Author’s note: The following is the script from my TEDx talk: Reengineer your life and awaken to happiness. The talk will be available on YouTube in March 2021.
I always feel most present in the moment when doing extreme sports.
Sometimes my excitement to have this feeling gets me into trouble.
A couple years back I was on a surf trip in Nicaragua. A few friends and I hired a boat and a guide to access a remote point break. When we arrived at the wave, conditions weren’t quite right: the tide was too high, and the waves were big.
But I’m a little stubborn, so I jumped in and paddled out anyway. Sure enough, as that first wave approached, I knew I was in over my head—literally. That first wave picked me up and threw me under the water. As I got tossed and turned in the darkness underneath the water, the pressure from the wave squeezed the air out of my body.
I’d been in this situation several times before, so I went to do what I always do: that is kick my right leg, engage the leash that was attached to my surfboard, and float up to the surface. Expect this time when I went to kick my leg and engage the leash, it was as though there was nothing there.
I panicked. I instantly started to scratch and crawl my way up to the surface, desperate for that first breath of air. When I got to the surface I had just enough time to take that first breathe of air before the second wave came and pulled me back under. This process repeated itself several times before the set of waves eventually passed.
Once I was able to remain on the surface, I started my swim back toward the boat. As I did, I pulled in my leash to see what had happened to my board. When I got to the end of the leash, I saw all that remained was a tiny chunk of my board: the force of the wave had snapped it in two.
So, I grabbed that board, stuffed it under my chest and swam as quickly as possible back to the safety of the boat. As I sat in the boat catching my breath all I could think about was how grateful I was that my mother had not witnessed what had just happened.
Naturally, when I started studying engineering, I wanted to find a way to combine my love of surfing with engineering. That’s when I discovered artificial surfing reefs.
An artificial surfing reef is a structure, placed just offshore, that can be made of rocks or giant sandbags. They have two purposes: first, they act just like natural reefs and knock down the energy of a wave before it hits the shoreline, reducing the chance of erosion along the beach. Second, if you design the structure just right, you can create a beautiful, perfect, peeling surfing wave.
Despite the great topic, I still found engineering to be a struggle. But I’ll always remember when my classmates and I were struggling with assignments or exams, there was our other classmate: Scotty. He was always smiling; he drove me crazy with jealousy. How was he so happy when the rest of us were so stressed out? What did he have that we didn’t?
Toward the end of my degree I met someone else who seemed happy and she was cute too. I wrapped my arms around her and we moved off to the city to start our life together.
I had all the boxes checked: I had the job, I had the girl, we found a great condo to call our home. I was all ready to settle and coast through life. It became apparent pretty quickly that this coasting turned into a real grind.
To get through the weeks, I became the ultimate weekend warrior. I’d pack our weekends full of trips and adventures. My brilliant idea was to be so tired by the end of the weekend, that I didn’t mind sitting in a cubicle all week.
But sure enough, Monday morning would always come; the alarm would go off and I’d get up and put on my engineering outfit: my collared shirt, my khaki pants, my brown shoes. I’d go outside, get on the bus, ride downtown, sit in my cubicle, and weekend Mike would die.
I’d spend all week trying to bring him back to life by messaging my friends and planning the next adventure. At the same time, we’d joke back and forth that we were living the dream. When in fact, it was a lie. I’d go home each night and complain to my wife about how deeply unfulfilled I was.
This went on for more than a decade.
It was a Wednesday in November. When I came home from work my wife was sitting on the couch and she told me she was no longer in love with me. In that moment, this noise, this sound, this groan, escaped deep from the abyss of my shattered soul. Then I had a realization: I had heard this noise before. This same noise had come from my mother in our childhood home when my parents were divorcing.
In the weeks that followed, I spent the evenings walking the dark, wet streets, as the November rain poured down its pain. I carried a journal to record all the new thoughts and realizations I was having.
With each breakthrough I got further clarity on why the relationship had ended. Each truth would hit with a painful wave of emotions. But I had to understand what had gone wrong to do everything in my power to never feel that amount of pain again.
I also knew that if I was going to reengineer my life, I had to do so from a strong foundation and that meant leaving no stone unturned, no matter how hard the truths were that lay underneath.
Eventually the pace of the realizations slowed and my new reality set in: I felt sad and for the first time in my life—alone.
But I was an engineer; I solve problems for living. I mean, if I could make waves rise out of the surface of the ocean, I was confident that I could create a formula to put my life back together.
So that’s what I did.
I made a commitment, to myself, to pick myself up and do whatever it took to find happiness again. I started reading all the books. I started listening to all the podcasts. For the first time in my life, I actually took advice from friends—well, some of them.
I started making progress, but I seemed to be oscillating between higher highs and lower lows. I needed more help. Everything changed in my world when I hired a coach. The first thing she helped me with was to stop being a victim to what had happened. The second thing she helped me with was getting clarity on who I was going to be from now on.
I used meditation as a tool to get clarity.
I started having visions of sharing my story by writing a book and speaking on a stage. I started to turn this new reality into existence: I would become a writer, I would become a speaker—these would become my new extreme sports.
Which you would think would be a great relief to my mother, but that was only until I started to share my vulnerable writing.
With each step I faced resistance, but that’s how I knew I was moving in the right direction. I had to generate courage to push through the fear. My friends and family weren’t used to the new me. To be honest neither was I—but I liked what I saw.
I got lucky. Not only was I able to find that happiness that had eluded me for so long, but my transformation had revealed passions that I never even knew I had.
But what if we could reengineer our lives without hitting rock bottom? I often think about what I’d say to my past me. I’d ask him two things:
1. Can you be open and curious to trying new things that bring you joy?
2. Can you be humble enough to ask for help?
Sitting in that boat back in Nicaragua, my friends started to catch wave after wave. The guide paddled over to check on me, “Hey! Are you ready to paddle back out? The waves are getting sweet.”
I looked at him as I held up the shattered remains of my board and said, “Dude, I’m having a little bit of an equipment issue here.”
He then graciously offered me his board, but he could see the fear and resistance in my eyes. So, he said to me, “Brother, you’re going to have to paddle back out at some point; let this be your moment.”
He was right. I grabbed his board and paddled back out. Within moments I was flying down one of the biggest and fastest waves of my life all while wearing that same huge smile as my classmate Scotty.
Just like I had survived the breakup and awakened to this new world, I had survived the fury of the ocean and been gifted the ride of my life.
I was fortunate to hit my rock bottom and find new passions. But perhaps you are still searching for your magic. If so, I invite you to apply these three things: commitment, clarity, and courage.
1. Make a commitment to change where you have settled in your world.
2. Find clarity on who you are and what you love to do.
3. Generate the courage to push through the fear and live the life of your dreams.
Don’t wait to hit your rock bottom before you change your world. Let this be your moment to reengineer your life and awaken to happiness.