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Laird Hamilton on being a surfing legend and innovator: Part One

By March 28, 2018 No Comments

“A perfect, giant day is like a fine gem or something. It needs all the pieces to come together. And I think the elusiveness is part of what keeps you interested.”—Laird Hamilton

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Laird Hamilton (@lairdlife) is well known in the surfing community and is the subject of the recent, award winning documentary “Take Every Wave.” He was one of the inventors of Tow-in surfing, which allowed surfers to catch bigger waves than they could by paddling themselves. It has been one of the most significant advancements in surfing. In this two part interview, Mark talks to him about surfing and more.

Hear how:

  • Laird was bullied as a minority which he thought of as actually being an advantage. Because he was already outside the tribe, there was no point in seeking approval from anyone.
  • The Ocean can be tough, but it is an environment that rewards you for knowledge and understanding.
  • Laird believes that fear is a sign of intelligence. It’s managing your fear that is essential, rather than being “fearless.”

In this first part of the Commander’s interview with the surfing legend, find out how he’s been able to evolve himself from youth to maturity through surfing.

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Shownotes & Transcript

Hey folks, welcome back. This is Commander Mark Divine with the Unbeatable Mind podcast. Super-stoked you could join me today. This is going to be a lot of fun. I can’t tell you how stoked I am to have our guest today, Mister Laird Hamilton. Surfing legend. If you haven’t heard about him then you’ve probably been living in a cave.

But you’ll soon find out what he’s all about.

Before we get started, couple things. First, if you haven’t heard me yap about our burpees for vets challenge, let me tell you about it a little bit more here. Cause I think you’re going to want to help us out.

So we’ve committed to do 22 million burpees this year. And as you might imagine, I can’t do them all alone. I’m going to do a minimum 100,000–probably more like 120,000. I’m chipping away 300 to 400 a day. So far we’ve got several hundred people who have joined me. Either with a team or them just solo. And they’ve selected a number of burpees anywhere from 5 or 10,000 up to others who have selected 100,000 like me. And the idea is we’re going to do these burpees.

Get them in, come hell or high water. And we’re gonna pledge a little amount ourselves, and then you can have others pledge for you. Our goal is to raise $250,000. And to raise awareness of veterans suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress.

Because 22 a day… get that… 22 a day are committing suicide. That is unsat. And we gotta do something about it, because the government just hasn’t been able to help these folks who’ve served us and now are suffering. So we’re going to suffer for them, and help them out a bit.

So join me if you can. burpeesforvets.com. Check it out. And then send me a note or send my team a note if you need any help. If you want to join us.

And the other thing is I’ve just completed the 5th anniversary edition of my book “The Way of the SEAL.” I’m super-stoked. I added a chapter on leading in VUCA times. Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous. So that’s going to be super-cool.

As well as a chapter on building elite teams. And that is due out on Memorial Day. So you can go find more about that and pre-order it with some cool special gifts if you go to wayoftheseal.com.

Introduction

02:54

All right. Enough on that stuff. Today’s guest is a genius when it comes to crossover board sports–surfing… the primary influence behind tow-in surfing. Big in stand-up paddleboarding. Can’t wait to talk to him about how do you stand-up paddleboard between the Hawaiian Islands. That’s insane.

Also hydrofoil. When I saw that, I was blown away. I was like, “That is freakin’ cool.” “Surfer” magazine labelled him as quote “the sports’ most complete surfer, displaying unnerving expertise,” I love that, “in a multitude of disciplines. Flat-out surfing’s biggest, boldest, bravest, and best big wave surfer in the world today, bar none.”

So Laird Hamilton is an author and frequent speaker and he’s been in a bunch of movies. As you can imagine, “Riding Giants.” And then I watched last night his documentary. You gotta check it out. Called “Take Every Wave.” And excellent, excellent job there.

So Laird, thanks so much for being on the podcast and how are things going out in Hawaii?

Laird Hamilton: Well thank you for having me. And, well… it’s another rainy day in the wettest spot on the earth. Which probably makes sense actually.

Mark: (laughing) It really does actually.

