cost of capital is subtracted”) from 2010-2014. Simply put, most companies’ performance did not beat the overall market performance. So how does a company beat the market? It turns out 50% of that is driven not by “how you play” but rather by “where you play”–the industry of a given company matters, a lot. In surfing, we need to closely observe the ocean to pick the waves to get the best rides. In professional endeavors, I believe in addition to understanding our own resources and competencies, we need to pay attention to the macro trends (social, economic, technological, etc.) to decide what industry to work or even start a company.