Meet Shaun Tomson, one of the greatest surfers of all time.
Welcome to Remarkable People.
This episode’s guest is Shaun Tomson: Surfer, Code Maker, and Flow Evangelist.
A few years ago I was in the Apple store in Santa Barbara getting my son’s iPhone screen fixed. A guy came up to me and asked, “Are you Hawaiian?” and I said no.
Then he said, “You look just like Guy Kawasaki..” I responded that I was Guy Kawasaki, but I’m Japanese, not Hawaiian. He introduced himself as Shaun Tomson.
I had just started surfing, so I didn’t know who Shaun was, but the Apple genius said to me, “Do you know who he is?”
“No.” I responded. The genius says, “He’s one of the greatest surfers ever.” Well, duh. From that humble beginning, Shaun and I became friends.
He took me surfing a few days later, and not even the great Shaun Thomson could get me up on a wave!
Shaun is recognized as one of the ten greatest surfers of all time. He won the IPS World Championship in 1977. He and a small group of surfers established surfing as a profession in the 1970s.
He is currently an author, speaker, and board member of the Surfrider Foundation. Besides being a remarkable surfer, he is also a remarkable human being.
Do you know about the state of consciousness called “flow?” Keep listening, and you’ll learn what it is and how to achieve it.
Shaun has a new book out, The Surfer and the Sage: A Guide to Survive and Ride Life’s Waves
I’m Guy Kawasaki, and this is Remarkable People. Now here’s Shaun!
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A few years ago, I was in the Apple store in Santa Barbara getting my sons iPhone screen fixed. That's a monthly occurrence.
A guy came up to me and asked, "Are you Hawaiian?" And I said, "No." Then he said, "You look just like Guy Kawasaki," I responded that I was Guy Kawasaki, but I'm Japanese, not Hawaiian. He introduced himself as Shaun Tomson.
I had just begun surfing, so I didn't know who Shaun was, but the Apple Genius said to me, "Do you know who he is?" "No," I responded. The Genius said, "He's one of the greatest surfers ever." Well, duh. From that humble beginning, Shaun and I became friends.
He took me surfing a few days later, and not even the great Shaun Thomson could get me up on a wave. Shaun is recognized as one of the ten greatest surfers of all time. He won the IPS World Championship in 1977. He and a small group of others established surfing as a profession in the 1970s.
He is currently an author, speaker and board member of the Surfrider Foundation. Besides being a remarkable surfer, he's also a remarkable human being.
Do you know about the state of consciousness called flow? Keep listening, and you'll learn what it is and how to achieve it.
And by the way, you need to understand one surfing term in this episode, it's called “the tube.” The tube is when the wave breaks and forms a little tunnel, and riding in the tube is a religious experience, as you'll hear.
I have never ridden in a tube, so I only understand it from the perspective of other surfers and looking at pictures and watching videos.
I grew up in this coastal town. It was quite a big city, it was about three million people. One of the biggest ports in South Africa.
I grew up in a segregated society. I'm of Jewish extract. My ancestors came from Europe during the pogroms in Latvia. They all fled, the late 1800s, 1900s.
My mom ended up in South Africa after being evacuated from the island of Malta in the Second World War, which was the most heavily bombed place in the history of the world. So I come from refugee stock and ended up in South Africa.
I was born in South Africa, and it was a very unusual time to grow up in this sort of segregated society. It was really the last westernized country that was still segregated.
The massive civil movement in the sixties in the United States, early sixties with Martin Luther King, certainly influenced South African leadership. Big influence on Nelson Mandela and the other leaders at the time for liberation.
We were part of a very liberal household. We were both English speaking and Jews, because there was pretty much, in the white population group, there was Afrikaans speaking people, which were traditionally were a lot more conservative, originated from Dutch stock. They also fled for religious persecution, and then the English which were a lot more liberal, and then also being Jewish we had quite a liberal family, but grew up in this segregated society, and at the time, when you're just on the beach when you're fourteen or fifteen, you don't realize the import of these regulations.
