Catching Waves: Life Lessons at Campus Point in Santa Barbara, CA
Getting what you want out of life can be hard.
You have to know where to look for it, and then, when you find it, you have to be prepared. But that’s only the start. You have to be patient to wait for the right conditions and then you have to make your move. Even then you’ll probably fail, but if you’re lucky enough and persevere, you just might succeed.
But before any of that, you have to know what you want.
A Bleary-Eyed Stoner
College can be like a work out regimen. It’s a test of character. It answers the question of whether you can stick things out. If something is difficult and unrewarding, can you still hang in there?
If someone had come up to me at age 19 and asked me what what I wanted in life, I would’ve given them a pat answer. I was a pot head, polishing off an ounce a week, drinking heavily, dabbling in coke. Long term goals were not on the agenda. But I was in college, and that was a start.
Back in high school I had briefly experienced being a jock. As a pole vaulter I knew what it was like to work hard, to sweat and toil in pursuit of a goal. So at the age of 23, after years of being a bleary-eyed stoner, I decided to reinvent myself. I set myself a simple test. Could I return to my pre-college condition? Could I run a mile?
I failed to make it around the track. I doubled over, gasping for breath, coughing up gnarly gouts of phlegm. This was nuts. The siren call of my Graphix bong was calling, but I refused to listen. I vowed to come back and try again. I was ready to move ahead in life and smoking weed wasn’t going to do it.
The track is wonderful at measuring progress. It lets you know in no uncertain terms how far you’ve gotten. I figured that all I really had to do was go ten yards further than I had the day before. I did it. Each day, I did it. But it was not fun. It was painful. It was inconvenient.
Dumbass from the Lily-White Suburbs
As a high school student I had been a complete bust. I graduated with a 2.3 grade point average. Fortunately, I came along during the first blush of affirmative action, and although I’m not a minority, programs that had been designed to help low performing inner city kids slopped over onto dumbasses from the lily white suburbs, like me. I got into college on academic probation.
I did well in my first semester and got admitted. Then I had to pick a major. I chose English Literature. I had some vague idea that I wanted to be a writer. Having a vague idea about what you want is not usually a recipe for long term success. But I liked college. I stayed there and got a Masters degree in Creative Writing. Then I emerged into a world that couldn’t care less.
I worked making pizzas in Phoenix. I moved to Greenwich Village and moped around for a year, going to jazz clubs, hanging out in Washington Square Park. I was married by then (way too young) and was desperate to do something to justify six years of study, so I invested a year in trying to write a novel, a sprawling tale of a young American caught up in the troubles in Northern Ireland. The novel floundered. The marriage fell apart.
I didn’t know it then, but I was still trying to find my place in the world, not unlike sitting on a surfboard watching the sea rise and fall, waiting for a wave. If you’ve ever done that, and you’re in the wrong spot, you understand you’ll be waiting for a very long time. Better to find a different spot. After New York, I moved to San Diego.
Nirvana for Beginners
The thing about surfing is that it requires a place to surf. If you happen to live in San Diego, you’re good to go. But if you live in Chicago, you’re at a bit of a handicap. During the year I lived in San Diego, I never learned to surf. I couldn’t afford to. But I could see the other guys surfing and I envied them.
After I moved back to Chicago, I didn’t think about surfing again for another 27 years. Then one day, on vacation in Costa Rica, I got my chance, and I was hooked. At age 50 I took up surfing.
The southwest Pacific coast of Costa Rica is nirvana for beginning surfers. The waves are frequent with a good peel. The bottom is sandy with a gradual slope. The water temperature is deliciously warm. The beaches are uncrowded.
The problem is that I only go to Costa Rica once a year, and I wanted to surf often. When it came surfing, I had fulfilled the first two requirements for success. I knew what I wanted and I was prepared. Now all I needed was to find the right conditions – in the continental US.
Being prepared to surf at my age was no accident. It had all started that day in the gym when I was 23. The misery of trying to run a mile nearly broke me, but I kept at it, and after a couple of weeks, I succeeded. After that, I looked up at the white lanes of the curving track and thought, Why not two? From then on I quickly improved to three, and then four and five, and by the end of the first year, I had run my first 10K.
By 1983 I had returned to the Chicago area from San Diego to work for my father’s business and to try to put my marriage back together. The marriage was a lost cause but my stint as a salesperson, selling picture framing tools to art supply stores, was working out. I started to make some money, and I was beginning to date again, so I decided to take more pride in my appearance and make a fresh start.
By the time I got married again in 1987 I was running marathons. When my daughter was born in 1989, I was under a stack of weights, doing presses at the gym when I got a call to inform me my wife’s water had broken and it was time to go to the hospital. I had become a full-fledged gym rat.
The wonderful thing about being a gym-rat is that you’ve broken through a psychological barrier. Going to the gym is no longer something to dread, but something to look forward to. I had the same experience with college. Book learning was a forced march in high school, but by the time I graduated college, I could happily spend all day in a library and never tire of it.
In my life I was still looking for the perfect beach, but from this point forward, I had these two advantages: I knew what it took to make myself stronger, and I was ready, willing and able to take it on.