Yeah, I spent a ton of time in Hawaii. I lived there for a year when I was in the SEAL teams. The weather can be unpredictable, that’s for sure. Specially this time of year.

Laird: Well I think that aspect of the weather–that unpredictability–which always kind of keeps you honest. I think I love that. I think for me that’s one of the things that makes me so connected to nature is just that kind of keeping you on your toes. Never letting you get too complacent. Not too predictable. It’s great.

Mark: Yeah, as a surfer I imagine and also someone kind of close to the earth–you really don’t have so much of a set schedule. I mean, you got things that you plan on doing every day but if the surf’s up, you go. You know what I mean, right?

And if it’s pouring down rain, you go to the gym, or you go train, or you do something else. Every day can be different, right?

Laird: Absolutely. Well especially this time of year. I kind of dedicate my focus to being in Hawaii and waiting for the surf. And it’s a little bit like the fire department. You just… you gotta be ready. You don’t know when it’s going to happen, but you know it’s going to be a big one. And so that kind of… that gets in the way actually, of a more regimented kind of routine. Which is what I normally do in the off-season. When I live in California.

You know, you can be more kind of disciplined and be real routine. but when you’re waiting around… when you’re waiting for the right conditions, the last thing you need to do is do a bunch of 500 burpees and then have a giant swell and be a little fatigued, you know? And compromise the performance.

Mark: How do you tell when the swells coming? Is it instinctual or do you have a network? Do you watch the weather channel? How do you know?

Laird: Well, there’s a few different sites… Actually all the NOAA reports. We have buoy reports. We’re watching… there’s some weather apps that… We know that about 5 days ahead of time that there will be a potential swell.

But we have a saying, right? It’s not ‘til you see the whites of the eyes… well, it’s just all hearsay until then. And how many swells have been forecast that never showed up? Or weren’t nearly what they’d said they were going to be. It seems like that happens more times than not.

Mark: And do you ever know when the biggie’s coming? Or is that just pure chance?

Laird: No, you know. You know when there’s a low pressure off in the Pacific that has the potential to produce the kind of energy that will make a monstrous swell. You know. There’s no hiding that energy source and so you can see that on the sites.

But again, there’s the variables of what it’s like when it gets here. The winds have to be right. The swell angle has to be right. There’s a lot of variables that go into getting a perfect… A perfect giant day is like a fine gem or something. It needs all the pieces to come together. And I think that’s probably what makes it… the elusiveness makes it part of what keeps you interested.

Mark: Yeah, no doubt.

Now our folks who listen to this… we always like to kind of get into the heart and mind of the listener and so that kind of takes us back to early childhood. So can you tell us a little bit about your childhood? And how you ended up in Hawaii? And your parents and kind of like what were the influences in your life that started to forge you at a young age?

Laird: Well, you know my mother got pregnant from her high school sweetheart. And it was the ’60s. And I think he wasn’t ready to be a responsible parent at 18, and decided that he was going to be a merchant marine. And my mom was left to kind of deal with having a child on her own.

And I was born in San Francisco. And actually at the University Hospital, cause I think they were doing some study on pregnant women and my mom got to get some free medical or something like that.

And then took me to Hawaii when I was a couple months old. And where I grew up but by the time was 4 or 5 I still didn’t have a dad yet. And I met a guy that I wanted to be my dad. And I introduced him to my mom. And they got married. And he became my dad.

And then…

Mark: Awesome. That was Bill Hamilton by the way, right?

Laird: Yeah. Yeah, my step-dad was a great… is a great surfer… was a great surfer in the ’60s from Southern California. A well-known surfer at the time.

Mark: Did he teach you how to surf, or were you kind of already on your way when he came into your life?

Laird: Yeah. I mean, his influence on me and my surfing was dramatic. But the fact is is that I was already playing in the shore break and actually when we first met, he took me on his back and body surfed into the tube–the barrel–the thing that attracts surfers, you know? Getting inside… in the wave.

Love of the water

10:07

Mark: Mm-hmm. We have something In common in that I’m a waterman. I’m not a surfer like you, but as a SEAL you can imagine we’ve gotta love the water. Be in it or on it. And I grew up around the water. And a lake actually. Upstate New York.

