Breakthroughs don't come out of thin air. Instead, what we call creativity usually happens when two worlds collide and some smart person gets the bright idea to apply specific knowledge from one domain in another totally unrelated one.

Or as writer Neil Gaiman puts it, "ideas come from confluence -- they come from two things flowing together."

That could mean Steve Jobs drawing on his love of calligraphy when overseeing the design of Apple's iconic products. Or it could be when Archimedes realized his bath water offered the perfect solution to the math problem he was pondering and yelled out "Eureka!" But for Embrace Innovations founder Jane Chen that productive confluence came when she mentally joined startups with surfing.

The psychological toll of a startup's near-death experience

Recently on the Unreasonable Institute blog, Chen told the story of how her startup underwent a painful near-death experience. Her company, Embrace Innovations, makes low-cost baby incubators for use in the developing world, she explains in the post, and the emotional struggles of getting to know seriously ill infants, many of whom sadly didn't make it, and their families was taking a huge toll on her.

Add to this massive stress, the collapse of a hard fought funding deal due to circumstances entirely beyond her control, and Chen confesses she was at breaking point. The company's financial woes were eventually solved through a lucky run in with Salesforce founder (and father of a baby who spent time in neonatal intensive care) Marc Benioff, but Chen confesses her frenzied efforts to save her company had caused a huge psychological strain.

Happily, at just that time, Chen set out for a Hawaiian vacation and connected with a acquaintance who agreed to teach her how to surf. The result wasn't just a lot of falls and a new athletic skill. "Being in the ocean reminded me of how I want to live--a lesson I desperately needed after the near-failure and resurrection of Embrace," claims Chen, who outlines five key lessons she's learned from her newfound hobby.

1. Everything is impermanent.

"Nothing teaches you about impermanence more than the ocean. Waves themselves are just pure energy moving through the water; they are constantly changing form, and no two waves are ever the same. You simply can't plan around something that is always changing and out of your control when surfing or in life," Chen writes.

Since having this realization she's become better at "going with the flow" and remembering that all things will pass, including our toughest challenges. "In fact, I often imagine waves passing by me when I'm facing something unpleasant," she says.

2. When the waves knock you down, try again.

As anyone who's ever tried it can tell you, surfing is hard. Very hard. So is entrepreneurship. "As an entrepreneur, you will fail over and over again. You will constantly face setbacks. And you just have to be ok with that," writes Chen. "Take the lessons you can from it, and move onto the next wave."

3. Don't be afraid to catch bigger waves.

"Keep putting yourself in challenging situations and pushing your limits. I have to overcome fear and self-doubt every time I go into the ocean. Being held down by a big wave is the scariest feeling in the world. Similarly, each step in creating Embrace was scary," notes Chen.

4. Accept what cannot be changed.

"This is the essence of my surf poetry," claims Chen. "When you're surfing, you cannot control your environment. There have been days I haven't caught a single wave because the conditions sucked. In life, and especially as an entrepreneur, so many situations are out of our control. Sh*t happens. Don't waste energy fighting the things that cannot be changed. Instead, adapt to the situation and learn to ride with it."

5. Always have fun.

Surfing, Chen relates, is just "delightfully fun," which reminds her "not to take myself too seriously, to just enjoy life and be grateful for every day, and every experience."

Have you learned any important business lessons from your favorite hobby?

Published on: Sep 22, 2016