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Using surfing as a metaphor for motivational and self-improvement concepts and written in accessible, everyday language peppered with surfer slang, Staying on Top proves that the good life is available right now. Making these essential lessons fun, cartoon character Surf Master Alva appears throughout the book to dispense nuggets of wisdom that point the way to the good life, illustrating in a humorous and wise way that experts and gurus are not needed to understand and make the most of life. In other words, we don't have to learn how to achieve the good life through retreats, pills, hospitals or programs, nor do we have to wait until we find the "perfect time". In surfer parlance, "Surfz up, dude! Get your board and get to the beach." Assessing their understanding of prevailing societal values portrayed through surfing metaphors and Surf Master Alva's quirky wisdom, Staying on Top will awaken people to the reality that living life to the fullest requires living in the present. Life right now is all anyone can truly be sure of: The secret to achieving and maintaining balance and serenity lies in accepting and embracing that truth. For long-term devotees of self-help literature and newcomers to the genre, everyone will delight in this wise yet whimsical journey to enlightenment.
It's time to start living the life we've imagined.
— Henry James
So, you want the good life, eh? Of course, who wouldn't? People have been chasing after it in some form or another as long as there have been people on the planet. Here's the good news: It's available right now. That's right. There's no special line to wait in, no pill to take, no guru to follow, no workshop to attend nor self-help book to study. It's true. You don't need a promotion at work or any more money than you have in your pocket. Neither do you need tighter abs, bigger breasts or any more hair on your head than your genes are going to provide. And no, you don't have to wait until you're smarter, finished with your therapy or MBA, amassed more self-esteem, or brought out and diapered your inner child. In short, there is nothing to prepare for. To paraphrase the Chinese philosopher Confucius from nearly three thousand years ago, "The door is open. Why is it that no one enters?" Or as surfers worldwide say today, "Surfz up, dude! Get your board and get to the beach."
We know, we know. Right now, you're thinking, Wait a minute. Are these guys kidding? Surfers? Confucius maybe—after all, anything that smacks of Zen is kind of in fashion right now. But, come on, surfers? Here I draw the line. What could those board-toting, baggy-panted, perpetual adolescents possibly know about the "good life"? To this, we say, "Hey, we resemble that remark!" That's right, we're surfers. And while each of us differs in age, haircut and preferred style of surfing, we've all found that it offers a vision for seeing and experiencing the opportunities breaking on the shores of life. So whether you're an individual trying to paddle out of the doldrums or the CEO of a company pummeled by the waves of the competition, this book aims to help you stay on top and keep the sand out of your pants.
Okay, so why surfing? Because, to the surfer, the world is an ocean of opportunity, an endless shoreline of possibilities served up free of charge through no effort of one's own. All a surfer has to do to take advantage of what's available is pick up a board and get to the beach.
For all the people living away from the coast, you may say, "I'm landlocked! What beach? Get outta here!" We hear that, but location is no excuse. Consider this: Surfers trek through an area known as Deadman's Forest, past brown bears foraging for food along the banks of Deadman's River, just to take advantage of the opportunity to surf in the balmy thirty-two-degree waters off the Alaskan coast.
How 'bout bad weather? No problem, as the surf is always bound to be up somewhere else. Plus, being stormed out one day simply means the waves will be bigger the next.
Poor surf? Surfers say, "Dude, it's not the size of the wave but the motion of the ocean." So stop reminiscing about yesterday's waves or dreaming about tomorrow's. You can't ride those waves anyway. Just get your board and get to the beach.
Maybe you're worried about wiping out. Here's a thought: The 1963 song "Wipe Out" by the Surfaris went to number two on the Billboard charts, making it the highest-ranking surfing instrumental ever. If getting munched was really that bad, you have to wonder why anyone would write such a cool song about it and why surfers would still be singing its praises four decades later. Maybe that's why surfers refer to the best waves as "death." Bottom line? Everyone goes through the "rinse cycle" now and then—it's part of catching waves, so get over it.