And so you’re clearly just like super-drawn to the ocean. And you spend hours and hours and hours in the ocean every day.

Do you think… or maybe have you reflected upon if you hadn’t gone to Hawaii, would you still have found big wave surfing? If you had grown up in San Francisco, and your mom had never moved and all that?

Laird: You know, I’m not sure. I don’t know if I… the thing is is that my step-dad Bill always said big wave riders are born and not made. And that you’re born with the instincts and the desires and all of that.

But the fact is that I might have found something else that represented a big wave, you know? Just given my personality. But I don’t know if I wasn’t in Hawaii… if I wasn’t raised here, would I have…? I might have done something that was big wave riding for wherever the area was that I grew up. Whatever that represents you know?

Mark: That’s interesting. Cause I’ve been thinking a lot lately about kind of purpose and what the Buddhists would call dharma. I grew up in upstate New York in a decidedly non-military family.

They did not like the military. My dad always put it down. He ended up joining the army, but that was because a judge told him to or else he’d have to go to jail.

So there was a lot of negative association. And yet I found the SEALs. I was drawn toward that, and my sense is that a lot of people once you get clear about… or once you start to really connect to that inner voice, then you’re going to be drawn to what you need to be drawn to. It’s interesting to think about anyways.

I don’t think there’s an answer though. So I was curious if had that experience.

Laird: Then it must be a good question.

Mark: (laughing) No doubt. Right.

Laird: (laughing) If there’s no answer that’s a good question. But I mean, listen. That probably speaks into a deeper even bigger thing like predestined and some of these other philosophic approaches to life, right? It’s like are you…? But definitely you’re drawn to certain things. And I was drawn to the ocean, but I know a lot of it was because I was around it.

My mom was from Southern California where surfing, at the time, was… kind of represented… because of Vietnam and the war and all that I think it represented this kind of other freedom that people were searching for in the ’60s.

Mark: Right. Another way to look at this I think is I watched the documentary last night. I thought it was extremely well done. So really great job with that.

Laird: Thank you. Good storytellers. Good director…

Mark: That’s great. But they had a lot of material to work with, right? If you had not been who you were, would tow-in surfing have still evolved?

Laird: I mean, it’s interesting, because I’ve been involved in a lot of these kind of, I call, innovations. And listen, I was doing stand-up paddling for 5 or 6 years… 7, 8 years… before anyone else… anyone period did it.

And so but the fact is we always want to think we’re special and unique. There’s a famous… I love the way when you connect it to it’s just a new application of an old idea. And if you think you have a unique thought after we’ve had billions and billions of people on earth would be kind of a rarity, probably. But that’s another one of those things. I think one of my… I wouldn’t say unique… but one of my skillsets is that I have a tendency to be able to understand some of the implications of what certain things will have.

So I can identify… a light goes off and I go, “Well, if you do that then you do this, and then that’s the outcome. And I connect that maybe to my mom, my upbringing and my mom really cultivating imagination. I think that was a big thing.

You know, when you live down the end of a road and you don’t have TV and you gotta be imaginative, right?

So in a way I think I connected to the imagination and then the ability to see things and go, “Okay, well if I do this, and I do that… that’s the outcome of it.” And really be able to…

Cause there’s other people that will “Oh I did that back when.” and duh-duh-duh. But I would be “Yeah, if that’s true then why didn’t you continue to develop the technique and bring it all the way to the point of what’s been done?” Kinda thing.

Mark: That’s interesting.

Non-attachment and resiliency

18:36

Mark: You know, when I watched that the way you guys depicted the evolution of the tow-in surfing, I was thinking of myself waterskiing. I grew up water-skiing. And it looks a lot like water-skiing. Like slalom skiing.

Laird: Absolutely.

Mark: And were you a water-skier? Is that where that idea came from?

Laird: I mean I wouldn’t say I was a water-skier. I’ve water-skied and I’ve done some barefooting. But I didn’t really grow up water-skiing per se.

But we would freeboard–which is water skiing, but we do it on surfboards. And free boarding was what you did as a surfer when you had a boat and there was no waves before there was wake-boarding.

