Louis Patler on “Making Your Own Waves”: Part 2 of an interview by Bob Morris

Excerpts from the interview, part 2

Morris: For those who have not as yet read Make Your Own Waves, hopefully your responses to these questions will stimulate their interest and, better yet, encourage them to purchase a copy and read the book ASAP.

First, when and why did you decided to write it?

Patler: I wrote a few pages about “The Surfers Rules” in my first book (If it ain’t broke…BREAK IT!) over 20 years ago. I’ve always been interested in what business people can learn from elite athletes, and also interested in how metaphors can be treated as facts. So, if the media talks about “waves of change” or “blue ocean strategies”, my brain goes to look for subject matter experts on waves and oceans. In this case I started interviewing physicists and…surfers! I found some conventional wisdom from the physicists, but the really interesting unconventional ideas came from the surfers! Who knew? Further, the elite surfers to me were the 2-300 or so men and women who ride the Big Waves, 30-60 feet or higher.

So initially I had a chapter in a book proposal on innovation when Stephen S. Power, the senior editor at AMACOM books contacted my literary agent, John Willig, to inquire if maybe there was a full book I could write that took lessons to be learned from Big Wave surfers who risk life and limb and apply those lessons to entrepreneurs. I developed a new proposal. Stephen sent a contract the next day, and the rest is history.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Patler: Yes, there actually were several head snappers. The deeper the dive I took into the small world of Big Wave surfers, the more profound I found them to be. They understood planning. Patience. Preparation. Training. They told me about how time slows down when they are in a crisis situation, beaten up under water by two or three wave hold-downs. They reminded me of things I learned as a kid learning to surf about “always looking ‘outside’”. In surfing “outside” or “out-the-back” refers to watching the sets of waves that are coming, and how important wave selection and your location in the “line up” in order to be in position to take the right wave is. I learned about the commitment it takes to turn your board and GO! I learned the importance of “paddling back out” after a wipeout, and to never surf alone. They also reminded me to “dare big!” and to “stay stoked”. When the passion wanes it’s time to move on.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

Patler: That’s easy to answer. I originally had Seven Surfer’s Rules. Three of those were re-named and modified, and three new ones were added after my research and interviews with the Big Wave surfers.

Morris: If you were explaining the meaning and significance of the book’s title to a six year-old, what would you say?

Patler: To a six (or sixty) year old I’d say: “Make Your Own Waves” is a storybook. The stories are cool…and seem simple, but they will stay with you your whole life… and they will amaze you and make you feel like you can do anything and be anybody you want to…but you have to be willing to work hard!”

Morris: By what process have the “Big Wave surfers’ rules” been determined?

Patler: I did extensive research on the history of Big Wave surfing, and key innovators among them, looking at a thousand or more articles and hundreds of videos that I transcribed. I did personal interviews of course too. Having been trained in content analysis, I was able to bundle comments under several categories and these categories eventuated in each of the Surfer’s Rules.

Morris: What is “the endless summer syndrome”?

Patler: A classic surf movie of the 1960’s was called The Endless Summer). In it two surfers are filmed as they travel around the world in search of the perfect wave throughout the whole year. For many Big Wave surfers the endless summer syndrome, as I called it, is the incessant search for waves the size of office buildings, around the planet, all year long.

Morris: In your opinion, which of them are most relevant to the efforts of innovators and entrepreneurs? How so?

Patler: I think all 10 are crucial to the innovation process, but if I had to single out a few today I’d say “Learn to Swim”, “Always Look ‘Outside’,” “Never Turn Your Back on the Ocean,” and “Stay Stoked.”

Morris: Which Big Wave innovator do you most admire? Why?

Patler: Probably Laird Hamilton. He never wanted to be on the competitive world Big Wave competitive tour but constantly is out on the leading edge. He was the first to do tow-in surfing, the first to develop hydrofoil surfboards that rise up out of the water, and has helped develop all kinds of safety equipment and training.

Morris: Which Big Wave entrepreneur do you most admire? Why?

Patler: There are not many Big Wave surfers who are entrepreneurs per se. There are though a few surfers who have created billion dollar products. My favorite is Nick Woodman, creator of GoPro cameras. Other examples include the founders of Quiksilver, RVCA, Reef and other lifestyle brands.