Think you're too old? Consider this: If a dog named Koda can become a celebrity by learning to ride the waves off Bolinas, California, then any old dog can learn new tricks. A recent story on National Public Radio recounted the surfing career of several newcomers to the sport. Get this: The youngest was fifty-nine and the oldest eighty-nine years old! No Depend®s here—they grabbed their boards and got to the beach.
Surfers say: Don't settle in as you age; break out. And if you're just breaking out, great. After you've been on top of your first wave, you'll be stoked for more. You'll also be tempted to kick yourself for all the opportunities that passed you by unnoticed—but don't waste your time unless you're kicking yourself all the way to the nearest beach. New waves are breaking right now. Pick up your board and get rolling.
Finally, no board? No problem. You can always bodysurf. As the old expression goes, "Whatever floats your boat." Sadly, it's easy to get tricked into thinking that to enjoy a more rewarding or "good life," you must first have this or that (e.g., better duds, better board, better wheels, better waves, better weather, better tan), or do or accomplish something (e.g., earn more money, get a degree, invent something new, discover something or be discovered). It is as though somewhere along the way, society changed the old Boy Scout motto from "Be prepared" to "Always be preparing." Things are never good enough; there's always something left to do.
You don't need a degree in sociology to notice that Americans are in a constant state of upgrading, retooling, remodeling, reengineering, reclothing and remaking. The result is that America has become the land of big houses, big cars, big debt and big butts (a staggering 64.5 percent of adult Americans are overweight).1
A recent TV commercial is a perfect example of how the "good life" has become conflated with how much one produces and, more importantly, spends and consumes. An attractive young couple is shown climbing a sheer cliff on a beautiful sunny day. What do they do once they reach the top of the escarpment? Enjoy the view? Each other? No, these Madison Avenue representations of the "good life" whip out their shiny new laptops and get straight to work.
Or consider what has happened to the family vacation. Gone is any hope of relaxation. In its place is the obligatory adventure. By the time the odyssey is over, Mom and Dad are exhausted, the kids are cranky, and the bill adds up to the national debt. Worse yet is the oxymoronic "working vacation" where cell phones and e-mail have replaced "getting away from it all" with "staying in touch."
Surfers say: negatory. Think this way and you'll die waiting for the "good life." Along the way, you'll also go broke chasing after fads and fashions or paying experts to save you from the lack of fulfillment and meaning in your life. Maybe this is why credit-card debt and bankruptcies are at an all-time high while people's ratings of happiness and sense of personal fulfillment are at record lows.
Simply put, we've confused having (feelings, experiences, stuff) with living the good life. In this vein, there's a story about a thief who breaks into the beach house of a wise old surfer known as Surfmaster, only to discover there isn't much to steal. "You have come a long way to visit," the surfer says to the thief, "and should not return empty-handed. Please take my surfboard and clothes as a gift." The thief is surprised but slinks away with the clothes and board in hand. Afterwards, the seasoned old surfer sits naked watching the waves breaking on the beach. Poor fellow, he thinks, I wish I could give him these bodacious waves. As Surfmaster knows, it's not possible to buy, beg, borrow or steal the good life. It has to be lived.
By the way, don't despair if the only surfing you've done lately is the channels on your TV set. The hurry-up, work-harder, pack-more-in pace of today's world has a quality similar to being stuck in and tossed about by the foam churning at the shoreline. Bombarded by numerous demands on our time, energy and attention, the average person is barely able to catch a breath before being sucked back out by the undertow of life for another thrashing. Experts tell us we have "attention deficit disorder." In our experience, we suffer from attention fatigue.
Like inexperienced swimmers, we often make matters worse by fighting against the current rather than giving in and flowing leisurely back out to where opportunities for a ride are on the rise. Worn out from the constant activity, most of us are relieved when we finally manage to struggle out of the surf or are washed up on shore away from the action. Then, wrapped in the warmth of a beach towel, we either rest for a short time before rushing pell-mell back into the fray or emerge from our cotton cocoon content to watch the action from the safety of the nearest beach chair.