For me, the big change in my life happened when this famous Hawaiian surfer, a guy called Eddie Aikau, this Hawaiian legend who my father had actually invited to compete in South Africa, was denied entry to his hotel, called the Malibu hotel of all places, and we went and picked him up and it was so sad to see this state of South Africa through someone else's eyes, and finally you realize this sort of injustice of the structure, and then he came and stayed with us, and that kind of was really sort of the first time when I really came to this realization that, "Wow, this is not the way it should be."
Because he was Hawaiian? Simplistically because he was too brown, was not allowed to check into the hotel?
Into the Malibu hotel. One of the greatest surfers in the world, someone who had been invited out to surf in a pro surfing contest, wasn't allowed to check in to the Malibu Hotel. It created a very big media sensation in South Africa, because obviously, the media was very anti-discrimination, anti-apartheid, way more liberal.
But as a young boy, I think I was fifteen or sixteen at the time, and I would go surfing with Eddie, and I could see this impact that this had on him and how it sort of crushed his spirit, and how these dehumanizing regulations are so impactful, and you can live in a society and it's like you're almost like an ostrich with your head stuck in the sand, not really realizing what's happening around you.
Could you spend a few minutes and explain this? What was the manifestation of segregation in South Africa at that time? What could blacks not do?
So, what happened, in 1948, after the Second World War, Jan Smuts, who was a great South African leader, was defeated in the election. The Nationalist Party came to power, which was a very, very conservative party, dominated by primarily Afrikaners.
This is not to point a finger and say that all Afrikaners are evil and racist, but at the time it was very much an Afrikaner dominated party, and they instituted a series of laws that would suppress both black opportunity and also the places where blacks could live. It was called the Group Areas Act, so blacks could only live in certain areas, they could only attend certain schools, they were only allowed out in certain areas at particular times.
For instance, they had to carry this passbook around with them. For instance, I was at a Jewish school. There were no black kids in my school. Very few black kids in university, and I'm talking the seventies here, so it wasn't like it was a hundred years ago. There were separate toilets for blacks and whites.
It was this apartheid. It means apartness. It's an Afrikaans “apart,” and heid means the quality. So it means the state of being apart, and the concept, the moral imperative that they used to say it was, “Separate but equal,” and if you go back to Animal Farm and George Orwell, all people are equal, but some are more equal than others. All pigs are equal, but some are more equal than others. That was the way that their sensibility...at the time.
But ultimately, over a period, the country came to this realization that things had to change, and was this country going to end up in a radical civil war? And certainly there was massive unrest, massive disturbance, massive uprisings. Young black kids in Soweto in 1976, when I was at university, they had an uprising.
I stopped going to school because Afrikaans, which was perceived as the language of enslavement, they tried to make it a compulsory language for black kids to learn. So it was a massive strike in Soweto in 1976. Steve Biko was killed in 1976.
So that was sort of a big turning point, and then, ultimately, ten years later, Mandela was released from prison in 1990, and four years later, 1994, we had our first democratically elected elections and South Africa became a free and democratic country. I was competing around the world and didn't spend a lot of time in the country back then, but I had retired from the tour.
I was in the country through the last four years of the transition to democracy, and it was amazing to see, that at the time, a lot of us thought the country was going to go up in flames. We thought the country was going to be absolutely destroyed and hundreds of thousands of people were going to die.
People talk about leadership, or lack thereof, and here's a guy who's been in prison for twenty-seven years, comes out of jail, and unites this disunited country and creates a relatively peaceful transition to democracy. It was amazing the power that this man had. This fundamental mojo and this fundamental value structure, that he could persuade sixty-million people to be on the same page. It has never happened before, and it will never happen again.
Nelson Mandela Recording:
“The time for the healing of the wounds has come. The moment to bridge the chasms that divide us has come. The time to build is upon us.”
Did you ever interact or meet with him?
No, I always wanted to. I always wanted to meet him, but I never did. I had so much admiration for him and for what he did, and for that spirit of reconciliation. That spirit of openness. That spirit of kindness. The deep humanity, the morality, and the connectivity to sport too.
He was a great boxer in his youth, and he was a fitness guy, and he was just a truly remarkable individual. Well read.
He was a lawyer, he was an attorney. Fought cases. Had this tremendous steel will, and this great spirit of honor.
So meanwhile, you're a world champion surfer.
