Surfing and Business during COVID-19

We have all been pounded by a wave of COVID-19.  Unemployment rates are soaring, businesses have shut down or been forced to change their business strategy, and worst of all,  people continue to get sick.  None of us would have predicted that 2020 would be a tidal wave that swept many other seemingly important activities away, including travel, weddings, and business.  The wave of COVID-19 has impacted each and every one of us on a global basis, and for many of us it has left us floundering, desperately trying to stay afloat.  

As a surfer (and avid kneeboarder I might add), I tend to associate lessons I learn in work and school with what I learn in the ocean.  I’ve been pounded by plenty of waves, some larger than others, but none large enough to make my wipe-outs impressive like that of Grant Twiggy Baker during the 2016 Eddie Aikau Invitational as shown in the video to the right.   

When a wave breaks on you, you are at the complete mercy of the wave.  It may get dark very quickly, you hear lots of rushing of water, and you can get disoriented.  You always feel powerless to do anything or change the situation immediately.  But experienced surfers know how to navigate big waves in the safest way possible.  COVID-19 has the metaphorical power of a tsunami, and while many things are outside of our control, there are a few things you can do while at the mercy of the ocean that make it more bearable.  

  1. Tense up your body and relax your mind. In surfing, panic never helps anyone.  When you panic you aren’t making rational decisions, you are rapidly using oxygen, and you usually aren’t going anywhere. Instead, you want to curl up and protect your head if you’re in shallow water while simultaneously relaxing your mind.  The thought behind this is that you protect your vital body parts while moving as little as possible and conserving oxygen.  This allows you to think clearly and make smart decisions underwater.

An article in Entrepreneur Magazine talks about 5 ways that panic can harm startups.  The overall takeaway is that even though we pass through something difficult, our panic can make the situation worse.  Business owners and employees during COVID-19 need to first protect themselves and their well being while remaining present and as calm as possible.

I was surprised by how much the shutdowns and shelter-in-place affected me as a graduate student in my final semester.  My initial struggles to focus on schoolwork and my employment got worse once our library shut down and I didn’t have access to a quiet and stable environment where I could work.  While I was fortunate enough to have an apartment with internet, my apartment lacked heating and it leaked in multiple places whenever it rained, which made it more difficult to meet my school and work obligations.  The first step to improving my situation was to recognize that I was underwater and needed to protect my core while staying calm.  I cut unnecessary distractions from my life and focused on relaxing my mind.     

  1. Make your way to the surface.  After the initial shock of being held underwater you want to make your way to the surface.  When your head is calm and you can see your way out you swim or jump off the ocean floor to give yourself extra momentum.  It’s important to wait until you are sure you are correctly oriented, because it can be fatal if you swim in the wrong direction.

The Cynefin Framework for responding to chaotic situations is helpful for understanding how we can make it to the surface when dealing with the effects of COVID-19.  During Chaos we want to first establish some sort of stability by acting, sensing, and responding.  This means that as soon as you stop tumbling and can see a way forward you take steps to reduce the chaos, sense if it worked or not, then respond to other areas that need action.  This will look different for each individual and business, but it could be moving some of your business to an online platform or applying for unemployment.  In my situation I needed to move out of my apartment into a more stable living situation where I was able to focus and do my work effectively.  

  1. Get all the oxygen you can and check yourself.  Waves come in sets, meaning that you could have as many as 3, 4, or even more waves crash on you after the first one.  Take advantage of every second you have on the surface because you may be pummeled or held underwater for more time.

As a business, you want to take advantage of any and every revenue stream or model at your disposal.  Cashflow may slow to a trickle or stop, so be creative in how you can continue to get an income even if you need to postpone your services.  It can be helpful to ask yourself what parts of your business are able to still create value in an online or remote format.  Sasha Dichter in his blog shares about using Value Wheels as a way to understand how you created value before COVID-19 and which parts of your business are salvageable or still intact.  Go through the exercise and see where your business stands and think about creative ways to create value quickly because we don’t know when another wave may come.

  1. Look out for your buddy.  I love to surf with my friends, especially my amazing wife (she is a much better surfer than I am).  Even though surfers can be competitive, we generally watch out for each other and make sure that everyone is safe.  The first thing I do after making it to the surface and checking myself for immediate danger is looking out for my friends.  One of my greatest fears is that my friend will be injured or killed while surfing with me.  I’m usually in waves that are too small to warrant this kind of fear, but I understand the power of the ocean and I don’t want to become complacent.

A forbes article titled Purpose at Work: 21 Ways to Protect Your Health and Business During COVID-19 gives plenty of ideas of how you can contribute to the collective well-being of customers, clients, employees, and generally everybody.  Your ability to make an impact will vary by sector and the unique strengths and talents in your organization, but the principle at hand is that we want to do our best to look out for others during this difficult time.  

60 Decibels, the business where I recently interned, did a great job at leveraging its strengths as an organization focused on listening to improve understanding of how COVID-19 is affecting the developing world.  60 Decibels employs 200+ researchers from El Salvador to Tanzania whom they train to conduct remote surveys about the social impact of products and services.  As part of my internship I helped develop and administer a survey to the researchers about how they were being affected by COVID-19.  Many of the researchers reached out and thanked 60 Decibels for being concerned with their well-being.  Businesses can emulate their example by reaching out to their customers or clients with genuine concern about their well-being, even if you may not know how to help right now.  For more information about how surf businesses are helping customers or clients, check out this article from Surfer Magazine.  

  1. Swim to safety or catch the next one. This is the fun part.  Not all waves are going to be your wave, and not all days will be your day.  Some days I’ve paddled out, got pounded, and decided it wasn’t for me.  I’ll catch the next wave in and try again when the waves are smaller or when I’m feeling better.  If you decide to stay out, then you are in for a treat.  It always seems like I catch the best wave right after I get held under and tumbled.  More waves always come, and it’s your job to be in the right spot.  You learn from your past mistakes and sit further out or make adjustments so that you are ready to enjoy the next wave.

Businesses will need to adjust their strategy after COVID-19.  The world will be different in the coming months and years, but we don’t necessarily know how different.  It’s hard for businesses to predict the future state of their industry, so they use scenario planning to prepare for unknown major changes in the future.  It will be impossible to correctly predict every future change, but we do have some indications of what the future may look like, and it may be that another wave of COVID-19 is coming.  

We know from history that the second wave of Spanish Flu in 1918 was much deadlier than the first.  We also have been hearing from epidemiologists and health experts that there is a possibility that we will experience a second wave of COVID-19 this fall.  The future is uncertain, but we can plan for scenarios where COVID-19 continues to have very real health and economic impacts through fall and winter of next year, or even beyond.  Remember the value wheel and do your best to create value for your customers or clients during an uncertain future that may have restrictions like shelter-in-place or reduced in-person interaction.  Plan for scenarios where you can contribute to the well-being of Americans who may have compromised health or be in a dire financial state.  

Most, if not all of us have felt like we were figuratively held underwater at some point in the last few months.  It is a scary feeling.  Our world is rapidly changing and we are all dealing with high levels of uncertainty.  We don’t know if our health will be compromised, we don’t know how the economy will recover from this shock, and we don’t know for sure if COVID-19 will come back in a second wave.  I hope some of the lessons I’ve learned from surfing can help illuminate some things you can do to stabilize and improve your life while looking out for the needs of others during these uncertain times. In surfing, we don’t know for certain when the next wave will come, but we make our best guess of where it will break and we position ourselves to be ready for when it does.

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