The Surfer’s Situation and Sanborn Triad of Trials

By Mark Sanborn from Up, Down, Or Sideways. I don’t know about you…but this REALLY speaks to me. and

Interact with the waves of change to create the outcome you desire.
The triple whammy hit me in 2008. For one thing, speaking engagements—my primary source of income—had dropped by about 20 percent. For another, my financial investments tanked. And last but certainly not least in the Sanborn Triad of Trials, doctors diagnosed me with prostate cancer.

Strike one. Strike two. Strike three. Right?

Well, not quite. It certainly wasn’t a home run year, but then again, I know people who have faced much worse. Besides, it was only half an inning in the long game of life. And to my surprise, that year of setbacks ended up leading me to a huge positive: fresh insights.
Like most insights, mine had been developing in the crucible of time—not just days, but months or even years before. I have no idea how long they had been percolating in my heart and mind. But I do know they came together with great clarity while I lay in bed for eight days that December convalescing from prostate surgery.

I wouldn’t know until the end of those eight days that the surgery had stopped the spread of the cancer, so contemplative thoughts about life’s uncertainties filled my downtime. Iread books, newspapers, and magazines until my vision blurred,and then I turned to the television. The programming, like the reading material,greeted me with reports of the global economic meltdown and worsening recession—as if I needed reminders that my business and investments were down.

Things were tough globally, too. It didn’t seem to matter much where you lived on the planet—everyone was affected by the financial crisis. I pulled out of the stock market around March 2008, just about the time it hit the bottom and started back up. Many experts, including the really smart one who advised me at the time, felt the market would retest the bottom, providing a soon-to-come perfect opportunity to get back in. It didn’t.

My business portfolio wasn’t doing much better. As an author and professional speaker, a large part of my income comes from speaking at meetings. Several high-profile corporations were getting hammered in the media (and even by Congress) for excessive spending on their events, so the meetings industry—read: the opportunities to practice my livelihood—was nearly as depressed as the stock market.

I’ve had downturns in business. I’ve had downturns in finances. And I’ve had downturns in health. But until that year, I had never felt the distress of all three at the same time. As odd as it might sound, however, nothing going on at that time—nothing I was reading or watching, nothing that had happened in my personal life, and nothing the doctors might tell me in the forthcoming days—could shake my feeling that I was still blessed.


Well, for starters, as simple as it sounds, I was overwhelmed by reminders of the importance of faith, family, and friends. These aren’t the desserts that follow the big meal of success; these are success, at least as I have come to define it.
I don’t know of a universally shared definition of success, but I do know it’s always about more than material wealth. I’ve had the opportunity to develop a diverse range of friendships—from salt-of-the-earth people of simple means to millionaires and billionaires. I can count on one hand those who define success singularly or even primarily as “net worth.” When pressed for more than a superficial answer, most people I’ve asked define success as the quality of their lives. That includes things like health, meaningful work, relationships, service, leisure, learning, and faith. These things all blend together to create that thing we call success.
The other reason I still felt a sense of prosperity was that I knew my challenges, as tough as they seemed, were met head-on by strategies I’d practiced throughout my adult life. In other words, while my lot in life wasn’t as good as it had been, there were several identifiable reasons why it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. I realized that almost everything knocking me down at the time came from forces outside my control, but there were several things I had been doing for years that mitigated the negative effects.

My bookings for meetings were down, but not nearly as much as they were for other speakers—I knew of some whose bookings were off 70 percent. I believe years of hard work developing a reputation for delivering value (in every sense of the word) provided the sure footings that kept me from sliding any further backward.

And while my investments had taken a significant hit, I was nowhere near the poorhouse. I grew up on a farm in Ohio, and my father’s frugality bordered on obsessive. His father had lived through the Great Depression, and my dad drilled into me the most important and perhaps least complex financial planning tool there is: spend less than you make. So while I’d seen a dramatic drop in the value of my investments, I still had reserves.