Yeah! Switching gears.
You had to break a little bit of your own sort of closed society when you came to Oahu and entered the North Shore scene, so what was that like? I mean, it wasn't apartheid, but I bet you have some stories there.
Yeah. Yeah. So growing up in South Africa, my father was a champion swimmer in his youth. He loved swimming, and his dream was to compete in the Olympics. He was in the Second World War, and South African swimming champion at thirteen years old, and then started his swimming career again to try to make the '48 Olympics, and was very badly attacked by a shark when he was out there on his little wooden surfboard. Nearly bit his arm off.
But his hero, in his youth, was Duke Kahanamoku.
And he would tell me about Duke, and Duke became my hero too, and after my dad's shark attack nearly killed him, but he survived, his father sent him to have arm surgery in San Francisco at one of the top hand surgeons, and after the surgery, he sent him to Hawaii to recuperate, and he stayed in the Royal, on the beach, when there was only two hotels on the beach, the Moana and the Royal, and met Kahanamoku.
So it was wonderful for my dad, and I really think that spirit of aloha really connected with my father very deeply, and he came back to South Africa with this wonderful love, and in my youth, Hawaii was always the place that one day as a surfer you had to go. I had pictures of Hawaii in my room, and my dad would tell me these stories about Hawaii and Kahanamoku.
I think we were the only house in the whole of South Africa where you had to leave your shoes outside if you wanted to walk inside. It was quite a conservative society, but it was shoes off.
I used to have these pictures of the Banzai Pipeline on my wall, and Waimea Bay, and then my first exposure to Hawaii was for my bar mitzvah present. My dad gave me a trip to Hawaii and he took me to Hawaii when I was fourteen years old, and I surfed all the big waves over there, the North Shore and Makaha, and just fell in love with the place.
From then after, I would go almost every single winter-- fifteen, sixteen-years-old, flying around the world, going to Hawaii to try to compete, and it was sort of a few years later, by the time I was eighteen, that I started to get pretty good and was able to take it on-- take on the big waves at Sunset and Pipeline and all that sort of thing, and then with that notoriety, obviously, becomes that profile in the lineup, and sometimes there's some tough guys out there that don't like it when some young kid out there is sort of blazing a new trail.
So at the same time that I was starting to succeed, there was a whole group of young Australians, Rabbit Bartholomew, Mark Richards, Ian Cairns, Peter Townend, who also had the sort of desire to take it on and to kind of change the way waves are ridden, and we had this sort of collective vision that one day it would be possible to make a living out of going surfing, that there would actually be a career path.
It wasn't just like going out there and having an amazing session and coming in, but there would actually be a career path there, that there would be sponsorships and there would be a professional tour, and that there would be an industry, and we helped build it. We helped create it. I mean, us guys built the surfing industry, we built professional surfing.
It was wonderful to sort of be a part of that movement, that youthful desire, and that youthful energy, and we were just willing to put it all on the line. Fierce, fierce competition, but friendly and respectful.
But yes, we did end up on the wrong side of some gangsters in Hawaii, some tough guys that were running drugs and felt that we were in some way insulting Hawaiian heritage and culture, professionalizing and promoting, and popularizing this lifestyle, which nothing was further from the truth. I mean, Duke Kahanamoku was my hero from when I was ten years old, and Hawaii was sort of for me the center of the universe, and my heroes were the Hawaiian surfers, Barry Kanaiaupuni and Jeff Hakman and all these sort of amazing individuals.
So ultimately there were some tough times. I mean we went through some very, very tough times. I was interviewed by this magazine, this racy men's magazine called Penthouse Magazine. It was like Playboy, but hardcore version, and the journalist had some things to say about this group of gangsters, the Black Shorts, and they perceive that I'd written this article and so I was punched out, and a guy tried to hit me with a bottle, and smashed around a bit.
Eventually I was told that I was going to get killed so many times, that I went and picked up from the local gun store in Wahiawa, I drove out to Tropic Lightning to Schofield Barracks, and I'm twenty-two years old, and I remember walking into the gun shop and saying to the guy behind the counter, "Look, there's a group of bad ass guys. There's a lot of them, and they want to kill me." I said, "What you got for me?" And he showed me the whole line up: M16, AR15, forty-four Magnum, 357.