So we would go out on a surfboard and get drug around. And that’s where it came from. But a lot of these innovations are hybrids, you know? Where you take water-skiing and you combine it with surfing and you have tow-in surfing, right?

You take something else, and I mean you take paddling and you take surfing and you put it together and you have stand-up paddling. It’s like these are just hybrids in a way.

Mark: Right. That’s pretty cool. I have a note here in my show notes from Allison that essentially when you grew up in Hawaii that you were bullied as a minority. And that’s really fascinating. Most people wouldn’t imagine a tow-headed white kid being a minority. What was that like for you?

Laird: That may be one of the things that’s had the greatest effect on me. In my life. Especially when you’re young and you want to fit in. You’re needing to be accepted. I mean, I think it’s a survival thing, right? You’re needing to be accepted by the tribe or the community in order to survive. And then you’re an outcast.

For me, it allowed me to sympathize with minorities… cause a minority’s a minority. Doesn’t matter what color you are. You can relate to other people, other minorities. And I think that it’s made me more sympathetic of minorities.

It’s also made me, I used to say–I actually still say–I really don’t mind if people are bothered by what I do. If they don’t like me for how I was born. So I think that’s allowed me to kind of go a few directions. I wasn’t looking for acceptance. I wasn’t going to be deterred by peer pressure or wanting to fit in and so I won’t do things against that. I think that’s been one of the mechanisms that’s helped me. Because I wasn’t looking for approval from the tribe. Because I was already outside of it. I was already outside that.

But then somehow maybe in the back of my mind, I’m looking for ultimate approval which is being good at something that where I grew up was considered… that was one of the tribal sports.

Mark: I can imagine it got pretty vicious out in the line-up. When you’re out there with all these locals, and all of a sudden here’s Laird. (laughing)

Laird: Yeah, the tow-head.

Mark: You know, when I teach resiliency I’ve come to learn that one of the biggest attributes of resiliency is non-attachment. Not being attached to what other people think, like you said.

Not being attached even to the outcomes of what you’re working on. Just go all in and throw your heart into something but don’t be attached… That sounds like that’s what you learned…

Laird: With a lot of help, yeah. I didn’t get to go to the class, but I definitely got it. (laughing)

Mark: (laughing) The school of hard knocks is the best one.

Laird: I got that resiliency part. That’s one of them for sure.

Mark: Was there a defining moment where you learned to stand up for yourself? Or you had like that “a-ha” breakthrough? You’re like, “Screw this. I’m not going to be a victim here.”

Laird: I think one of the things that happened really early at a very young age–and I’m not sure how many times it happened–but my mom had boyfriends and they weren’t always great to her. And I heard stories where I would… I’d be like 3 years old and I would just put my head down and run full speed at adult men.

Like I was not… I’m going to take them out. I’m not scared of you kind of thing. And so of course out of protection of your mom you’re going to be pretty courageous even if you’re 3 years old.

So I think I had some of that. I had a little bit of that. I had again… it’s like a recipe. Our lives are like a recipe. Everybody’s a different dish and it’s a little bit here and a little bit there. And when you did it and how all those things affect the overall soup. But I think that initiated me when I was younger to be willing to stand up against adults.

Of course, the guy would just give me a slap and I’d fly into the corner. But that’s probably what helped me be ready to take on those challenges.

Mark: Well, yeah. It’s almost like a metaphor for a wave. You’re going to get slapped down a lot before you ride it.

Laird: Even when you’re a so-called “expert.” (laughing)

Mark: Yeah. Exactly.

Ocean Lessons

24:38

I mentioned that I love the water and we use the water in our SEALFIT training. We put people in the ocean for hours. And I try to get people to understand how profound a teacher the ocean can be. What has the ocean taught you about life and things in general?

Laird: (laughing) I would say the ocean’s taught me all the important things. But definitely respect. The ocean’s taught me a lot of patience. Patience beyond my understanding.

It’s taught me fairness. It’s fair. The ocean’s an ultimately fair environment. It’s predictable. Reliable.

