Today, I want to talk about lateral thinking.
About going sideways to solve a problem.
Finding a new path and an unseen solution.
Let’s start with a story and go back to 2011 when surfer Ian Walsh reinvited big wave surfing.
The waves were colossal: fifty feet, maybe fifty-five.
Nobody paddled this surf break on these monster days.
Walsh’s goal was to take off as late as possible, letting the wave jack all the way up before popping to his feet.
But when he finally popped, nothing happened.
The wave was standing straight up, but Walsh was hung up on the ledge, perched above the chasm. "I was really late," he says.
"When I jumped to my feet the wave already looked beyond vertical. The wind was ripping up the face with so much force that I had to grab the edge of my board with my right hand just to try to keep myself in it."
Grabbing the edge did the trick.
With his weight forward the nose dipped, and the board followed.
He dropped straight down, a ferocious drop, full of free fall and bounce — down, down, down, board chattering, nose bobbing, max speed.
At the last instant, Walsh stabilized and took control.
He dove deep into his bottom turn, then a few quick cuts to get into position for the tube.
The curtain closed.
Walsh spent a few seconds inside the barrel, got spit out, and tossed from his board.
By then, it didn’t matter — the ride was his.
In those few moments, Walsh inverted a century of surf wisdom and did the impossible.
He’d paddled into a wave entirely off-limits to paddlers.
Paddling is now the way surfers catch big waves. Walsh shifted the paradigm.
Instead of trying to muscle through, Walsh took an entirely different tack — he "lateralized."
In technical terms, Walsh began looking outside his domain of expertise for help surmounting his problem.
And certainly, lateralization isn’t the only way to shift paradigms, but on the flow path, it’s often the only way forward.
Sooner or later, there’s always a mental hurdle we can’t clear, a decision too dangerous to attack head-on.
In those situations, sideways is forward.
Plus, these days, sideways are often the way life works.
"Careers are a jungle gym, not a ladder," wrote Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg in her book Lean In, and she’s not wrong.
Statistics vary, but today, the average person changes jobs seven times between the ages of eighteen and forty.
Most importantly, there’s momentum on the flow path.
Lateralization allows you to hold on to that thrust no matter the circumstances.
Momentum over time — that’s the invisible kung fu. And that’s also what athletes mean by the term progression.
Walsh had been surfing at Jaws surf break since he was a kid.
There had been days, weeks, months, and years of 4 percent plus 4 percent plus 4 percent (the magic of the skill challenge ratio), of pushing himself into ten-foot, twenty-foot, thirty-foot surf, of continuously testing limits, lateralizing, of nearly dying, of driving past injury and fear, of honing skills, getting stronger, getting smarter — a self-taught, near graduate-level education in hydrodynamics, meteorology, body mechanics, and flow.
Of course, most of us don’t think about these facts.
We can’t see progression or feel the momentum. It’s invisible kung fu.
Instead, when we see a surfer riding Jaws, the tableau is neurologically unfathomable.
The brain’s pattern-recognition system is built to lump like with like, but when in most of our lives have, we put ourselves in the path of Godzilla.
There are no grounds for comparison.
So, we look at Jaws and feel fear, dread, and awe — because that’s what evolution designed us to feel.
But that’s not what Ian Walsh felt. "Mostly," he says, "it felt like another day at the office."