I mean I had been in the army, I knew my way around weapons, and he said, "This is what you need, pal,” and he picked up a twelve-gauge Remington pump-action, ten shells. He said, "You'll hold off an army with this,” and I remember I lashed over 240 bucks, and here I am, all I've got is an international driver’s license, and I walked out with my Remington and I carried that around with me for a while until we finally managed to resolve our differences and peace was declared.
But it was a tough time, and Rabbit Bartholomew, Ian Cairns, a number of Australians went through the same drama that I did, but at the time, none of us even considered leaving. This was our life. Staying on the island and building pro surfing. It was our life, and, yes, we were literally in the cross hairs there for a while, but it was relatively short time period, and it just one of those hiccups along the way that, ultimately, I think gave surfing the character that it has today.
You developed the Surfers Code, your twelve “I Will”-isms. Can you tell us how you came up with that?
Yes, so Surfers Code was actually the title of my first book, and it started out just as a gift to a group of young people that were coming down to the beach at a placed called Rincon, which is one of the most famous waves in the world. It's about ten miles from my house here in Santa Barbara, very popular wave, and it was facing an environmental challenge.
The home owners were connected up to septic tanks, and when it rained the septics filled up and the crap over-flowed in the river and would float out in the break and get the surfers sick.
So this guy Glen Henning who had started Surfrider Foundation, contacted me and he said, "Shaun, I want to do something about it. It's a big problem." He said, "I want to use kids to really heighten the awareness of this problem." He said, "I'm going to bring fifty or 100 kids to the beach, and I want you to give them something to empower them. I'm going to bring the media down. I'm going to bring some of the local government down, and we want to just highlight this issue. And if we can do it with kids, we think we can really create a lot of awareness."
So I went home, and I thought, “What am I going to do?” At the time, my wife and I had an apparel company called Solitude. I thought, “Maybe I'll give them some gear or phone up Quicksilver, Billabong,” all the famous surf companies and get some sponsorship for the kids, and then I thought, “No, I'm going to do something different,” and I got out a sheet of paper, and I wrote down twelve lines. The twelve lessons that surfing had taught me about life, and I wrote it in twenty-five minutes.
Every single line beginning with “I will,” as sort of a commitment, a promise, as almost like a covenant with me and surfing, and it was very, very simple. Every single line was a metaphor. “I will always paddle back out. I will never turn my back on the ocean. I'll take the drop with commitment. I will know that there'll always another wave. I'll honor the sport of kings. I'll pass on my stoke to a non-surfer. I'll never fight a riptide.”
So I printed this piece of paper up on a little laminated card, and Glen had said to me, "Shaun, you've got a $100 budget." So I went down to the local print shop and laminated these cards and printed 100 cards. It cost me 100 bucks, and I gave them out to the young people that came down to the beach, and the cards just turned into a ground swell. Became very popular.
The kids wanted them, moms and dads wanted them, lot of people wanted them, because I think, to people, a code is power. A code is core. A code is at the center of our existence. A code is just a collection of values, and that's what makes us who we are, the values that we subscribe to.
And these were simple values about perseverance, and courage, and honor, and bravery, and in the context of surf metaphors. So people just loved them, and we kept printing more, and then we started putting them in our clothing, and were making a lot of clothes back then, and tens of thousands of these codes and cards were sort of being distributed out into the community, and people started phoning me up and saying, "Hey, Shaun, why don't you come and talk to us about a code,” at businesses, and religious groups, and conferences.
The first conference I spoke at was a big leadership conference. 3000 people, and I opened it. I remember, and the next dude was Malcolm Gladwell, and the next dude was Richard Branson, and there I am, just talking about my twelve lines-- my code.
This is Shaun Tomson's Surfers Code. I'll tell you the twelve lessons, and then interpret it for you in case you're not a surfer.
Number one: “I will never turn my back on the ocean.” The reason why he says this is because turning your back on the ocean is dangerous. There could be rogue wave. There could be other surfers coming in. There could be a lot of things that are happening behind you, so never turn your back on the ocean. Keep watching the ocean. The ocean is a powerful force and it's going to clean you out if you're not careful.