For me it represented this place of… I always said we’re all equal before a wave. It doesn’t matter who you are, or what you are. The wave doesn’t discriminate. Add being in that environment, you have a tendency to learn about it’s not personal. It’s not personal. Don’t take it personal. You’re going to be subjected to certain things and then you get rewarded too.

That environment rewards you for your understanding and your skill and your knowledge. And your relentlessness, and your pursuit.

Mark: So let’s talk about that reward. What is that experience? For someone like me who… I don’t think I could even stand up on a surfboard. I’ve tried but it’s not for me.

What is that reward for you? When you’re sliding a wave that’s 20 feet high.

Laird: The reward is the representation of… it represents a life’s pursuit. All the effort and time and energy that I put towards this skill… the reward is the ride. The reward’s the ride. That’s the reward. That you are able to ride the energy of the ocean. That you can be one the waves and you can ride them. And it represents all that.

And the ride. And the intensity of the ride. And the skill of the rider is a representation of all of the effort and ultimately your belief.

Mark: Right. It reminds me almost of like a horse tamer. Taming this wild stallion take so much patience and discipline and skill. But when you tame it, the horse rewards you with a ride.

Laird: Amen. (laughing)

Mark: How cool is that?

Fear and Reverence

29:48

Mark: So what about fear? We always have this saying in the SEALs that a SEAL who doesn’t feel fear is about to die. And so we experience fear, we just manage it and be able to direct it towards performance. Do have a similar relationship with fear?

Laird: Absolutely. I mean I always talk about… when I get asked about being scared I said, “Well, fear is a sign of intelligence.” In my opinion. When I hear about “No Fear,” and somebody not being scared I question their intelligence. If that thing over there can come over here and smash me, and then I don’t have any fear of it, then I’m not assessing it correctly. I’m not respecting it, I’m not assessing it correctly. And I think fear and respect, and fear and reverence. Those are intertwined.

And understanding. If you understand something then you should have a certain level of reverence for it or respect. Which is ultimately connected that there should be a certain amount of fear of it.

Doesn’t mean that you… that the fear blocks you from like you said, your performance. It should only enhance. I mean, I talk about, if you want to see what fear does, just watch an antelope run away from a cheetah. And at the end of the day, you see how well an antelope runs cause the cheetah’s don’t get them every time.

And so at the end, the enhancement to your senses that you can tap into with fear. And again, I think it’s a learned skill. I think there’s a certain disposition that has a certain… there’s a certain disposition in people that allows them to be naturally better at it. But I do believe that no matter who you are, it does need to be nurtured. You have to refine that skill. That skill… which ultimately means you have to go be in scary situations and see how you respond and get better at those.

But then never getting to the point of complacency too. Because that’s when you’re vulnerable. Soon as you start getting complacent that’s when you’re going to get it.

Mark: Yeah, absolutely. I was having this conversation with a guy who’s a wingsuit jumper recently. And he’s got, like, 20,000 jumps and every jump he approaches the same way. He’s got this meticulous planning for risk management.

And we were talking about how all these people jumping into that domain are getting killed. Because they’re not doing that.

And I wonder if we see the same thing happening with big wave surfing?

Laird: Yeah, I think we would see a lot more people getting killed in big wave surfing if it didn’t take the level of skill it takes…

Mark: Just to get there.

Laird: Yeah. I think that’s one of the things that protects us a little bit. I think that innately the ocean has a certain amount of forgiveness that it’s hard for us even to understand because it’s water. We’re made of water, kind of thing.

You know, there’s flotation devices and other things. Water rescue techniques with jet skis. But the fact is that the waves themselves are elusive. They’re not mountains that just are there that you can jump off any day. You can’t just take the plane and fly up and jump out of the sky. I mean, that’s every day. Always, anytime.

And these waves are so elusive and hard to get to. And to be in the right spot at the right time, even for people who are the most skilled at it, they’re always working at trying to be there for those moments.

So I think that protects it too. Doesn’t allow the volume. But I tell you what. If you had as many people out in giant waves as you do jumping out of airplanes and jumping off of cliffs, there’d probably be a lot more people passing away out there.

Mark: Yeah. I bet. Interesting.

