It starts as a low rumble, so deep it is almost imperceptible. But as the wall of water rises like an enormous mountain out of the ocean and turns, pitching, into a furious maelstrom of churning whitewater, the sound transmutes into a deafening boom that is so heavy you can feel in your bones.
The year was 2005, and on one such wave off Haleiwa Ali‘i Beach in Oahu, John John Florence — a scrawny eighth grader not yet five feet tall — was about to become the youngest competitor ever to participate in the Vans Triple Crown, one of surfing’s most prestigious big wave events. The wave, which is legendary in surfing circles, breaks with a face up to thirty feet high on a shallow finger of razor-sharp coral between two deep ocean channels. A second wave, aptly named “Avalanches”, breaks on another finger of reef just behind these channels. If surfers place themselves too deep while waiting for the wave at Haleiwa, huge sets lumbering in from behind them can push them into a deadly impact zone, where a whirlpool created by the two enormous waves can hold them down for minutes at a time while they get pummelled by toppling mountains of water. If they place themselves too far into the channels while waiting for a wave, they might miss it altogether.
Haleiwa is, by all measures, an extremely difficult and challenging wave to catch, and if caught, a can pitch surfers down the line at blistering speeds.
So how was it that John John Florence came to be riding this particular wave, outperforming competitors over twice his age, in 2005? Was Florence simply another childhood prodigy like Bobby Fischer or Blaise Pascal, beneficiary of superhuman skills not available to the average mortal?
As it turns out, he was not. He just had a whole lot of exposure. John’s mother, pro surfer Alexandra Florence, first put him on a surfboard when he was two (although it’s unverified, he contends that at 6 months he rode the nose of his mom’s longboard with a life vest on). He grew up at Ehukai Beach in Pupukea, on Oahu's North Shore, right next to another legendary surf-break called the Banzai Pipeline, watching the top surfers in the world compete in the final event of the same Triple Crown series. From a very early age, young Florence would bodyboard, play on the beach, and swim in the water. By the age of ten, he was surfing Pipeline regularly.
While Florence undoubtably had some raw talent, he — along with many other great achievers in athletics, academia, and nearly every other field — did not have any implicit advantage when it came to mastering his sport. Instead, he was surrounded by adults who encouraged him to pursue surfing, in the mildest manner possible, extremely early, and extremely often. They helped foster a love affair with the ocean, and with surfing, that would propel John John into his professional career.
In one account, John John recalls his early experiences:
We’d wake up in the dark and run out in front of the house super quiet, like it was a big secret that no one else could know about. Then we’d watch the sun come up and the clouds turn pink, and surf the little sandbars at first light. It would just be us out there in the water. And those little adventures were so exciting for us….
If somebody had put John John on a surfboard and pushed him into Pipeline on a big day at that age, he likely would have drowned — or at best, sworn off surfing for life. Instead, he progressed slowly, finding joy in surfing little sandbars, and getting excited to go out again the next day.
John John Florence was a beneficiary of something called the Goldilocks Effect. The premise, drawn from the children’s story “The Three Bears,” is that just the right amount of difficulty is not only highly motivating, but a major source of happiness. There is something remarkably engaging about trying to master a task that is just a little too hard — but within reach. Of course, it matters that we have the tools to traverse those gaps, whether they be skills, strength, support, or guidance, but what matters the most is that the gap is not too large.
For John John, the progression from the passenger seat of his mothers longboard, to body-boarding, to surfing small waves and then progressively larger ones, eventually led him to become the youngest competitor in one of the top surfing events in the world. The old maxim goes “you have to walk before you can run”, but in this case, it might as well be “you have to become comfortable in the ocean before you can surf”.
For us, it can offer a key to skill acquisition of any kind. Difficult skills like surfing, programming, writing, mountaineering, aeronautics, or even investing can be broken down into component sub-skills, each with its own degree of difficulty and set of pre-requisites.
In order to learn most acrobatic maneuvers, for example, you must first learn how to land safely — a skill called “tumbling.” Most athletic pursuits follow similar patterns: first, you master basic movement patterns and motor skills, then you refine these skills. As you progress, you discover that you need to develop new skills in order to access new levels of your sport, and so on.
There is an implicit broadening of horizons in this cycle, but hard skills, like tumbling, are finite — there are only so many of them to learn. So what accounts for all the other time spent moving from one level of progression to another?
Repetition, for one. We humans have hard limits on how much we can actively focus on at any given time, and it is widely held that for optimal performance the right number is just one. It is not until we have practiced a particular skill so many times that it becomes automatic that we can effectively focus on the next.
Confidence plays an important role too — anxiety is highly distracting, and with each successful repetition, we gain the ability to relax a little more, reflexively giving us a greater ability to concentrate and a greater likelihood of successfully completing another repetition. This not only boosts actual performance, but helps us enjoy our chosen tasks more, motivating us to practice with greater frequency.
Viewed in this light, the benefit of choosing the right level of difficulty is evident: a difficult task that is just a little too hard can rapidly discourage us from repeating that task, and this lack of repetition can lead directly to stalling, plateauing, or even giving up.
Looked at conversely, this is the Goldilocks Effect in action: choosing the “just right” facet of a skill to practice, at the “just right” level of difficulty, can unlock progression in just about anything.
Figuring out what those facets are and practicing the ones that fall into the “just right” zone is one way to tip-toe, slowly but surely, towards mastery.
Just like John John Florence, who would go onto win numerous world titles, and become one of the most admired surfers of our time.