Four ingredients for success in big-wave surfing and business

In early February, Jason Toshack, the regional general manager for cloud computing company
Oracle NetSuite, invited Mark Mathews to address his 200-strong team.

By all accounts it was an inspiration-packed 90- minute Zoom presentation.

Mathews is not your typical corporate speaker.

He is a professional big-wave surfer who suffered severe leg injuries, including a torn artery, in a 2016 wipe-out and was told by doctors he would probably never surf again.

Mathews had already been sidelined for months after injuring a shoulder in Hawaii the previous year.

Mathews, who eventually resumed surfing (although his passion has been curtailed by travel restrictions introduced to stop the spread of the coronavirus), draws several parallels between big- wave surfing and business.

One key similarity is fear, which in the business world often presents itself as imposter syndrome. In big-wave surfing, it is fear of drowning. The only remedy, says the surfing professional, is practise and experience.

To surf waves of between 20 feet and 70 feet, Mathews overcame that fear of drowning through underwater training, again and again and again. To get over his fear of public speaking, he practised in front of cameras, recorded himself, watched himself on screen and asked an expert to review it.

“The only way through fear is experience,” he says. “You need to push yourself into the scary environment to build the skill set and knowledge to be able to manage that dangerous environment.”

Once fear has been dealt with, Mathews argues there are four ingredients necessary for success in big-wave surfing and business: direction, meaning, support and perspective.

These, he says, are the core principles for producing sustained performance over time, avoiding the crash-and-burn scenario.

“I think high-level executives or business owners have very similar personality traits to high-level athletes, where they might be hyper- conscientious or industrious. They always want to be working non-stop, always want to be productive, and that takes a toll on them physically, mentally and emotionally,” says Mathews, one of a several elite athletes who works with Explore Performance, which organises talent development programmes and bespoke leadership experiences.


Direction is having clarity about your personal and work goals and what success – and failure – will look like in five years’ time.


Meaning is what you, and those around you, will derive from your actions. Having a meaning could range from being able to put food on the table for your family every night, to helping your employer achieve its goals, or helping employees lead a better life. Those who bemoan a lack of meaning in their work life could try reflecting on how their role fits into their company’s bigger picture, put their hand up to take on greater responsibility or apply for a more senior management role, Mathews says.


Support is putting together a group of talented individuals around you.

“I was never a very genetically gifted person to be a professional surfer,” Mathews says. “I was able to outperform the more talented surfers out there by having an amazingly talented team of the best filmers, the best photographers and the best water-safety crew to keep me alive.”

Then you need to learn how to attract talented people and how to get the best out of them.

The latter point is critical. Not everyone has the ability to control who they work with, but they can control how they interact with colleagues and how to extract the best possible performance and co-operation from them.

“The control that you do have is your emotional intelligence,” Mathews says. “You do get to choose how you interact with [colleagues].”


Perspective is about putting your troubles and tribulations into context. When Mathews was in hospital, having been told he would never surf again, he entered a “dark hole”. But he met a young man who was a quadriplegic, and suddenly Mathews transformed from being the victim, full of self-pity, to feeling he was “the luckiest person alive”. His recovery was faster as a result.

Practising gratitude is one tool that can help with perspective. Studies have shown that most human beings tend to see more negatives than positives around them. It’s a survival mechanism, Mathews says, designed to keep people alive in the face of constant danger.

Studies also show that people who can cultivate a sense of gratitude for what they have – rather than what they don’t – are physiologically healthier.

Mathews has a technique called “habit stacking”: while doing everyday activities such as cleaning his teeth or making the bed, he recalls key things
he is grateful for.

He often feels gratitude for a healthy daughter, 19-month-old Mathilda.

“I’m hyper-neurotic, which means I’m even more skewed than the average person to the negative,” Mathews says. “I can tell you every negative thing that could happen in the next three hours. Easy. My brain just constantly thinks about them over and over again. But that’s why I use these techniques, to force myself out of that.”

He does three sessions of gratitude every day.

So, what did Toshack get out of Mathews’ presentation?

Working as a team was one take-out. Toshack says he may have failed to leverage the teams at Oracle NetSuite and was sometimes guilty of “just trying to do things on my own”. Now he is making sure the business has clear goals – which are broken down into smaller, tangible goals – and is drawing more on the experience and views of different teams around the business. The quarterly and monthly reviews no longer involve just the sales teams, with Oracle NetSuite embarking on monthly “all hands” meetings that involve the broader business.

I am focusing on making sure the balance is right between what I am doing for work and what I am doing for [my three kids].

“The feedback has been fantastic,” he says. “Sometimes you can get a little siloed in your own department or your own business and look at things without taking the perspective of people from outside the business. We’ve only just started that recently, but that’s something that we’re really looking to push forward with.”

Toshack, who has three children, has been thinking about his goals, or direction, for him personally and for the business. From a business perspective, one goal is to ensure Oracle NetSuite retains as many good employees as possible and help them in their career progression.

What I am doing for work and what I am doing for them, making sure that they are as successful as possible and have every chance.”

Toshack is looking at getting a mentor for him and others in the business, and is incorporating gratitude practices into his morning routine.

As for overcoming fear, Toshack says he will look into it. He was inspired by Mathews’ presentation skills.

“It’s probably something that I’ll be doing as well. With Zoom, you’re not in front of an audience, but this will stop and then you’ll have to go out and actually see people face to face, in rooms full of people.

“So it’s something that definitely resonates in regard to practising over and over and over again, not just going into something unprepared; just making sure whatever you’re doing, do it well, and make sure you’ve practised it many times before.

“Whenever I look at myself in the video, there’s a lot of things I cringe at, so that’s something that I need to do more often, to make sure that I’m delivering things as well as I think I can.”