Number two: “I will paddle around the impact zone.” By this, he means that you should stay out of the way of other surfers. After you've caught a wave and you're going back out, don't paddle back out through where other surfers are now surfing because you'll be a pain in the ass and you might get yourself or another surfer hurt.
Lesson three: “I will take the drop with commitment.” The drop is when you've popped up and you're going down the face of the wave, and you're either going to make it or you're going to crash and burn. Taking the drop with commitment means that you're not going to do this in a half-hearted way. You're going to go for it and expect to make the drop. You're not going to hesitate because if you hesitate you will not make the drop.
Number four: “I will never fight a riptide.” A riptide is a tide that is pulling water away from the shore, so if you are trying to get back in to the shore and you fight the riptide, you're going to lose because the ocean is more powerful than you are. You should not fight a riptide, you should just paddle parallel to the shore until you get out of the riptide and then it'll be much easier to come back in. The life lesson here is, there are some forces that are more powerful than you. Don't fight them. Avoid them.
Number five: “I will paddle back out.” I will paddle back out means that you are not going to give up. You could be crushed, you could be tumbled, you could be nearly drowned, but you have to go back out, face your fears and get back on that wave.
Number six: “I will watch out for other surfers.” Watching out for other surfers is a matter of courtesy, of etiquette, of doing the right thing. Watch out for other surfers.
Number seven: “There will always be another wave.” This is an important life lesson. There's always going to be other opportunities. It means that you don't have to be greedy, you don't have to be selfish, you don't have to always be taking the wave because there will be another wave. Don't get depressed, don't get despondent. There's always more opportunities.
Number eight: “I will always ride into shore.” I will always ride into shore means that, at the end of your session, you're going to catch a wave into the shore. You're going to get that last, great ride. You're going to quit on a high point. You're not going to paddle in, prone, like a loser. You ride in. You don't paddle in.
Number nine: “I will pass along my stoke.” Passing along my stoke means that you have this love for surfing, or entrepreneurship, or marketing, or music, or writing, whatever it is, but you're going to pass that enthusiasm along to other people. You love surfing, you're going to get other people to love surfing. You're going to share the stoke. Share the enthusiasm. Share the love for whatever you do.
Number ten: “I will catch a wave every day.” I will catch a wave every day means that you're going to be dedicated, that you're going to go out there. You're going to go out there if conditions are lousy. You're going to go out there if you're sick, or you're tired, or you're hurt. You're dedicated. You're going to keep grinding at it, and one day, you'll be a great surfer because you tried every day.
Number eleven: “All surfers are joined by one ocean.” Sometimes surfers get mad at each other. Sometimes they compete for waves. Sometimes it gets ugly out there. But really, we all share this one love-- the love of the ocean. We're all joined by one ocean. Remember that. It's not a zero-sum game.
Lesson twelve: “I will honor the sport of kings.” Surfing is the sport of kings. It was started by Hawaiian kings. So what Shaun is trying to express here, is that this is a great sport. It's a sport of royalty. It's a sport of elite people. It's a sport of people who love something. So this is not a mundane thing, this is not a boring thing, this is not something that you do without passion. You have to honor the sport, because it is a sport of kings.
And that's the twelve lessons of the Surfers Code of Shaun Tomson. At least that's how I interpret it, and when he listens to this podcast, maybe he'll correct me. But Shaun, when you listen to this, that's how I interpret your Surfers Code.
Ultimately it resulted in a book. I collaborated with a mate, Patrick Moser.
That's like me saying, “The first time I went surfing was with Shaun Tomson.”
That's sort of how it all started, and it took my life down a different path, and now, I get tens of thousands of people around the world to write their codes. From some of the big business dudes, to young students, to young entrepreneurs, and it's so empowering for people to do this process and then to share it, Guy, it's mind blowing.
I do this all the time. It's become my life now, and when people share their values and share their code, it creates this engagement that's mind blowing, because the single biggest social problem in the world today is lack of engagement. The single biggest social problem in the world today is lack of engagement.
