Taming Perfectionism with Surfing

Jun 2, 2022 | Perfectionism, Thriving

Being detail-oriented, conscientious, and self-critical helped me make it through the hoops required to become a physician. But I’ve learned in the years since that perfectionism and being highly focused on achievement can get in the way of living life to the fullest.

About four years ago, I went surfing for the first time. In my 50s, I was not looking to try a new sport, especially one best suited for young, strong, flexible bodies. But a colleague on a work retreat in Mexico inspired me to try.

I was blown away. Without exaggerating, I can say it was a peak life experience. The thrill of being in and on the water, balancing as the wave propelled me to shore, while at a higher vantage point than swimming, was addictive.

My second foray, a year later, was a major disappointment. I learned how important easy waves and 1:1 instruction are for a newbie. Instead of getting up on the board, I was struck by it on my arms, legs, and head. Half-way through the two-hour lesson I gave up.

After a hiatus due to the pandemic, I traveled last month to an environment with warm water and easy waves. I wondered if my experience would be a peak like the first time or a disappointment like the second. I worried that the first time was a fluke. I tried to focus on the present, practicing mindfulness and accepting whatever happened.

On the beach in Costa Rica, I hired an instructor named Enrique, who was patient and encouraging. He reviewed the basics on shore, then we were off. We stayed in shallow water, never deeper than my chest. He held the board as I hopped on and told me when to start paddling.

And up I went. My posture and form weren’t perfect. I couldn’t steer much at all. But I got up often enough to experience the thrill of being on the board. And, I had so much fun. The hour flew by.

Afterwards, another instructor, a friend of my daughter’s, told me that with another two lessons, I could be out in the deep water.

“No,” I told him. “I like to be in close. I love surfing but don’t ever want to be a surfer.”

For a recovering perfectionist/super-achiever, this approach to learning a new skill is nothing short of miraculous. In college, I missed a double major in art history because I was too insecure to take the one required studio class.

To try something new, to embrace being a beginner, to be able to enjoy something I’m not great at, and to keep doing it with no intention of ever being great, this is the ultimate freedom for someone whose life playbook for so many years was “Excel or Bust.”

I’ve given myself permission to love surfing without the mantle of becoming a surfer. It’s amazing.

If you’ve got any perfectionist/super-achiever blood in you, perhaps you can relate. If so, consider whether there is something you could try just to see if it brings you joy. Try to revel in being imperfect, a novice, making mistakes.

And, if you do, let me know how it goes. I’d love to hear.


Photo credit: Fuu J on Unsplash


Diane W. Shannon


Diane Shannon is an award-winning writer, author, and coach. Since leaving practice as a primary care physician due to burnout, she has worked to support physicians in achieving their personal and professional goals and to highlight the changes needed to reduce burnout, improve career satisfaction, and protect the bidirectional healing power of the patient-physician relationship.

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