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Ride the ‘surfer mindset’ to success

The most successful people in life can recognize a window of opportunity, and know when and how to seize it. It’s not unlike surfing, according to Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian.

A “surfer’s mindset” can help you succeed in both life and business, Ohanian told students in a keynote address at his alma mater, the University of Virginia, last week. Surfers need to exercise the proper mix of patience, focus and calm to properly judge which waves are best to catch and ride, and which ones will result in a wipeout, he added.

“There’s a really good analogy about life and business and surfing … Some waves come by, and you rip them perfect, and you are just killing it,” said Ohanian. “You’ve got your GoPro out. You got a good selfie, and you feel good about yourself.”

Afterward, you might “paddle back out … and wait five hours for another good wave,” he continued.

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The ability to patiently wait for the right opportunity, without resting on the laurels of your past success or agonizing over any chances you’ve missed, is an important trait, said Ohanian.

“That mindset is the right mindset for a life well-lived,” he said. “If you spent all your time on that board, just being anxious about the wave you just missed, you’re going to miss the next one. If you spend it just daydreaming and trying to relive that one amazing wave you just had, you might miss the next one.”

In other words, you need the ability to learn from your past failures and move past them to capitalize on any future opportunity that comes by. The lesson is especially true in business, said Ohanian.

“In business, you catch L’s all of the time. All of the time,” he said, using a slang term for a “loss” or “failure.”

Tech icons from Bill Gates to Steve Jobs have touted overcoming their fears of failure as a key to their success. Psychologists agree: The most successful people are usually the ones who can reframe their failures as lessons, and keep taking necessary risks.

Ohanian has experienced the sting of failure himself. In 2005, he and Steve Huffman were rejected by startup accelerator Y Combinator when they pitched a food ordering mobile app that was ahead of its time, he said at a SXSW event in 2017.

The rejection counted as a “giant fail setback” at the time, Ohanian said. It sent him and Huffman back to the drawing board, and they returned later that year with the idea for Reddit. Y Combinator ultimately invested $12,000, helping the company get off the ground.

That first rejection, and their ability to rebound from it, “changed our lives,” Ohanian said in 2017.

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