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Riding the Wave

“Okay, this wave’s got your name on it,” my instructor called out over the sound of ocean swells and seagulls." “Ready?”

“No, wait, already?” I anxiously mumbled back, but the wave was already on its way, and my instructor was giving the board a gentle push. “Paddle paddle paddle,” he shouted as I frantically worked my arms through the ocean, the wave rising up behind me. “Pop up! You’ve got this, pop up!” Without any time to overthink or nervously worry about the outcome, my body was springing into action. And for one glorious minute, I was doing it – I was surfing! And the next minute, well, I was falling right back into the ocean.

It was the end of August; and on a whim, I had taken a little solo excursion to Rockaway Beach. I had been coming here for years, but always with someone... a family member, a friend, a partner. But now, newly single after a long-term relationship and trying to figure out how to be on my own, I arrived at my favorite beach feeling slightly adrift. But I had just finished reading Diane Cardwell’s excellent memoir “Rockaway: Surfing Headlong into a New Life” and, feeling particularly inspired, had signed up for a surfing lesson that morning.

I fell down a LOT during that first lesson. My arms were aching and my whole body was pretty confused – like I could really hear my brain going... “Whoa, Jess, what are you doing, you are not a surfer.” But here’s the thing – I was having a total blast. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t a natural at this sport; I hadn’t expected that I would be, and I was okay fully embracing my status as a beginner. And with encouragement from my instructor, I kept on getting back up and trying again. By the end of the lesson, I had stood up on my surfboard and rode the wave all the way to shore.

And as I headed home on the subway, I could already tell that surfing would be teaching me all kinds of great lessons – both in and out of the ocean.

You’re not going to be good at everything on the first try – and that’s okay:

My friends will tell you that I can be a bit of a worrier. I was a real perfectionist growing up and was always striving to get an A on the first try. But ultimately, that A never came without lots of study and practice first. It’s easy to forget what it’s like to be a student as we get older; but even decades out of school, we can continue learning new lessons. I never want to close myself off to that feeling or feel afraid to admit when there’s something I don’t know. I was suddenly starting from scratch in a lot of key areas in my life, and it’s easy at that moment to feel like a failure. But as I stood on the beach, I chose to embrace being a student instead and keep myself open to learning something new.

You’re going to make lots of mistakes with any new pursuit and that can be uncomfortable when your hardest critic is yourself. It’s something I’ve been working on in my writing – the knowledge that the first draft of anything is going to be, honestly, pretty bad! But it’s impossible to edit something that doesn’t exist, and so we have to be okay with turning out the bad first draft. It’s only at that point that we can make it better.

Surfing was the same. At the start of my lesson, I was looking out at everyone on the beach thinking... “Oh no, they’re all going to be judging how bad I am at this.” But then I realized two things… 1) No one is ever looking at us as much as we think they are, and… 2) If they are, who cares! I was practicing my pop-up in the ocean, and I was slowly but steadily improving. I'd found something completely new that I adored. And I would never have discovered this about myself if I had stayed on the beach and cancelled my lesson.

It’s good to have hobbies that have nothing to do with your career:

In our modern gig economy, there can be a lot of pressure to monetize all of your passions. As an actor, I get it – freelancers are often juggling multiple jobs and taught to turn every new skill into a lucrative side hustle. We end up feeling guilty (or at least, I know I do) when we’re not spending every waking hour being productive. It’s unrealistic and exhausting.

When I told people I had started surfing lessons, lots of them said... “Oh, cool! Are you in training for a new role?” I had to laugh – no one was going to be casting me in a Blue Crush reboot anytime soon and that thought hadn’t even crossed my mind when I signed up. I had signed up for lessons because it looked ridiculously fun… and it was!

You don’t want to get burned out by constantly feeling the pressure to turn the things that bring you joy into the things that make you money. And you’ll feel more balanced, relaxed, and whole if you have hobbies that have no bearing whatsoever on the trajectory of your career. Hobbies that are just for you and no one else.

Challenge yourself to try new things and embrace the feeling of fear!

My brother has always taught me that the best thing we can do to fight fear is to embrace it, and the only way to get out of any challenge is to go through it. At the start of my lesson, I was staring out at choppy, post-hurricane Atlantic Ocean waves, wondering if I had made a terrible mistake by coming out here. But I took a deep breath and told myself... “I’m afraid, but I’m going to try this anyway.” I’m so glad that I did.

And my dad has always taught me that in order to grow a garden, you have to plant seeds in fertile soil. If you’re trying something new this year and you’re starting out at what feels like the bottom, just keep on cultivating your work and your relationships. Have patience through the growing pains – you’ll get your garden in the end.

It’s natural to feel afraid before you try something new. Our brains want us to stay where we feel safe, where we know exactly what to do. There’s a sense of comfort and security in that feeling. But life is about taking risks, it’s not about operating on autopilot. I never want to feel like I’m sleepwalking through my own life; and after a particularly difficult year, we’ve all had to pivot and try new things. I want to keep leaning into that feeling. I want to keep challenging myself, whether it’s writing scripts for the first time or finally teaching myself piano or expanding my at-home voiceover business.


I’ve gone three more times since that first lesson, and I can’t wait to go back again!

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Written by Jessie Cannizzaro

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