And this little tool, that sort of I dropped into my life so many years ago, is a fundamental way that people can just get engaged internally with their purpose with what's important in their lives, find what's important, refine and define their purpose, and then externally when they read their code to others, they engage with people at a deeply emotional level.
You know what they call it in Hawaii?
How about this? I did this process at Kamehameha school, so the repository for Hawaiian heritage and culture. I think the school is one of the biggest endowments in the world. Amazing school, and I spoke in their chapel, which I don't know, 3/4000 kids, and the chaplain said to me, "Shaun, this is spirit language. This is mana. This is you speaking in the language of mana here."
It's amazing. When people write their code and they make these commitments to themselves, it's just beautiful, and I like to say now, my life has been through ups and downs as a surfer, businessman, lost my beautiful son. We lost our beautiful son, Matthew, in 2006, and this has just given me so much strength to carry forward on a new path, is just getting people to connect with their true purpose, their true values, and helping them connect with others and ultimately become more engaged internally, more engaged externally.
To solve this big, big social problem that results in a million deaths every year. Disengagement results in a one million deaths in America every year. 2.4 million Americans die. One million of Americans die every year from preventable deaths from bad decisions. Decisions related to being disengaged.
Eating bad food, smoking, drinking, dope, traffic accidents, homicides. Just being disengaged from the world and disengaged from others. So I love this gift that surfing has given me, and I just give it away. Every single day, and I love it.
A lot of your talks and writing is about achieving the state of “Flow”, so can you tell us how to achieve flow?
The term flow was developed by a Hungarian psychologist, a guy called Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and it's a state of optimal human functioning. It's a state of absolute connectivity internally and externally. It's a state of high performance. It's a state that athletes, creative people, achieve when they are operating at the absolute outer edge of their ability.
So for me, growing up surfing, I think I really started experiencing the flow state in the early seventies when I started riding inside the tube, which is the most amazing moment in surfing when you ride through this spinning tunnel of water. When you're riding inside this watery hurricane. When in dangerous waves like the Banzai Pipeline, you ride on the cusp of life and death which really heightens that experience.
There's an amazing poem by W.B. Yeats, famous Irish poet, and he wrote, "A lonely impulse of delight drove me to this tumult. I balanced all, brought all to mind. The years to come seemed waste of breath. In balance with this life, this death." So that closeness to death, I think-
You just happened to know that?
Yeah, I love that poem. I love that poem. I read that poem for the first time when I was fifteen years old, and just memorized it. It's called An Airman Foresees His Death. It's about First World War and this guy that goes flying. He doesn't fly for patriotism. He doesn't fly to kill. He just flies for the sensation. "A lonely impulse of delight."
That's very much about what tube riding is all about, is this sort of extra sensory sensation-- this feeling of being in absolute control. This feeling of pushing beyond your limits in the context of being connected with nature and riding this band of energy as well.
I felt that I could control the wave. I felt that I could really curve that wall to my will. I felt I could bend time and space. You feel that omnipotent. In some ways you feel god-like. You feel that you are just this... this superhuman in a way, and it feels like time is expanded. It just lasts so long, and then nothing, nothing can go wrong.
It's almost like you're plugged in to what's driving the universe, this energy socket. It's like we're all powered by our internal mojo, by our life force, but it feels like you're plugged in to a much greater life force and it just feels like you're electric, and that you're in your own... world.
And everything is effortless. Everything is perfect, and you're the master of this universe, this absolute state of flow, and I love the word “flow” that he used because it represents effortlessness, it represents this synchronization... with nature.
So the state of flow. How can you get the state of flow? I think absolute dedication, discipline, concentration, focus on the matter at hand. And... creative. It's not physical, it's not just physical, but it's creative as well. It's emotional as well. So you have this emotional, creative, plus physical, this internal and external connectivity that just makes it this existential experience.
And in surfing, you are the closest to danger too. You're riding over a sharp coral reef, so at any moment you could get smashed into that coral, so it just adds to and heightens that sort of sensory aspect of the moment.
