16 JUL 2012

Layne Beachley coasted into Melbourne last week to discuss her extraordinary life and what businesses can learn from her journey.

The seven-time world champion surfer, in town for the launch of Telstra Phonewords (now 1300 Australia) has had her fair share of challenges, including chronic fatigue, adoption, a near-paralysing neck injury and, you know, having to stare down the barrel of a fifty foot wave. For the record, that’s about the height of each letter on the Hollywood sign in Los Angeles. She ran a packed house through some of her top tips for overcoming adversity, and then sat down with Smarter to give us the exclusive while she signed hundreds of books for devoted fans. Here are some life lessons from one of the few women who get to call the ocean their office.

1. Extend your comfort zone

“I’m attracted to fear,” explains Beachley, which is how she says she synthesises her thoughts in a potentially life-threatening situation and achieves the clarity needed to (literally) stay standing. “That element of discomfort really does it for me. If I shied away from losing, I’d never have won.” Challenge, says Beachley, is the number one oppportunity for growth. Overcoming it is all about shifting the way you think once you’re in the situation, like diving headfirst into a new business venture or starting your own company. “What you fear, you attract,” says Beachley, “What you think about, you make manifest. If I stand on the top of a fifty foot wave and think about drowning, that’s going to become a reality very quickly.”

2. Acknowledge your wins as well as your losses

“It’s really important to celebrate wins, no matter how small,” says Beachley. “We have this tall poppy problem in Australia that makes it very difficult to first become successful and then claim that we’re successful. You always have to make it look like it was really difficult the whole time, it’s a very sad state of affairs.” Beachley maintains that it’s important for anyone, from a sportsperson to a businessman, to take the time to give themselves credit for what they’ve done. She recalls her recent world title where she went out as one of the oldest in the competition. “Even though they were younger and everyone was talking about them, I was still the champion,” she says. “I shouldn’t be scared of them, because they were the ones who had to take the title away from me.”

3. Know when you need to take a break

“The quality of life I lived by the time I reached my sixth world title wasn’t what I wanted,” says Layne. “I was very goal-oriented, like a lot of businesspeople and I was just ticking off boxes as they came until I turned around at the end of it all and thought ‘what have I just done?’ I’d rewritten the history books but I hadn’t really enjoyed any of it.” That’s the point, says Beachley, when you need to break off and recharge. She had the added bonus of her body telling her as well as her mind. “I had a wave slam onto my neck and sever eighty percent of my spinal cord. My left arm went numb for five years and I decided not to do anything about it because I wanted to win at all costs. I didn’t care how bad it was.” She was then diagnosed with chronic fatigue (more commonly associated with office life) where her body shut down on her. “It was a very debilitating experience because I was a lover of life,” she says, “so I had to adapt. I came back after being out of the water for six months and it was amazing.”

4. Accept change

“The great thing about surfing is that no two days are the same,” says Beachley. She explains that if she couldn’t be comfortable with change, there was no way she’d be able to compete in this sport. After her injuries, Beachley had to alter the way she thought about winning, rather than relying on what had gotten her through previously. “There’s times when you think you’re doing the right thing, but it takes another person you trust to come in and actually tell you before you do something about it. That’s why I always demand honesty from the people around me and am perfectly honest with them.” The competition has changed since Beachley first won a world title, and she’s been forced to learn from her changing challengers. But that, she says, is precisely what keeps her on her toes.

5. Find new ways to de-stress

Most people use physical activity to diffuse the tension of the working week, but Beachley does it for a living. So how does she unwind? “I still surf every day,” she confesses. “It clears my mind and I have to be active and outdoors to relax.” When she was out of the game for six months on injury, Beachley got involved in a lot of self-discovery, including yoga, neuro-linguistic programming, breathing techniques and anything else she could try. “I’m an extremist by nature,” she says, “So I used to just try and push myself as far as I could go, but now I listen to my body. If I’m fatigued, I’ll slow down.”