Louis Patler

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?”

I suggest you click here.

Louis Patler on “Making Your Own Waves”: Part 1 of an interview by Bob Morris


Excerpt from the interview

Morris: Before discussing Making Your Own Waves, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Patler: Probably it was my mother. She was very wise and the queen of one-liners. “Learn how to back into a clearing,” she would tell me.

Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Patler: Believe it or not, the greatest influence professionally may have been the 15 years or so I taught poetry and poetics at university. I also have a PhD in sociological theory, which gave me a sense of rigor and discipline and the value of data. That helped too.

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Patler: I suppose the turning point for me was getting hired right out of grad school to teach on the Semester at Sea program, which allowed me to sail around the world for nearly four years. The international perspective I gained from visiting about 40 countries was invaluable. Then, there came the decision to leave university and academic life. I was tiring of university politics and also have five children so I needed to earn more income than that of a college prof.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Patler: As I said, there were many things my formal education brought to the table for me. I like to have my head in the clouds while my feet are also on the ground. Theory and data. Strategy and numbers. They coexist for me.

Morris: What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you went to work full-time for the first time? Why?

Patler: Tolstoy said, “all happy families resemble one another.” I have found this to be true of organizations and their leaders. Having worked mainly with CEOs and corporate Presidents for the past 15 or more years, I find that the best of them share similar traits and are just people like the rest of us. I am not intimidated nor do I pedestalize them any more.

Morris: Of all the films that you have seen, which – in your opinion – best dramatizes important business principles? Please explain.

Patler: This may sound odd, but Field of Dreams held many business lessons for me. The power of a vision and a wild goal. The importance of relationships. The power of continutity from generation to generation. The importance of having family, friends and support around you. All of these things apply in business too.

Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-tse’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

Patler: I believe that a leader’s role is to make it possible for everyone else to do with ease whatever it is that they have to do. Make resources available. Minimize obstacles. Articulate core values. In doing so, “the people” will indeed have “done it themselves.”

Morris: From Michael Porter: “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”

Patler: I think Porter got that half right. What NOT to do and what TO do, and in what SEQUENCE have equal value to me. But strategy is ephemeral. Amorphous. Even porous. These days strategy has to be agile and flexible because we are in a world now ruled by exponential change.

Morris: Peter Drucker once said that “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” From Richard Dawkins: “Yesterday’s dangerous idea is today’s orthodoxy and tomorrow’s cliché.”

Patler: And yet today’s cliché can generate the next dangerous idea. I gained that insight while reading The Structure of Scientific Revolution by Thomas Kuhn many years ago. Paradigms shift when an entirely new orthodoxy replaces the prior one… e.g. from Copernicus to Galileo, Galileo to Newton, Newton to Einstein. ‘Twas ever thus, as my mom would say.

Morris: From Isaac Asimov: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but ‘That’s odd….’”

Patler: “Odd” is God. The anomalies have always sucked me in. Called to me.

Morris: From Thomas Edison: “Vision without execution is hallucination.”

Patler: And innovation without execution is folly. Today, results matter. There are lots of ways to generate all kinds of ideas for products and services but unless you figure out how to move from idea to delivery, they have little business consequence. That’s one of the reasons I created a training program and workshops under the title Innovating for Results.

Morris: Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

Patler: Most large organizations fall prey to becoming masters of efficient uselessness. This takes many forms…archaic policies and procedures, fear of taking risks, rewarding complacency. My first book, the NY Times bestseller If it ain’t broke…BREAK IT! addressed this head on.

Morris: Of all the greatest leaders throughout history, with which one would you most like to be closely associated for an extended weekend of one-on-one conversation? Why?

Patler: There are so many. Plato would be solid. Lincoln has always interested me. I suspect that the man from Omaha, Warren Buffet, would be a good companion for a weekend. Steve Jobs too, although I don’t think he could sit still that long! But, as of today, as I write this, it is Bishop Desmond Tutu’s birthday, so my friend “Arch” is on my mind. I have known him for many years and he is truly very special. His wisdom. His humor. His patience in the face of adversity are all extraordinary. His “Truth and Reconciliation Committee” process in South Africa helped stave off a blood bath after the end of apartheid, and led to a smoother transition to the presidency of Nelson Mandela. Arch has spent time with most of the world’s spiritual and political leaders and I am sure I could learn much from him.

Morris: Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.”

Here’s my question: How best to avoid or overcome such resistance?

Patler: Most change initiatives that fail are those that come top down. For example, I cannot tell you how many times CEOs have sought to create “a culture of innovation” by making that a priority for a given period of time. But in my experience and research, there is a valuable distinction I make between “a culture of innovation” and “a company of innovators.” If you focus on the latter you eventuate with the former. Change and innovation have to be seen as everybody’s everyday job. And what, at the end of the day, is “innovation” if not a form of problem solving or the provision of a new opportunity?

Morris: What are the defining characteristics of a workplace culture within which personal growth and professional development are most likely to thrive?

Patler: I don’t subscribe to the idea that a “workplace” culture is any different than any environment…e.g. a living room or locker room or school room…in the sense that all these places encourage and foster growth and help people to thrive. Any environment that treats people with respect, that values each of our uniquenesses, that gives us needed tools and resources will create a “culture” conducive to our development.