Has your risk profile changed? I imagine the answer is yes, but I don’t want to answer for you. But now that you have kids? You have 3 daughters, I think, right?

Laird: Yeah. I mean, I think that my risk profile really has changed more because I’ve grown up. I’m a little more mature than I was 30 years ago, and so I’m a little… I think my experience and maybe some of that internal need has been… I wouldn’t say dampened… but you’ve kind of fulfilled some of it.

But a lot of it has to do with experience and understanding. That you’re just not maybe putting yourself in the situations that had the kind of risk before you knew some of the things that you know.

So what was risky 20 years ago, for me might not be as risky today because of my understanding. But kids definitely… my daughters I love them, I… but I don’t think it would be fair to them for me to say I used to do dangerous things and then you guys came along and I stopped doing that. They didn’t ask me… they didn’t ask to come in the world. I brought them in the world, and I think that it’s not fair to put that on them.

Now I think people do that but that’s connected to actually they were probably ready to stop doing the things that they were doing already. And it was more like… it was easy to justify. “Well, now that I got kids, I don’t do that anymore.” That’s great to say, but in my opinion the fact is that… if you can say “I have kids and that’s why I don’t do this anymore” it probably connected a little bit to the fact that you were probably done wanting to do it.

Mark: You know what? You’re absolutely right.

IN fact, you just proved a point to myself. Because I used that same excuse when I stopped jumping… Parachute jumping when my son was born. My son, by the way, was born in Hawaii. He is 25% Hawaiian. We adopted him out of Maui General. He’s 18. Great kid.

Laird: Your son’s 18 now? I have my youngest daughter Brody was born at Maui Memorial.

Mark: No kidding.

Laird: Yeah. Yeah.

Mark: That’s cool.

Yeah, so when he came along, I was like, “Aah, maybe I’m done parachute jumping.”

Laird: yeah, when he… when your son was born you said you were done parachute jumping?

Mark: Yeah, right. But the reality was it was actually equal parts that I was not able to do it enough. And so I started to feel the risk profile going up–or the risk factors going up. Because I wasn’t feeling the air as much. I was too detached from it.

Laird: Yeah. You weren’t in the rhythm. You weren’t in the tune of it.

Mark: Right. Exactly.

Laird: But that’s for me…. And again, part of one thing I do think is important for the kids is that I think it’s important that they see… cause I get asked that now that you… part of my desire not to (barking)

Kava! Sorry, I got a dog. And he’s very alert when there’s humans.

But part of what… one thing I want my daughters to see from me is what I look like when I come back from being in the surf and in the big surf. Because I think it’s important for your children to see you in your essence, right? To experience what you look like. How you are, when you are doing the thing that you do. The thing that makes you feel the most alive. The thing that you’re… I quote “The Jerk,” the movie all the time… your special purpose.

So you come back from doing your special purpose. The thing that you do. The thing that you’ve cultivated and refined and dedicated your whole life to. What does that look like?

Because I think it’s important for them to be able to see what it looks like in someone so maybe someday that they can figure out how to do it for themselves. How to find the thing that brings them that fulfillment. The thing that brings them that joy. The thing that brings them all the things–the agony, the thrill, all of those things that encompass you when you do the thing that you do.

Mark: Right. I love that. I totally agree with that. And what they see in you is probably peace of mind, contentment, exhaustion…

Laird: Absolutely. Which they can go “Wow.” Cause no matter what we think, we’re monkey see, monkey do. That’s how we work.

We’re creatures and that’s really what we do. And that’s why I think that whenever anybody does step out of that and you’re one of the monkeys that does without seeing, then that becomes kind of interesting. It’s like the first guy to break the 4 minute mile. The next year 27 people break it. But that was that first guy was unique because he was… he saw that he could before it was possible.

And so I think that’s… but we definitely are the monkey see creatures, and so you know, it’s good for your kids to see that. It’s good for them to experience you and your essence. And whatever that is.

Maybe it’s that you’ve been through, past all that stuff. And you don’t need to do that stuff anymore. And so now you’re actually a content being still. And that’s good too. I mean, it’s just all…

Mark: That’s very cool.

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