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#32 on My Bucket List: Learn to Surf

  • POSTED ON MAY 30, 2019
#32 on My Bucket List: Learn to Surf

I wrote my first bucket list when I was 25. I kept it in the back of my journal like an expanding grocery list…except instead of things like apples and light bulbs, it included things like make perfect Mexican rice and visit Paris. I had graduated from college, broken off an engagement five months before the wedding, and was in pursuit of my Master’s degree in Counseling while working full-time. My life was demanding and intense, and the list was both practical and aspirational. It served as a placeholder for the dreams that were bigger than my life could manage in that moment.

I was 37 when I updated the list — by then, I’d gone to Paris, figured out the rice, married the love of my life, had two happy healthy babies, and was starting to surface as myself again after a period in which I was known primarily as Jake and Ellie’s mom. The list of “40 things I wanted to do before I was 40” was engineered to keep me moving forward and to connect me to who I was becoming, not bound by the history of who I’d been. On that list at #32: learn to surf.

Four years later, I wrote another list. As part of CTI’s Leadership program, I was asked to come up with possibilities of how I might bring my work into the world in a bigger way. My list was clear, focused, strategic, prioritized and didn’t sound like any fun at all!

As leaders, we choose to create the world the way we want it to be, so when I recognized that my default setting was to try to create work that sounded important, sacrificing fulfillment for significance, I edited the list. Part of my work in the world is to reconnect people to fun and adventure, and to create that, I have to live it. To my list, I added: dance, learn to drive a race car, and (once again) learn to surf.


On a sunny Saturday afternoon in Malibu in the summer of 2012, I learned to surf at the Into the Fire Surf Retreat, an annual event I co-created and co-lead with my co-conspirator, colleague and Leadership classmate, Gary Mahler.

Surfing had been on my list for a long time, and now the opportunity was within inches. Except, I’d decided it wasn’t the right time. In my mind, the retreat was specifically designed for other people to have an incredible once-in-a-lifetime, bucket-list worthy experience, not me.

Gary and I

It’s a deeply ingrained habit that I put the needs of others above mine. Believing that leaders create our worlds, how could I continue to make room at the table for everyone and forget to set a place for myself? At the retreat, I too would have an opportunity to do life differently – exactly like we were teaching our participants.


Doing differently meant talking with my husband, my partner and my friends about my concerns, wants and needs instead of cycling the thoughts in my head. Doing differently meant listening to perspectives unlike mine, and trusting the wisdom when everyone unanimously agreed that I should surf. Doing differently meant working from an unfamiliar model of leadership in which we were learning at the same time as the people we were teaching, and we were not the ultimate experts I assumed we were should be. Doing differently also meant that I’d be co-leading the second half of the retreat with wet hair and no makeup! Every one of these things pushed me outside of my comfort zone and into a new understanding of who I am and what is possible for me.

Leadership requires courage, commitment, self-awareness and a sense of humor. As leaders, we are looked to for guidance. We model the actions and behaviors we ask others to follow and often go first. Doing so is risky and vulnerable and also creates a depth of authentic connection.

Leadership begins with you. Bring your crazy passion and intensity, your dreams and your fears, your reflection and your learning – and bring people somewhere they’ve never been before. The world needs this from you.

I surfed. I fell off my board a lot. I had the time of my life. Just like everyone else, I struggled to get into a wetsuit and worried about what might be swimming beneath me. Not only did I learn to surf that day, I became a person who teaches leadership through surfing. I’d never done that before! Now in our fifth year, the Into the Fire Surf Retreat continues to be an opportunity for profound learning and transformation for everyone. And it’s a ton of fun.

I still haven’t started dance classes, but I plan to next. What’s next on your list?

Written By

Karen Pery

Karen Pery, MA, ACC, CPCC, founder of Excellent Adventures Training, takes a playful and daring approach to changing people and organizations from the inside out. An executive coach and experiential leadership development expert based in Los Angeles, she works with her global clientele to create innovative solutions, develop heightened awareness and expand their capacity for impact. Excellent Adventures believes that all learning is personal and that the deepest learning comes from experience. Experiences that stretch your boundaries, challenge you, and make you feel alive provide life changing insights. With new insights, new possibilities are born.

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