Don't get caught in 'the drift.' What surfing teaches us about life

A surfer walks next to the shore at Barra da Tijuca beach before the start of the Billabong Rio Pro surfing championship in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Thursday, May 12, 2011. (AP Photo/Victor R. Caivano)

A surfer walks next to the shore at Barra da Tijuca beach before the start of the Billabong Rio Pro surfing championship in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Thursday, May 12, 2011. (AP Photo/Victor R. Caivano)  (AP)

For the last four decades, I have spent countless hours in the ocean.  I am a surfer and this sport, or hobby, or way of life, or borderline addiction, has impacted everything from how I daydream to how my family and I vacation. 

I have had the privilege of surfing in oceans all around the world and regardless of where I am, in warm tropical waters off remote islands or in the cold and rough seas here on the Oregon coast, the ocean’s impact on me is profound.

We surfers get used to days of constant paddling when we are not actually riding a wave. We are fighting the currents and the drift that can pull you hundreds of yards down the beach from where you started. The more experienced surfer is aware of the drift and therefore, paddles constantly to stay in the zone where the waves are the best.  The novice is not aware of this force and can easily be pulled out of the zone, resulting in a much less rewarding experience.

I see many of these dynamics and the impact they can have in our daily lives as well.  In my work as the CEO of an Executive Coaching firm, I have had a front row seat to what we call “the drift.” 

Most leaders invest countless hours to build plans for their businesses that will lead to specific and desired outcomes.  But very few of them will invest the same time into building similar plans for their lives.  And as a result, they wake up one day and realize they have arrived at a destination that they would have never hoped or planned on.

Rather than fighting to stay on course, they’ve spent the last few decades caught in “the drift.” They got sucked into the powerful cultural current that can cause one to just focus on their careers and finances and were not aware of the forces at work in the other areas of their lives.  They are now dealing with failures in their health, marriage, family or in other important areas of their lives. 

The drift is often caused by one or more of the following four reasons.

1. We are unaware.  Because we have never invested the time to put a plan together for our lives, we are unaware of where we are headed or how to get to a desired destination.  We don’t even know we are drifting, or if we do, how to get out of it.

2. We are distracted.  We are so hyper-focused on just one area of our lives that we don’t pay attention to the other areas that can be equally if not more important. Too many leaders put all of their energy into their careers and then give the other areas of their lives their leftovers.   

3. We are overwhelmed. We are so overcommitted and buried that we cannot see how off course we are.  We are so busy with our heads down just paddling to survive in the moment that we lack the time and energy to look up and gain perspective to see where we are headed.

4. We are deceived.  We are aware of the current and that we are drifting, but we believe we can get back on track tomorrow.  We falsely believe that if we can just get through this season, then we will put more energy and focus into the areas of our lives that need attention and that we truly care about. 

Regardless of the cause of the drift, the consequences can be painful.  Over the past two decades, my team of coaches and I have coached tens of thousands of leaders, and I think we would all agree that the hardest days are those spend working with a leader who is in crisis. 

And 9 out of 10 times, the root of the crisis is not work related; it is a life crisis.  It shows up as sickness, broken relationships, guilt, fear, apathy, shame and regret. Then the work challenges follow.  I believe that how we lead ourselves in life impacts how we lead our teams.  Or said another way, self-leadership always precedes team leadership. 

I know that many of you reading this are shaking your heads in agreement.  You are stuck in the drift or are being affected by somebody else who is.  I have good news.  You can fight the drift, and it only takes one day to get started.

In our new book, "Living Forward," we take you through a process we’ve used with clients for more than two decades. Written with New York Times best-selling author Michael Hyatt, we walk you step-by-step through the process and share simple but proven principles to help you stop drifting, design a life plan with the end in mind, and chart a path to get you where you want to be in business and life.

Just like with surfing, you have to work to stay in the zone. By investing just one day to create your life plan, you will be better equipped to fight the drift and make sure you end up where you want to be, not where the current takes you. 

Daniel Harkavy is the CEO of Building Champions Inc., a leadership and executive coaching company headquartered in Lake Oswego Oregon. For more information, visit For more information about Living Forward, visit