As a kid, my parents loved taking my siblings and me to swim in the wavy oceans around the world. Most family vacations involved oceans and tropical weather as both my parents grew up in South Africa, and they really missed that aspect of life after immigrating to the U.S. Even though we were near the ocean when we made our home in Seattle, it was a long way from tropical.

When we got in the water, the first thing my father taught us was how to dive under the waves so they didn’t crash on top of us. We learned staying safe was all about timing, being prepared and being aware. We also learned that no matter how prepared or aware we may have been, sometimes a large unexpected wave would come out of nowhere and crash right on top of us.

As the water came over us, our bodies would get all turned around. We couldn’t tell which way was up and which was down. When we lost complete control, our immediate instinct was to try to gain it back. Eventually, the ocean would spit us to the top of the water, leaving us in frantic state and afraid to take on another wave or swim in the ocean at all.

My father would always say to us, “You have to relax. Stay calm in this moment of chaos, and you will always get spit back up to the top again.”

If you’ve ever experienced a wave crashing on you and tumbling you about, you know staying calm and relaxing seem like the unnatural response. Having that reaction takes time, experience and focus. When you pop up from a wave, you also know that everything is not necessarily clear and ok. You’re often confused and trying to take in your surroundings, but if you are relaxed when you’re under water, at least you’re not frantic when you re-surface — and you’re in a better frame of mind to face the next wave headed your way.

As a kid, I heard my dad say, “Just relax.” But when I was tumbled by the next wave, I couldn’t. However, eventually I realized if I kept focusing on staying calm — even though it seemed impossible, I was able to do it.

My dad was right. When we stayed calm and relaxed, we would pop back up to the top — always less exhausted and scared than when we tried to fight the ocean. We learned not to panic when big waves crashed on us. We learned to stay calm in unexpected situations that we couldn’t prepare for.

The lesson my dad taught us long ago has extended beyond the ocean and into my everyday life and career. No matter how hard I prepare or plan for anything, life throws waves that crash on me — big waves which sometimes leave me not knowing which way is up or which way is down. While our natural instinct is to immediately fight and do everything in our power to stay afloat, working against the wave often leads to making quick irrational decisions, leaving us worse off than before and ultimately afraid to take on or face another big wave in the future.

The physics behind how waves work make it clear that big waves don’t just come out of nowhere. They come from the middle of the ocean, and they’re gaining momentum along the way. But we can only see the next three or four waves in front of us, and we get so distracted by the little waves that we miss noticing the big wave on the horizon.

By not fearing the big waves and staying calm and mindful in the face of adversity, I have confidence to take on big, and sometimes frightening, challenges that push me to grow personally, professionally, emotionally and intellectually.

Take aways:

1. In the face of adversity, relax and stay calm rather than fighting the elements around you. Take it in and let momentum bring you back to the top.
2. Being prepared for and aware of how to cope with the little waves make them non-events.
3. Look toward the horizon. There’s a big wave coming that you need to get ready to deal with, but in the meantime you still have to continue managing the little waves.
4. There are some waves so big that you cannot prepare for them. Even then, you will eventually resurface and have to pick up the pieces and keep going.

Adam Brazg’s parents moved to the U.S from South Africa more than 30 years ago. He was born in Seattle. “They loved to go to the beach in South Africa,” he said. “When we were really little, I remember going into the water. When you’re that little, every wave is a big wave.”