I met Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. I've actually spoken with him at a positive psychology conference, and it's wonderful to meet this man who's developed this ground-breaking theory of wellbeing, because essentially, that's what it is, is if people can find their flow, can find their purpose, can find something beyond hitting their target for the next quarter, or I think people can be more engaged, and flow is certainly a state of engagement; of engagement of oneself, of engagement with nature, of engagement with creative acts and for this whole new field of positive psychology, they say that flow is part of a state of wellbeing and human flourishing that we all need to experience to be better people and to be more fulfilled, to be more satisfied, to ultimately just be better.
Oh, if we could only bottle that, huh? I mean...
Exactly. It's like stoke.
People laugh about that word “stoke,” but I love that word, and when I see people-- when I met you, I see how surfing has empowered you and how stoked you've become. You flip your book over and you see that picture on the back cover of your book there, and you just have this aura and you're exuding this feeling of just absolute wellbeing.
And so many people get this feeling in the water, and it makes people better, because surfing's not easy. Surfing's hard, and it's really hard to start learning at sixty-three, but when you get that wave, it is such a feeling of joy and accomplishment, and it's all part of this whole feeling of stoke! This feeling of exhilaration.
Shaun, I have never had greater joy, well other than being a father and husband, but in terms of an individual thing, than surfing. Surfing is just the most addictive thing you can do that's legal! I thank the Lord that I didn't come upon surfing until my sixties, because if I had discovered surfing in my teens, the whole arch of my life might have changed. I don't think I would have accomplished as much in business if I had found surfing early.
I will guarantee you, you wouldn't have. I've got to say, during my time as a pro surfer, I competed my first pro event in 1969, I competed my last pro event in 1989. I would say there was not one surfer in the entire world, I will categorically state, who surfed more than me, and I didn't do it because I wanted to win contests, I did it because I loved it more.
I've got a mate who lectures up at Stanford, and he said to me, "Shaun, I was lecturing to my students, my law students, and I was talking to them about success." And he said, "I'd spoken to the surfer guy, Shaun Tomson, and I asked him, what does he attribute his success to?" He said to me, "I loved it more." And that's what I did in surfing. I think I loved it more.
I loved my time in the water, and surfing just has that sort of addictive... but in a good way. Sort of addictive, obsessive quality of just wanting to be out there in the water, catching waves.
Before I took up surfing I played ice hockey, and ice hockey's also addictive because there's so much, especially if you start late. First of all, you have to skate, so that's a skill that you're not born with, so you have to learn how to skate and then you have to keep track of your stick, and then there's a puck, and then there's your four team mates, and then there's the other goalie, and there's five other people protecting that goalie. There's a lot of variables.
I thought hockey was hard, and then I took up surfing and, holy shit, so you've got to think of every other surfer, the ocean, the wind, the rocks, the tide, the size of the wave, and I thought hockey was complex, but surfing, my god…
Every now and then a great white shark will cruise you. You're part of the food chain.
I've never surfed in South Africa, so I don't know about that yet.
Yeah. But I think in that difficulty is the attraction and also that sort of obsession because it's not like you can just master it and go, "Okay, I've done that one. I've got that under control," and then move on. Even for me now, having surfed for decades, it's still a great challenge, and it still keeps me very achieved when they are operating at the absolute out edge of their ability.
So for me growing up surfing, I think I really started experiencing the flow state in the early seventies when I stared riding inside the tube, which is the most amazing moment in surfing when you ride through this spinning tunnel of water, when you're riding inside this watery hurricane.
But just to sum up. Over the last ten years since I've embarked on a new path and writing books and primarily speaking at organizations, schools and universities, I found that disengagements a fundamental problem in society today.
If you look at the latest Gallup poll, they did a 2018 work place study, eighty-five of employees are disengaged. So it's not just employees that are disengaged from the company's purpose and their own purpose, but it's young people too.
Young people are getting involved with bad stuff. I mean, the drug use is at an all-time high. School shootings are at an all-time high. People are just disengaged from their own purpose, and they're disengaged from each other.
So this concept, it's a social malaise and, I mean, there is a tenuous link between lack of purpose and lack of engagement, and making bad decisions. There is a tenuous link between lack of purpose and lack of engagement, and making bad decisions.
In my work over the last 1tenyears, I've found that a really simple way for people to find, refine and define their purpose, and it takes thirty minutes. You take out a sheet of paper, and you write twelve lines.
