We’ve all heard the phrase “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” and many of us believe this is true, not only for canines but also for humans. Rather than debating this adage, Karen Rinaldi asked herself a question: What if we try? What if we give ourselves permission to try to learn something new, with the understanding that we may not be successful?
That was the impetus for Rinaldi’s decision to learn to surf in her 40s.
Surfing had long fascinated Rinaldi when she decided to take up the sport. “I was always obsessed with the ocean and terrified by it at the same time,” she says. “I was intrigued by the idea of learning how to surf but was afraid to try. I was in my 40s, I had two kids, and even though I had been a jock when I was younger, I was out of shape.” But one day she realized that, despite her fears, to never even try something she felt so pulled toward would be a real missed opportunity — and regret wasn’t a chance she was willing to take.
Rinaldi lives and works in New York City but owns a second home at the New Jersey shore. She feels drawn to the beach every weekend, even in winter, and it was there that she decided to take her first surf lesson in 1999.
She called up a surf instructor early that summer, and they met on a day when the waves were small enough for her first one-hour lesson. “He brought along a big, yellow, foam-top board for me to ride, and against all probability, I stood up,” she recalls. “Granted, the wave was barely knee high and slow as molasses, but I rode it, fell off, and was forever hooked.”
Surfing is difficult, Rinaldi admits, “yet I loved trying and decided I would keep at it, even if it was possible that I would never be a proficient surfer.”
One day she realized that, despite her fears, to never even try something she felt so pulled toward would be a real missed opportunity — and regret wasn’t a chance she was willing to take.
Rinaldi chronicles her experience learning to surf — and what she discovered about herself along the way — in her book It’s Great to Suck at Something, which came out in May. The Wall Street Journal called the book a “midlife manifesto,” and The Washington Post described it as “… a testament to perseverance without the pressure of perfection, to celebrating our failed efforts and becoming comfortable with discomfort.”
Surfing, Rinaldi says, taught her to embrace being bad at something. “Failure is our friend,” she says. “Discomfort is our friend.”
Is it hard to learn new things, especially as we get older? It might be. But “learning new things helps us to grow. It doesn’t matter if we aren’t successful right away. What’s important is that we keep trying,” she says.
It took five years of trying until Rinaldi caught a real wave — which was humbling for the 20-year HarperCollins publishing veteran. What’s more, she says, “I thought I’d just keep steadily improving, but the trajectory isn’t quite like that. Some days, I still get hammered. I learned to forgive myself and not to judge myself harshly when I fail.”
The effort has taught Rinaldi not only self-compassion but also compassion for others. “There are so many haters in the world, the ones that say negative things to you, I realize now that those people really just hate themselves and are projecting,” she says. “When I see people failing and making mistakes, I think, ‘How beautiful! They are trying something new!'”
In the 17 years since she first picked up a surfboard, Rinaldi has ridden a lot of waves; she’s also had her share of scary wipeouts, including a few that caused injuries. Sometimes, she says, she wonders why she keeps returning to the water, but “it’s because I love it. I love the kindness, the friendship, and the community I have created with other surfers. It’s a world completely disconnected from my working life.”
Her biggest lesson, though: Life is about the journey, not the destination. “So much of our life is spent trying to achieve our goals. Through surfing, I rediscovered the joy of play. Not with a goal of winning but just playing for fun. It is something we understood so well as kids but forgot as we got older. When I surf, I am not trying to win anything. I’m playing, and my heart is filled with joy.”