Morris: Recent research indicates that, on average, less than 30% of employees in a U.S. company are actively and productively engaged. The others are either passively engaged (“mailing it in”) or actively disengaged, undermining the success of their organization? How do you explain this situation? What’s the problem?

Patler: The problem is related to the circumstances. In highly regulated industries like insurance and government, repetitive tasks lead to boredom and lack of zeal. In many blue collar/assembly line jobs, “productivity” is quantitative and people work by rote and routine. So, in each “circumstance” the challenge is to offer “meaning” to the employee. For example, in aerospace and defense, even the most menial jobs can be enhanced by the opportunity to see your work as helping “protect those who protect us.” This has motivational power.

Make Your Own Waves-The Book's History

About 25 years ago I started doing research and writing about innovators and entrepreneurs who had repeatedly been successful. I was interested in how they sustain innovation over time, not just as a one-hit wonder. In the course of this project I stumbled upon an unexpected, common characteristic they shared: they took analogies and metaphors literally. This enabled them to form some odd couplings and creative inventions, ranging from making an industrial solvent into “Kitty Litter” to a “talking typewriter” that eventually became a smart phone.

In the world of business a common analogy at that time was matching “cycles”, “sets” and “waves” to economic activity. One day I had an epiphany: why not take that analogy literally and seek out those who are the subject matter experts on waves? I chose two: physicists and surfers! I started talking to both and found conventional wisdom on waves from the physicists, and unconventional wisdom on waves from the surfers. Taken together I gained new insights into the world of work.

In 1991, in my New York Times bestseller, If it ain’t broke…BREAK IT!, amidst dozens of other topics, I wrote a few pages about seven “Surfer’s Rules”, and moved on. I received occasional comments about The Surfer’s Rules and in 1998 I was asked to do a short video feature to explain them further as part of a four-video package of training materials on innovation. To my surprise, the royalties on The Surfer’s Rules video was quadruple the combined total of the other three. I could see there was a broad audience for them, but I still did not see the depth of wisdom in the Rules and their direct application to being an entrepreneur.

Between 1998 and early 2014 I wrote three other books, all concerning aspects of innovation, change, leadership and strategy. In none did I mention The Surfer’s Rules, as I still was evolving in my own understanding of them. In late 2104, I expanded a section of my latest innovation-training program, Innovating for Results, to include a long segment on The Surfer’s Rules as a strategic planning tool.

In 2015, I contacted my literary agent, John Willig, with an idea about an ambitious, data-driven book that summarized my 25 years of research on innovation. I developed a book proposal in which one of the chapters revolved around the Rules. The proposal was sent around to a half dozen publishers and generated some interest immediately. But one editor, Stephen Power at the American Management Association (AMACOM books) contacted John immediately.

Stephen had an idea: Might there actually be a book that could come from The Surfer’s Rules per se? Stephen was interested in targeting young entrepreneurs, start-ups and innovators and saw something unique and special in the juxtaposition of surfing and business. He contacted John, John asked me what I thought about the idea and after I had a talk with Stephen I decided to give it some thought.

By this point I knew that my real interest in the surfing community had shifted to the small, elite group of athletes who rode Big Waves. Having talked to many of them over several years, I knew that the Big Wave surfers were a breed apart: prepared, focused, patient, creative and courageous. As such, their traits mirrored my research findings of successful, serial entrepreneurs and innovators.

So I wrote a new proposal for a totally different book and audience. John looked at the new proposal and liked it. Stephen looked at it and liked it too, not only offering a contract almost immediately but even proposing a title: “Make Your Own Wave.” I knew immediately that he “got it,” he understood the power of this analogy that linked Big Wave riders and entrepreneurs. He also understood the depth of insight these elite athletes could offer readers. I signed the contract, added an “s” to the title to reflect the ability to repeatedly succeed, and Make Your Own Waves was born.

In writing the book, the starring role played by Big Wave surfers led me to immerse myself in that world. The deep dive helped me to evolve and modify the original seven Rules into the ten Surfer’s Rules that form the book. The more I researched the better the analogy fit and I then realized that there was a natural chronology or cycle to the Rules. The first four chapters (Learn to Swim; Get Wet; Decide to Ride, Always Look “Outside”) address the hard work to be done before even trying to ride a wave. The middle three chapters focus on the rides, wipeouts and determination to get up after set backs (Commit. Charge. Shred.; Paddle Back Out; Never Turn Your Back on the Ocean). And the last three chapters examine how important it is to not rest on your laurels, to collaborate and to stay passionate about what you do (Dare BIG!; Never Surf Alone; Stay Stoked!).

Today’s business opportunities—and challenges – are enormous. They roll in at high speed, in sets and intervals that mirror the ocean’s cycles. The size of the opportunity is dictated by trends, technology, market savvy and hard work. With the unconventional wisdom of Big Wave surfers in their toolbox, innovators and entrepreneurs will be better prepared to make their own waves. Where there’s a will, there’s a WAVE.