Every line beginning with I will, and you write your code. You write your values. You write what you're going to do. You write the next step. From a surfing metaphor you're writing about your next wave. It's a really simple process. It's free.
And when you've written your code, keep your code, because that's your guide post. I like to say that this code is your purpose in the context of twelve promises, and I like to say, there's a simple acronym for this purpose that you're writing, and it's AIMYST. Your purpose and your code is aspirational, it's inspirational, it's moral, it's yours, it's no one else's, and it's timeless. It's not like a SMART goal, specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-sensitive. It's timeless. When you write your code, it's forever.
I wrote my code twenty years ago. I still carry it around with me in my wallet, and I look at it every second day. If things go sideways, I look at my code and I going, “Wow, that kind of inspires me,” because it's my words. It's no one else's words.
So I encourage people, write your code, and then as step two, share your code. Share it with your family. Share it with your co-workers. Share it with anyone who you might think might need it, because your code can inspire others.
Is it always lofty things? “I will be myself. I will be kinder.” Can it be really tactical and small, like “I will walk to the nose?” I mean...
It's a variety. Generally it's... higher-level purpose. It's aspirational and inspirational, but often, like for a person to say a statement like, "I will be present." So I will be present is both aspirational and also it's both very tactical.
“I will be present. I will be a better dad.” How about that?
“I will be a better husband.” This is often written. “I will be a better husband. I will be a better dad. I will be a better mom. I will do what I say I will do. I will be a better team player.”
The words that people write are both goal-orientated and aspiration-orientated. I have never ever, in the thousands and tens of hundreds of thousands of lines of code that I've received from people, no one has ever said, “I will hit my sales goal.” Ever.
And I'll do a group of fifty tough sales people that are sales driven, and no one writes, “I will hit my sales goal.” Everyone just looks beyond that immediate target to a bigger target, even though that is in their minds, obviously. They're going to hit their sales goal. How are they going to hit their sales goal? Yes, by being a better team player. By doing what they say they will do. By being committed. By being accountable. I will be accountable. I will be committed.
It's sort of like the Zen philosophy-- You're trying to hit the target, but you're abandoning that hope of that fruition and it just sort of comes to be. It's beautiful. It's a beautiful thing.
When I do this process, Guy, I say to people, "Man, I've got the best job in the world." When I see people sharing this goodness, and it just gives you so much hope for the human condition, and it gives you so much hope for the world to see that while we're all different: Republican, Democratic, independent, who knows what, but when people write their codes, there's this collective... a wonderful spirit of very tactical.
So write it down. Twelve lines. Every line begins with “I will,” and share it, and that's what I'd like to say to sum up. Write your code and share it.
If nothing else, one lesson from this episode is that you should hang around Apple stores, because you can meet the most remarkable people there. The nerd you're sitting next to at the Genius Bar could be Woz or Shaun. One of the world's greatest engineers, or one of the world's greatest surfers.
My thanks to Jeff Sieh and Peg Fitzpatrick, who help me achieve the state of flow with every podcast episode, and thanks to the Apple Genius who told me who Shaun Tomson was.
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I'm Guy Kawasaki, and this is Remarkable People. And now, here's Shaun Tomson.
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This fun, informative conversation, for me, reinforces the ultimate value of understanding and becoming fully engaged with one’s passion and purpose. Its not just about setting goals. It provides a better understanding of how you can work to become excellent in what you love. You’ll also learn a little bit about surfing. Guy’s translation of Shaun’s 12 point code of “I Will” as applied to living your life, is especially valuable.
Terrific podcast with Shaun Tomson–thank you Guy. I’m working up my code:)
Terrific interchange with Shaun Tomson, Guy. Thank you. I’m working up my I will code.
one of the most insightful and inspirational conversations. Thank you
Great interview. I just wrote my I will code and put it my wallet. Thanks
Wow. As a kid growing up in Australia in the 70s I knew Shaun’s name. He surfed against some of our idols of 70s surfing like s Rabbit Bartholomew, Mark Richards, Ian Cairns and Peter Townend, . But I had no idea of the extra dimensions to his life. Thanks to both of you for a brilliant episode. I couldn’t leave the car … had to park and wait ! Mahalo for this one.