Know Your Limits: Should You Always Send It?

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Shane McConkey is one of my heroes. Shane was a legendary skier and BASE jumper who knew his limits but consistently pushed them. He became friends with fear.

While learning to ski last year, I found courage in the way Shane lived. Whenever I faced a daunting slope or a tight tree run that pushed my limits, I asked myself,

“What would McConkey do?”

McConkey would send it down the slope. Every time.

So that’s what I did – I sent it every time. I felt fear, but it never stopped me. And while I got myself into a few dicey situations, I successfully skied down double blacks during my first ski season. Thanks McConkey.

Calvin learning to ski at Heavenly Ski Resort in Lake Tahoe
Learning to ski at Heavenly in Lake Tahoe

I’ve applied this same “send it” principle while learning to surf. If I’m facing rough conditions or big waves, I always send it. I’m progressing more quickly this way.

But in November 2019, I learned the limits of this “always send it” mindset.

On a drive in Australia from the Gold Coast to Sydney, I stopped in a small coastal town. Eager to get into the water, I spoke to a few locals who told me that the surf was “pumping” near the lighthouse. They sounded pretty jazzed, so I headed to the spot.

Upon arriving, I saw consistent waves and a few surfers. I’ve been getting better and am a reasonably good swimmer, so I headed out without doing much diligence. The surf looked big but survivable.

I strapped on my leash and headed out. Within 30 seconds, I got pummeled – wave after wave destroyed me. I kept fighting.

Duck. Breath. Paddle. Repeat.

With my lungs nearing empty, I woke up on the other side of the battle with mother nature. I made it past the break.

Catching my breath, I glanced at the other surfers.

They looked far more experienced, and within a few minutes, they rode waves inland and disappeared. Now exhausted, alone, and far from shore, I just wanted to get back to the beach alive. But as I looked for a wave to take me in, I realized I was in trouble.

These waves were 3x the size of anything I had seen or attempted before. And the locals were right – this spot was “pumping.” Massive wave after massive wave roared past me.

Terror filled my soul as I narrowly escaped getting sucked down the face of a few monster waves.

I had no good options.

I couldn’t paddle in. I would just get tumbled by waves that would hold me under and increase my risk of drowning. I couldn’t flag anyone on the shore. I was too far out for anyone to see me. I couldn’t ride one of these waves – I’m not that crazy or good.

And being this deep in an Australian ocean, I started wondering if this is where the Great Whites hang out. It seemed like a great place for them.

Trying to find peace, I assessed the waves. I tried to get comfortable with their size and power. As a wave passed, I envisioned myself paddling, popping up, and riding down the face. Holy shit. These were beyond my limits.

One misstep and I would tumble into a 10-foot drop below a wave that might pin me down longer than I could withstand. Even if I could survive one hold down, the next one might end me. I couldn’t risk that.

Life outside of that moment didn’t exist – only the survival problem consumed my mind. I felt both dead and alive.

After an hour of depleting my shoulders, I decided that paddling in would give me my best shot. I paddled hard during a brief lull in the sets. If a big set rolled through at that moment, I would have been in trouble.

Thankfully, it didn’t. When the big set arrived, it broke a few meters behind me, sparing me from a lethal tossing. As a vortex of mist and white foam sucked me in, I braced myself and held on to my board.

The whitewash carried me for 10 seconds and then opened up. I held on, and suddenly, I was sailing down the unbroken face of a 6-foot wave. A brief moment of glory in the nightmare. This is what good surfers feel.

Rolling into shore, I walked to a safe place. Collapsing onto my board, tears flowed from my eyes. Attempting to slow my breath, I tried to process what happened. It didn’t matter.

I was alive.

So…Should You Always Send It?

Calvin surfing in Bondi, Beach Australia
Surfing in Bondi Beach, Australia

Absolutely, but send it with care. Sending it with care begins with knowing your limits.

I was an idiot. As an average surfer in an unfamiliar place, I should have studied the conditions before heading out. The ocean is an incredibly dynamic and tumultuous place.

Intuitively, I knew the waves were too big for my skill set, but I didn’t ask myself an important question:

Are they so big that I might drown?

When deciding whether or not to go for something, it’s important to know what’s at stake. If it’s death, it’s worthwhile to do a more in-depth analysis of the playing field.

In life and business, you learn, grow, and feel alive when you approach the edge of your limits.

So by all means, get near the edge. Push your limits.

Otherwise, you’ll get trapped in the mediocrity of a comfortable, but unfulfilling existence. The real learning begins when you transform your relationship with fear and start exploring what life has to offer.

But don’t be an idiot. If you’re going to consistently approach the precipice, it’s important to understand what’s waiting for you down below.

If you’re approaching someone in a bar, your worst case is rejection. You may feel shitty that someone didn’t want you, but you’ll get through that.

If leaving a comfortable job to start a business, you may fail. You may disappoint your parents or let yourself down, but you’ll have a few more at-bats to do something great.

But if you’re a novice surfer taking on massive waves, you’re playing a different game. You’re putting your life on the line for no reason. While surfing carries inherent risks, you don’t need to 10x those risks by being stupid.

Shane McConkey inspires me, but he died while attempting to ski off of a cliff into a BASE jump. He had done it successfully dozens of times before, but the last time didn’t go as planned. He left a wife and daughter behind.

Don’t shy away from pushing yourself to keep learning, growing, and feeling alive. But as my grandpa says, “Don’t do stupid.”

Know the consequences, and know your limits.

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