This past weekend, my wife and I decided to dust off the boogie boards and head to the beach. It was unplanned as Saturdays, like most families, is a day typically spent catching up on life. Running errands that you couldn’t sneak in during the week, picking up the house, and getting mentally prepared for the week ahead. As we were sipping coffee, an usual comment from my wife came out as she simply said, “how about we just catch some waves today?” She didn’t have to ask twice. I immediately went to our storage and pulled out the boogie boards, wet suits, and loaded the car before she could change her mind.
This particular beach is special to us as it’s located directly behind our wedding venue where we stood among family and friends no more than four months ago.. At first glance, the waves looked aggressive. We noticed that there were a few surfers that were out there, so to us, led us to believe that we’d be fine if we went just past the ‘soup’. This term, as I’ve learned from my residency on the west coast, refers to the white foam just after the wave breaks. It’s typically just before the shoreline and, depending on how the waves are coming in, can be a difficult place to paddle out. Michelle and I decided that we’d go just past the soup to catch the swells rolling in.
After just a few minutes, our excitement for the day had met its match with the cold water temperature and we both decided that we would head in. Michelle, also being a high school state swim champ and DI swimmer, seemed to be heading in much quicker than I was. I began paddling and kicking a little harder. Looking towards the sand, I was ready to get warm and continue reading a book I had recently started for a relaxing afternoon at the beach. As I looked along the the cliff line, using this as my marker for how close I was going to be to peeling open those pages while on a beach towel, it finally occurred to me:
I wasn’t moving. In fact, I was drifting further away from shore.
I had been caught in a riptide. For the past 10+ minutes, I’ve spent my energy fighting this current that had brought me, at this point, over 100 yards from where I wanted to be. I screamed with everything I had in me for help. I saw my wife running towards complete strangers, and one by one, these individuals begin raising their hands to their ears calling for professional assistance. I was in absolute panic with no end in sight and it was terrifying. I reached a point where I had to consider the resources I had available to me. A boogie board, a wetsuit, and will to get the hell out of there as soon as possible.
When I took a moment to think about what I could do, I realized that clearly the current is going to win when I face it head on. It was at that point I decided to begin swimming at an angle to see what that would allow for. After a few more minutes, I finally felt as though I was making traction, and it didn’t hurt that my wife, also noticing this new effort, was pumping her fists as encouragement. For the final home stretch, I needed a big wave to bring me in. I was physically and emotionally drained; I had nothing left to give. With the reserves winding down and not paying attention to the sets, I was pulled under by a large wave that fortunately was the cause of bringing me in and getting close enough to be able to touch shore with my feet.
Looking back, I would’ve done a number of things differently, and as I began penning through how this could have been avoided or even lessen the severity of the situation, there are a number of parallels to how we go about business. In particular, for those situations in which we feel stuck.
Plan to Discover
Often times we begin a task with an end goal in mind, with that particular outcome the milestone for whether that specific project was a success or a failure. However, it's when we come to a deeper understanding during the process that we realize there's greater potential in the task itself.
Stanford Graduate School of Business Professor William Barnett has focused his research on competitive advantage and knows this concept all too well as very rarely, do companies ever evolve into the sustainable businesses they once were during their infancy. In a 2015 blog post, "Discovery Trumps Planning, So Plan to Discover", Barnett lays out a number of businesses that have diverted their efforts from what they initially started as due to these findings along the way. Barnett states, "Trader Joe’s, a boutique specialty retailer in the U.S., once made its money selling cigarettes and ammunition – a far cry from the microwavable organic meals and fancy cheeses one can get there today. Honda Motors, famously, planned to sell big motorcycles – 'choppers' – in the U.S., and ended up discovering the market for small 'minibikes.'”
When Rent the Runway first launched, Jennifer Hyman and Jennifer Fleiss were students at Harvard that wanted to offer dresses to their peers that desired different options for their events and formals. With a single 10'x10' pop-up tent located on campus, they allowed students to see and feel the dresses before renting. As a test, they then allowed potential renters to see the dresses but not touch them; renters could only feel the dresses once they committed to renting. What it proved to the RTR founders was that there was an opportunity to go mainstream. Touching the material was not a detriment to their future success, and ultimately, would allow them to branch from dresses offered at the collegiate level to an online presence with everyday wear targeting a far larger market.
Other things that could have helped in my given situation include swimming fins and a (much) better understanding of the water I was about to jump into. Nonetheless, it's a story that I'm fortunate to be able to tell and one in which applies in a broad range on how we go about our growing our businesses. For the next action item you tackle, remind yourself to be open to the possibility that there could be a greater discovery embedded within.