The Edge of Chaos

The Edge of Chaos

I learned how to surf in college (yes it was an actual course) in San Diego when I was 18.  In Hawaii, I had the fortune of not getting killed at Pipeline during the winter and I surfed just about every break in San Diego when I was in the Navy there.  I have surfed early in the morning and even at night in the dark with bonfires on the beach to light the waves up (which didn’t work too well).  Waves have a life of their own and can be both majestic and deadly at the same time.  Being held down in the impact zone during a set of waves on a double red flag day has the ability to humble even the most diehard surfer.  The chaotic nature of waves breaking cannot be overstated. Furthermore, we can learn a life lesson from these fascinating beasts.  

If I had to sum up the action of waves on any given day in one word it would be chaos.   

Chaos is a term that naturally we tend to avoid at all costs.  We frantically clean our houses (well, some of us) and organize your lives.  We try and avoid disorder and stress at every turn.  We have air conditioning, heating, comfortable seats, time zones, eating utensils, cars, schedules, organizational systems-the list goes on and on of the tactics and tools that we use to avoid chaos.  However, the irony is that we need chaos.  We thrive in it.  We need to be on what psychologists call, the edge of chaos.  

In order to catch a wave and not get pitched and pounded (what surfers call a wipeout), a surfer must time their take off, angle their board at a 45 degree angle,  and propel themselves into the sweet spot of the wave.  The sweet spot is right in between the white water and the  shoulder off the wave; it is the spot where the most energy and speed is generated.  When you are in this spot, you are riding the wave exactly where you should be.  If the wave is large enough (overhead), then this sweet spot is the “barrel” of the wave.  Getting barreled is like nothing you have ever experienced because if you mess up, you are literally consumed by the white water and the rest of the wave.  It is in this place where you are on the edge of chaos.  You are always a split second away from disaster and that is what makes surfing so fun.  Being in the zone and experiencing flow is what surfing is all about.  The place where, to quote one of my favorite surf movies (the old Point Break), “where you lose yourself and find yourself.”  

If you find yourself avoiding chaos at all times, remember that you cannot taste the sweet spot of a wave unless you go near the chaos.  You must let yourself get vulnerable and take the risks that you need to feel the edge of the chaos.  Now that doesn’t mean paddling out in 30 foot Pipeline Swell the first time out.  You must ease your way into the chaos but don’t fear it.  Embrace the energy that you get from it and know that, whenever you go out and paddle into a wave, the chaos will always be there waiting for you.

When you set goals for yourself, remember to challenge yourself.  Being intrigued and feeling the risks of potential chaos is what drives us and motivates us.  Without chaos, the wave would not be ridable.  Life without chaos is like trying to ride a surfboard on a flat lake.  It’s boring and not worth the paddle.  Setting goals should follow some basic principles, but the key is to set your own goals just beyond the reach of your capabilities.  That will motivate you to reach the new threshold without getting discouraged and frustrated.  If you can run a mile in 12 minutes, set a new goal to run a mile in 11 minutes or run 2 miles 24 minutes.  Don’t set a goal that will break the world record for the mile.  That’s too much chaos and a recipe for frustration and disaster.  

I like to tall my clients to have one foot in chaos and one foot in order.  Knowing that the chaos is there is exciting and challenging, it should feel that way anyway.  If it does not feel challenging and exciting, you may not have enough order to apply to the chaos to make a difference.  You need to work on order.  If you don’t feel the chaos at all, you have too much order in your life and need to push the envelope and challenge yourself more.  That is a good rule of thumb test that I use in just about everything that I do.


 Self awareness test.  How much chaos do you have in your life? Remember that you want to be on the edge of it, not bogged down in it.  How much order do you have in your life?  Once you begin to understand the various degrees of order and chaos, you can now adjust accordingly to maximize your interest in various activities.  This applies to both your work and your home life.  In fact, some people have chaos at work and order at home or vice versa.  Finding the edge of chaos on both is the goal.  Remember that chaos is needed to keep things interesting, but not too much.  Finding that perfect wave that is at your appropriate ability level is what it’s all about.

“Lean into it!”

Dr. N