The Tool That Changed Surfing (and a Takeaway to Enhance Your Performance)

Teahupoo is a wave zone off the coast of southwestern Tahiti. But, it isn’t just any kind of wave. Described with phrases like “the grinding eye of doom” and “liquid napalm”, Teahupoo boasts a handful of nasty features.

To start, the wave moves in a unique pattern, “detonating laterally, producing a barrel that has accurately been compared to the Lincoln Tunnel,” writes Stephen Kotler in his book Rise of Superman. Add in the fact that it breaks in extremely shallow water with sharp coral reef sitting just below and you have an absolute monster.

The issue with riding Teahupoo isn’t so much finding someone crazy enough to catch and ride the wave; there are plenty of those in the surfing community. Rather, it’s being able to catch the wave in the first place.

Waves like Teahupoo and other giants that tower 60 feet and higher move much faster than any human can paddle. Previously, this limitation forced surfers to top out at 25-footers. That is until Darrick Doerner and surfing legend Laird Hamilton set out on a mission to tame Teahupoo in 2000, a ride that would change the game of surfing forever. 1

Tow-in Surfing

To catch a wave of Teahupoo’s magnitude, surfers needed a way to move fast, really fast.

The solution seemed simple enough. Jet Skis were obviously faster than any human could possibly conceive of paddling. Since paddling was the weak link prohibiting surfers from catching larger and faster waves, could the Jet Ski be the key? Hamilton and Doerner answered that question with a resounding “Yes.”

The afternoon was going well. Each surfer had caught their fair share of waves already proving the tow-in concept could work. One particular wave, dubbed the “Millennium Wave”, however, stood above the rest and would set the tone for surfing for years to come.

Described as “a freakish titan”, the Millennium Wave was both uniquely huge and anomalous in size. Kotler uses the following passage to describe the monster:

[The Millennium Wave was] the product of two different swells intersecting and stacking atop each other. The results looked less like a product of hydrodynamics than a very special effect cooked up by wizards in Hollywood.

Just as the wave was beginning to form, Doerner comes barreling onto the scene with Hamilton in tow. Hamilton was dropped straight into the middle of the monster as spectators and even Doerner urge him to bail out instead. What proceeded to unfold was a ride so spectacular and ground-breaking that Surfer editor Sam George would refer to it as “the…single most significant ride in surfing history.” 2

With one new tool and an overwhelming amount of courage, Hamilton, Doerner, and others were able to completely shift the world of surfing forever.

Finding Your Own Lever

As a practical definition, a lever is anything that allows you to achieve extraordinary results with the same amount of effort. It’s a magnifier for performance. In the case of Doerner and Hamilton, the Jet Ski was just the lever they needed to pull the entire sport of surfing lightyears ahead.

Levers don’t have to be physical objects. They can manifest in multiple forms:

Situations – A week ago, I happened upon Pablo’s Coffee in Denver to kill some time. I had my laptop with me so I figured I would knock out some work. To my surprise, Pablo’s Coffee doesn’t have Wi-Fi. This turned out to be a blessing. Rather than wasting time on the internet, I popped open a text document and wrote this post.

Constraints – In 1960, Bennet Carf made a bet with a man by the name of Theo Geisel. The bet was that Theo couldn’t write a children’s book using only 50 different words. Theo, better known as Dr. Seuss, ended up winning that bet. The result? Green Eggs and Ham, which has sold more than 200 million copies. 3

It’s easy to cite examples of other successful individuals achieving greatness by harnessing the power of levers. It’s harder to find one that will propel you to higher levels of success. While I can’t provide you the exact answer to “What will my lever be?”, I do have a set of questions that can be helpful in discovering a lever for yourself:

What if I did the opposite? Take a look at the standard way of doing something, and then, flip it on its head.

How could I do this in half the time? When we become comfortable with our routine, we stop pushing ourselves. Asking yourself, “Can I cut the time in half?” This challenges you to really examine your process with a new lens.

Why not? Within any discipline, there exists something that is considered “off limits” or “impossible”. The best inventors and creators are always pushing these boundaries.

Could I do this without XYZ? Often, we rely on certain tools or features as a crutch. Eliminating them might force us to work in a different way and produce a better product overall. For example, Leo from doesn’t use images within his posts. It’s a huge deviation from typical blogging “advice.” At Automattic, we rarely use email to communicate, which goes against the grain of many organizations. The lack of email communication has enhanced our ability to communicate through other channels.

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  1. Thanks to Stephen Kotler for Rise of Superman, from which I borrowed the opening story for this book.
  2. Quote from Surfing: The Ultimate Guide
  3. Referenced from James Clear’s piece, The Weird Strategy Dr. Seuss Used to Create His Greatest Work (And Why You Should Use It Too) 

Photo creditAgobar Junior