Morris: How important is luck to the success of surfers, innovators, and entrepreneurs? Please explain.

Patler: In Big Wave surfing as in business I do not believe in luck. In my second book, Don’t Compete…TILT the Field! (Capstone/Wiley: 2000) I make a distinction between “good luck” and “good lucky.” “Good luck” is pure, random and passive chance. “Good lucky” is what I refer to as “pro-active” risk-taking, where you are putting yourself in a position that enhances the likelihood of good things happening. I do believe in “good lucky.”

Morris: You have especially clever as well as appropriate chapter titles. Please explain the relevance to business of each of these. First, “Always Look ‘Outside’”

Patler: The book’s chapters follow a chronological sequence from “Learn to Swim” (Chapter 1) to Stay Stoked! (Chapter 10). “Always Look ‘Outside’” is actually Chapter 4 and, and as I said before, the title refers to paying attention to the sets of waves coming at you. There is no need to take the first wave, “the low hanging fruit,” when a better wave may be just showing itself on the horizon. To the entrepreneur and innovator, this takes discipline and patience but has a much greater yield.

Morris: Next, “Paddle Back Out”

Patler: In waves big and small, you WILL “wipeout” and fall. So too, in business. The art of being an entrepreneur in parts rests on your ability to learn from the falls, iterate, and paddle back out in search of the next wave.

Morris: Then, “Never Surf Alone”

Patler: Surfing may seem a solitary sport. One person, one board, one wave. But in Big Wave surfing you need a team … for spotting places to surf, for your personal safety, for your equipment, and of course, for fun and companionship!

Morris: Finally, “Stay Stoked!”

Patler: In surfing as in business, especially for the entrepreneur and innovator, passion carries the day. It sustains you in tough times and pumps you up when things are going well. If you lose the “stoke” it’s time to move on.

Morris: Of all the skills that Big Wave surfers, innovators, and entrepreneurs must develop to a very high level, is there any one of them that you consider to be most important? Please explain.

Patler: I‘m not sure you’d call these “skills”, but patience and hard work come to mind as crucial to success. I mean, think about the Big Wave surfer. They train, plan, research all year long to have maybe 5 days in prime conditions. Think of the patience that takes. And these are elite athletes, so they stay in tiptop condition year-round just to be ready for those few days. Many entrepreneurs have too little patience. They want it all now without the hard work that makes success more likely.

Morris: A friend of mine has a firm that helps hospitals to establish or strengthen their ER. As I worked my way through your brilliant book, it occurred to me that Big Wave surfers and ER staff members also share much in common. Do you agree?

Patler: Thanks for the word “brilliant.” Much appreciated. And yes there are many similarities between ER staff and Big Wave surfers. Both need to be well trained. Both are resilient and ready to respond to dramatic and rapid changes. And both literally deal with life or death situations daily.

Morris: In your opinion, which of the material you provide in Make Your Own Waves will be most valuable to those now preparing for a business career or who have only recently embarked on one? Please explain.

Patler: The 10 chapters are designed to take the reader through the steps needed to create a good business plan. At the end of each chapter there is a section called “Things to Do.” Typically there are 3 or 4 questions, the answers to which form a rudimentary business plan. For those recently embarking into the entrepreneurial or business life, the first four chapters (“Learn to Swim”, “Get Wet,” “Decide to Ride,” and “Always Look ‘Outside’”) are very helpful.

Morris: To first-time supervisors? Please explain.

Patler: For them, I suggest “Never Turn Your Back on the Ocean,” Chapter 6. Substitute employee or customer for the word “Ocean” and you get the idea. Don’t take people for granted or get complacent. With very rare exception, “Good enough” isn’t.

Morris: To C-level executives? Please explain.

Patler: C-level executives have to be more strategic and take the longer view, so the last three chapters (“Dare Big,” “Never Surf Alone,” and “Stay Stoked!,”) are vital.

Morris: To owner/CEOs of small-to-midsize companies? Please explain.

Patler: To owner/CEOs of small-to-midsize companies, to the startups of the world, honestly I think all 10 Surfer’s Rules will serve you well.

Morris: Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

Patler: “Where can I get my hands on this brilliant book?”

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