Boardroom: Lessons from Surfing (4) – Tao, Timing, Vectors

The way of the thing

“Tao” refers to the inner nature or natural tendency of things. For example, water tends to flow downhill: that is its Tao. You can dam it, channel it, pump it, or otherwise interfere with it, but despite all your efforts, it will probably end up where it was going anyway.

To follow Tao, as a way of engaging with the world, is to be sensitive to the natural tendency of things, and not to waste energy struggling against them, but instead to go along with them: to work with the grain, not against it.

To extend the water analogy, a poor swimmer thrashes around making a lot of noise and fuss, but little actual progress. A Taoist, on the other hand, surfs.

John Arundel – The Tao of Go

From tao to timing

When you take off you have a really open mind about what’s going to occur. You’re just focusing on where the wave [is], how the wave’s approaching you, and what your first turn is going to be. Because that’s about all you can see… and then after you’ve made that turn, then you look and see what the wave is setting up.

Really, it’s not standing up that’s difficult in surfing – it’s catching the wave. The actual timing. You know, a wave is moving at you at 5 miles an hour, whatever speed it’s coming. And you have to turn around and judge where that wave is going to eventually break, and try to time your speed so the wave’s going to come to you, pick you up, and then you’re going to stand up just before it breaks.

So there’s that timing, and that’s the tricky part about surfing. It’s not standing up. We stand up every day. You wake up in the morning and the first thing you do is stand up, so you know how to do that.

Catching waves… that’s what tricky.

Robert “Wingnut” WeaverWingnut’s Art of Longboarding


This lesson is about deeply understanding the nature of the thing you’re trying to do.

What (who?) are you working with? What are you trying to achieve? What is the innate tendency – the tao, or you might almost say the gravity – of the component parts and the system as a whole? What do they incline towards? Where do they tend to settle?

At first glance, waves seem to be moving water – but they’re really energy moving through water (the water mostly moves up and down, apart from at the moment when the wave actually breaks).

Catching waves seems to be about paddling, but as the no-handed take-off demonstrates, it’s really about timing and positioning.

Surfing seems to be about being pushed along by water but it’s really about sliding down the wave under gravity and positioning yourself to keep on sliding as the wave lifts up the water just behind you.

So to a large extent surfing is about understanding waves and developing a feel for being in the right place at the right time and moving in the right direction. (And remember, waves behave very differently on different days and in different places).

The right kind of paddle at the right time and in the right direction (down the wave rather than away in front of it), the right body position on the board, can do more than ten or twenty strenuous strokes at the wrong time.

Get things wrong, and you’ll quickly be frustrated and exhausted. Get it right and you’ll soon be in position ready for the next wave, and the next, and the next.

Putting the tao to work

  • What are your innate tendencies in your work? How can you turn these into strengths?
  • What’s the ‘gravity’ of each of your colleagues? What are they like? What do they just always seem to do? What always seems beyond them? Are they serving in the right role?
  • What are the tendencies of your customers? What do they want? What do they default to and why? In my work, most teachers are well intentioned (they want to make lessons useful and fun) but overworked and distracted. It’s not that they’re lazy, but their tao is towards tools that are effective, meaningful, fun and easy to use.
  • What’s the tao of the market as a whole? Are there cycles? How can you be in the right place at the right time?

Understanding the forces at work enables you to position yourself to harness them (a few paddles to the right or left might half the effort needed to catch the wave).

Equals and opposites

Where you’re going against a natural tendency in your work, understanding its default direction can help you to mitigate or avoid the worst of its impact, or at least to recognise that you’re going to need to maintain special effort to stand still, let alone to make progress. It will probably help to enlist the help of something that has a tendency in the equal and opposite direction.

Part of the tao of most waves is that they push us back towards the shore. Surfers make use of channels and rips of out-flowing water to help them get out through the waves, or simply walk with their boards and jump off a convenient rock beyond the breakers. Where these easy options aren’t available, there are a range of techniques to make it easier (but rarely easy) to get out behind the waves.

The tao of most financial management systems is that they descend into chaos and lose vital information. Organisations use procedures and software to make it easier to catch the information in the right format at the right time… and employ finance staff whose innate ability to insist on precision in the face of social pressure enables them to make sure that their colleagues follow the rules.

Groups attending training events tend towards spells of low-energy and apathy after lunch…

Employees tend to come to regard bonuses as rights…

Offices tend towards clutter…

Blog posts tend towards excessive length…

I'd love to hear your thoughts and recommended resources...