Kelly Slater looks back on a career that will never be rivaled. Photo: Aroyan

Kelly Slater looks back on a career that will never be rivaled. Photo: Aroyan

The Inertia

As the Billabong Pipe Masters are returning and the year is ending, I find myself once again in a reflective mood. Almost exactly two years ago, I took the decision to quit a steady job and embrace the uncertainties of freelancing in exchange for more time to travel, surf and write – activities which I felt were essential to my being and my growing. And while the seeds were certainly planted before, the watershed came from a single frame: the Pipe Masters 2013 finals, Kelly Slater dropping down the face of a bomb, bottom-turning down the nave of a 9.87 water cathedral dedicated to serendipity, chance colliding with sheer determination. With a drop that late he should have ended up mangled on the reef. But he didn’t. Crucially, when he committed, he did so with absolute confidence and won. Taking that lead, I wrote my resignation in the following hours.

“Courage” became the theme of 2015 for me, and surfing has been more inspiring than ever on that front: Mick Fanning fighting off a shark, Sally Fitzgibbon powering through a perforated eardrum injury and grabbing a win and Billy Kemper and Greg Long hurling themselves down monster waves at Pe’ahi.

But once again, it is Kelly Slater who reminds me of “vision, courage and commitment” as the year is drawing to a close. Not my words, mind you, but those of Todd Hymel, CEO of Actions Sports Brands for Kering as he introduced Slater and Outerknown at a conference on sustainable fashion a few weeks ago. The choice of words isn’t fortuitous. Disillusioned consumers have learned that such words tend to reflect a policy of “buy as I say, not as I do” and token sustainability projects haven’t distracted from core business models still based on incompatible market logic. The conference didn’t bring me any closer to knowing whether Outerknown would successfully change that. What it did do, was confirm that Kelly Slater would remain an inspiration for all through his own quest for knowledge, excellence and spiritual growth.

So if you are after some inspiration for new year resolutions, if you want tips on how to make things happen, read on from surfing’s own Mr Miyagi: Kelly Slater tells it straight. To the fashion and surfing industry, to the students, the pro surfers, to anyone who has ever had their heart in their mouth about taking the plunge and following their dreams.

Lesson 1. Take courage: Be thyself.
“When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be” Lao Tzu

If there’s someone who has found their true nature and taken it to the next level, it is Kelly Slater. Discovering one’s true nature is not something that brands do. That’s something people do. The Steve Jobs and Yvon Chouinards of this world embraced their own calling and everything just followed. Finding it is your life’s duty.

“Surfing has been my life and my work. If I could look back and give myself advice from 20 years ago, I’d say be patient, have good people around you, find what you’re good at and go for it, don’t let anything or anyone tell you differently. You have to be your best critic and you have to be your best believer.”

“If you have a certain level of fame, you have an obligation to use that as a platform, what else do you have it for? Is it just about making money and being an idiot? I had a good partnership with Quiksilver, they backed everything that I did, I had a team around me that made traveling easy, it’s hard to walk away from that. But I felt like there was no other option for me. You know when you have a feeling in your gut, it’s the right thing and you are going to do it no matter what, you don’t care if you are going to break up with a girl or a guy, if you are going to switch your job, you’re gonna do whatever you’ve got to do. Then it all falls into place.”

Lesson 2. Show fortitude: Commit
“Fortitude is the guard and support of the other virtues” John Locke

So you’ve found a new dream, a new you and now… Yes, that’s when the hard work starts. The day-to-day courage of going forward, in spite of obstacles, incomprehension or even hostility. Most brands fail at that. They are conformists and pleasers by definition. If you feel you are about to give up, go back to Lesson 1. And who knows, you might even be inspired by a little challenge, there is a reason why Kelly Slater has had such longevity on tour.

“I love a challenge. I like to be taken out of my comfort zone. You’re talking about risk and commitment, when I hear those words, my mind goes instantly to the ocean, because I am thinking of waves, reefs, inherent dangers that we have to deal with. Once you’re out of your comfort zone, it keeps you sharp, it challenges you to focus and bring the best out of your game.”

“The Outerknown launch was met with a lot of criticism, even hate. We launched at a very premium price compared to the surf market. In the market we sit in, the Mr Porters of the world, we are on the lower range of pricing, but the surf world is not used to those numbers. I got a huge amount of lashback, a big f*** you from everybody, nine out of ten people on my Instagram. That was tough to read. Tough to see that come back. But it all comes down to the volumes we are doing, the distribution, the sourcing, the factories we are using. It’s not easy, but as more people create such new companies, that’s when pricing changes.”

Lesson 3. Be open: Fail and learn
There is a crack in everything: that’s how the light gets in” Leonard Cohen

I have learned a lot from watching Kelly Slater compete. Everything is staged to command respect and inspire confidence, from the manly fist-bumps, the warm-up jumps, the signature squatting/praying on his board. But I learned even more as I watched him walk into an arena filled with sharp-tongued fashionistas, quick-witted students and cynical professionals who could have torn him to pieces with a single word. I watched him walk up onto a stage, sit uncomfortably on a plastic chair like a pupil at an exam, mop his eyebrow and say in a shaky voice ”I am a little nervous.” It dawned on me right there and then. It could go all wrong and end up in ridicule, but there he is, putting himself on the line, open to utter failure, open to the unknown. I realized it was the courage to make mistakes and suffer the consequences that make you surf places like Teahupo’o and Pipeline, the courage to make mistakes that make true champions.

“People had an expectation about what I might be able to bring because of the philosophies I have in life. I see what Outerknown is doing as open source. If other people want to join in, learn about the process, they can apply it to their company, it will help the environment. Hey, there may be some benefit for greater mankind. I would love to see this expand more into the surf market. I also purchased Firewire Surfboards which are the most sustainable surfboards in the world at this point, so I am totally open to other options. I keep an open mind, I am open to advice, I like to get engaged with people when we can have good conversations as adults.”


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