Seeking the Perfect Wave
Surfing in the United States is a lot harder than you think. First, you need a coast. But not just any coast. Swampy, marshy coasts are out. Rocky coasts where the waves slam against the rocks are too dangerous. Urban coasts cluttered with infrastructure and shipping are a non-starter. You need a beach, preferably not too rocky, and you need waves – good waves.
Very few waves are actually good for surfing. Waves that just swell and foam are no good. Waves that peak quickly and then peter out are a wash. Waves that are too big and fierce are for experts only. What I wanted were waves that surge nicely, peak in the center with a triangular spill, peel down their lengths and carry enough energy to keep me going. They were not going to be easy to find.
My first attempt to surf in the United States was on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. It was late in the afternoon, the tide was high and the waves lacked energy. I bobbed up and down in the water for an hour and gave up.
My next attempt was in New Jersey, but it was too cold and I didn’t have a wet suit.
I tried again in Cocoa Beach, Florida but the tide was in and it was raining and my surf instructor cancelled.
My mother has a condo at Venice Beach in Florida where the kids surf the break off the jetty, but the water is so full of boulders, I don’t have the guts to try it.
San Diego was the obvious place. After all, that’s where I used to watch the guys surf and envy them, but the problem is that any place that’s good is going to be crowded, especially in Southern California; and California surfers are notoriously territorial.
In Los Angeles, the whole stretch of coastline from San Onofre all the way up to Malibu is dominated by a menacing localism. If you ain’t from there, you don’t belong there, and woe unto you should you get in somebody’s way.
It was beginning to look like surfing in the USA was impossible, but then I found what I was looking for.
Campus Point at the University of California Santa Barbara is normally crowded but I happened to arrive during Spring Break and the campus was a ghost town. I arrived at 6am and donned my wet suit. The waves looked fine. I started paddling.
Some waves are hard to surf. I worked for my father’s company for ten years, and although the company prospered during my tenure, I never felt like a success. If a therapist were to peel away my layers, it wouldn’t take them long to discover that I have a burning need for recognition. Money isn’t enough.
But by 1993 I had learned that I had the power to reinvent myself. I had also learned that given enough autonomy I could persevere in the face of daunting obstacles, so I decided to try starting my own business. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I was taking on the biggest challenge of my life.
I sat on my surfboard about 100 yards off Campus Point and watched the waves. I caught a surge and started paddling like mad but the wave washed out so I had to turn around and paddle back out again. This happened three or four times before I realized I was in the wrong place. I needed to be further out.
In the beginning my business made almost no money. In 1995 with a six year old daughter and a mortgage to pay I was bringing home a pittance. The strain on the marriage was great. In desperation I took whatever I could get. I changed out silver recovery filters for photo processing labs. I participated in focus groups. I taught English at community colleges. I nearly got snared by a pyramid scheme.
My wife suggested I take a job teaching English aboard Navy ships at sea. When I declined, she left me anyway. But I kept trying to make a go of my business. Sure, it was discouraging, but I knew what I wanted, so I kept at it.
Further out the waves were breaking with more frequency and sufficient strength. I caught one and tried to pop up, but my hands slipped off and I got pummeled. I tried again and got to my feet, but buried the nose and flipped over. I was getting tired, but after all the trials and setbacks it had taken just to find this place, I wasn’t about to give up.
Rising From a Dog Pile
Google saved me. I was selling picture framing supplies online. That was my business. I knew that there were plenty of people out there who wanted to buy picture framing supplies – matboard, molding, and such – to do their own picture framing, but I didn’t know how to reach them until the internet came along. My website was okay, gaining a few hundred visitors each month, but at this rate it was going to take a very long time to achieve financial independence. Then one day in 2003 a guy cold-called me from a search engine called Dogpile. They had this great new idea, pay-per-click advertising.
Normally, I just hang up on guys like that, but for some reason I listened. In the course of things, he let it slip that Yahoo was experimenting with the same thing. I was more familiar with Yahoo than with Dogpile, so when I got off with him, I looked up Yahoo’s program and decided to sign up.
It worked. Yahoo immediately began driving business to my site. The return on investment was extraordinary. For every dollar invested, I got two dollars in sales. Perhaps I was lucky, perhaps I was God blessed, but things were beginning to turn.
Then I heard Google was launching their own pay-per-click program. I immediately signed up. Google’s program rolled up like the perfect wave. I caught it and was off. I stopped teaching college. I stopped doing focus groups. I devoted myself full time to the business. My perseverance had paid off.
It’s a matter of catching the wave just right. If you can get inside the curl just as it’s spilling off its peak, you can get a good ride. At Campus Point, I finally maneuvered myself into the right position, got to my feet, and caught one. I rode it until it ran out of juice. I did this several more times. It was exhilarating.
Getting what you want out of life can be hard. You have to know where to look for it, and then when you find it, you have to be prepared.
With life, as with surfing, the conditions are rarely ideal, the setbacks are many, the wipeouts discouraging. But if you prepare yourself well and hang in there, you might just catch a wave, and that will make it all worthwhile.