Lying in bed in the days following my surgery, my physical prognosis still hung in the balance. But I knew I had done several things to speed my recovery. As an overweight kid who didn’t like getting picked on, I had turned to exercise. I had worked out my entire adult life, and while I never reached competitive levels in athletics, I did develop an active lifestyle. I’m sure that aided in my recovery. Eight days after my surgery, I was back on my exercise bike (with my surgeon’s blessings).
No matter who you are, at some point circumstances will come that are outside your control. But there are things you can do to help you to succeed even in challenging times. These, in fact, are the things you and I should do whether times are Up, Down, or Sideways. And that’s what this book is about: how to maximize the upsides, mitigate the downsides, and succeed as much as you can all the time.
Catching the Wave
In business, we’re told to be proactive. But let’s be clear: proactivity has its limits. Proactivity is about what we choose to do but not always about what we control. And much of what we deal with in life falls outside of our control.
To prove it, pick up a copy of the Wall Street Journal or of your local newspaper and count the number of articles you controlled or influenced. Every day the count is the same for me: zero. Even if you are mentioned in the newspaper, chances are you had little control over the article. The best you might hope for is that they spelled your name correctly. So while you can be proactive on a personal level about doing things, there are forces bigger than you that you cannot control or influence.

On the other hand, we also know that being reactive in business is the kiss of death. If you spend your life reacting to what happens, you’ll end up, as my mother warned me, a day late and a dollar short.

So we find ourselves in a psychological dilemma: If reactive is the kiss of death and proactive beyond a personal level is a myth, what’s left?

The answer: interactive.
Think of a surfer. Only the Creator can make and control a wave. But a good surfer finds and interacts with the waves to create the outcome he or she desires. Don’t miss that first part: good surfers look for good waves. They are proactive on a personal level. They don’t just say, “There’s the ocean—let’s surf!” They watch the weather, scout the shoreline, check with friends, and do whatever they can to find the best waves.

If you want to succeed when times are Up, Down, or Sideways, you have to learn how to identify and interact with forces bigger than yourself—the economy, your upbringing, government regulations, natural disasters, and on and on the waves roll.
We don’t control those forces any more than surfers control the waves. I didn’t trigger the mortgage meltdown. I didn’t cause corporations to back off on the number of meetings they held. I didn’t do anything to get cancer. Yet I was impacted by all those things and challenged by how I would respond to them. My opportunities for success depended in part on how well I interacted with them to create the outcomes I desired—just as great surfers do.

Again, there are no guarantees. No matter how good you are, sometimes a big wave slams you under the soup. Even the best surfers wipe out. Other times, no matter how much you want to surf, the waves aren’t big enough. You can either paddle around or go find something else to do.

Growing up north of Youngstown, Ohio, I remember listening to some guys in their twenties who had been laid off from the mill. Television reporters asked them, “What are you going do?” The typical answer went something like this: “My daddy was a steel worker, and my granddaddy was a steel worker. There’s nothing else I can do.” I remember, even at my young age, thinking, Are you kidding me?

My father was a farmer and my grandfather was a farmer. Did that mean all I could be was a farmer? Of course not. In fact, the family farm wasn’t something that interested my brother or me, so it was easy enough for us to chase our own dreams. But too many people spend their lives floating around in ankle buster waves. When things are Sideways—when you aren’t riding the big wave or getting slammed—maybe you need to go to the shore and seek another activity. You still can create desired outcomes, even if it’s not from riding big waves.

That’s the Surfer’s Situation. If the waves are moderate and commensurate with your skills, you’ll do fine. If they are too big, they will wipe you out. If they are too small, you won’t be able to ride them. Like a surfer, you have to figure out how to interact with forces bigger than yourself to create the outcomes you desire—the outcomes you define as success. and

Patricia Fripp and Mark Sanborn are members of an elite group of world class speakers called Speakers Roundtable.