We know personally just how easy it is to get stuck in the foam, to be frenetically busy, have all the trappings of involvement, think you're being productive and getting things done, and yet feel strangely removed from life at the end of the day. It would be gratifying to say that we quickly assessed the problem and managed to free ourselves. The truth is, the nagging feeling that something was missing only led us to thrash about and paddle ever more wildly—much as a drowning swimmer. No matter how much we floundered, we held on to the belief that our hard work and dedication would eventually propel us to the top—the Atlantis of our ambitions, the heaven of our hopes, in other words, the "good life."
It didn't work, of course. We just ended up tired and exhausted, feeling more washed up than on top of life. By the way, this reminds us of another story: A man stands out in front of his home every morning and swings his dog around by the tail for several minutes. When a neighbor asks why the man treats the dog so cruelly, he replies, "Why, you have no idea how happy the dog is when I stop." We were that dog!
Rest or no rest, at that point we had absolutely no desire to run back into the froth and foam. If nothing else, we'd learned not to mistake frantic activity for forward motion. At the same time, we weren't willing to throw down our towels alongside all the other tourists who, confusing entertainment with opportunity, seem content with whatever the culture dishes up as fulfillment. We were better than that. We'd been to college. We had advanced degrees. We were gifted for heaven's sake. But what were we to do?
Faced with either drowning or settling, we chose, in a manner of speaking, to pack up our lives and leave the beach altogether. Not ones to fill the resulting void with alcohol, drugs or the latest pharmaceutical wonder, we got high on grumbling, faultfinding and poking fun at everything and everyone. Over time, however, the escalating outrage needed to feed our growing habit only compounded our feelings of disaffection and dissatisfaction. In effect, we became grumpy young men.
The people around us—our families and friends—couldn't fathom why we were so grouchy and unhappy. "Look at everything you have going for you," they would say. "You've got so much to be grateful for." And they were right. We had good jobs, nice families, lived in first-rate neighborhoods and had more than our share of leisure time. In fact, we had what 99 percent of the world's population associates with the "good life." So what was the matter with us? Why didn't we get it?
One day, a surfer is caught in an unexpected storm and carried away. After floating aimlessly for a number of days, he washes up on the shore of a deserted island. Initially, the surfer tends to his wounds and survives by eating the sweet and abundant tropical fruits growing nearby. Determined not to spend the rest of his life marooned, he soon begins constructing a raft out of fallen palm trees and the remnants of his old surfboard. To build his strength for the journey, he also sets out to capture and eat a small pig that shares the island with him. This is easier said than done. No matter what the stranded surfer tries, the creature always manages to elude capture. The chase continues and intensifies. Each day, he spends more time and precious energy running after the pig. Each day brings renewed failure.
The pursuit goes on for months until sailors from a passing ship land on the remote island. While picking fruit, they discover the surfer lying face down in the sand, weak and emaciated. "He's alive," one of the seamen shouts after feeling for a pulse. "Bring water," says another and then, lifting the surfer to a sitting position, asks, "Can we help you, mate?" Slowly lifting a bony finger and pointing off in the distance, the surfer replies, "You sure can . . . you see that pig over there . . . ?"
So what was the matter with us? Why didn't we get it? Like the surfer in the story, we failed to see the opportunities right before our eyes. They were there. They'd been happening all along. Seeing them, however, required making a choice. It was that simple. Were we going to be surfers or remain wannabes?
Just so we're clear, this is not about adopting an optimistic, everything-works-out-for-the-best, make-lemonade-out-of-lemons outlook. Indeed, we personally found all of that you-can-help-yourself, self-help stuff useless. Why? Because by helping us cope, it functioned more like a life preserver than a kickboard. Sure, we stayed afloat, but in the same place. The surfer in the story, for example, did not need to read a book about how to catch pigs, attend a support group for frustrated pig catchers or overcome his "meat issues." Rather, he needed to take advantage of the opportunity before him. It was a choice.
If you are ready to make that choice now, then turn the page.
¬2003. All rights reserved. Reprinted from Staying on Top and Keeping The Sand Out of Your Pants by Scott D. Miller, Ph.D., Mark A. Hubble, Ph.D., and Seth Houdeshell, L.M.S.W. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the written permission of the publisher. Publisher: Health Communications, Inc., 3201 SW 15th Street, Deerfield Beach, FL 33442.