I Will...Lessons From the Surfer's Code

What a surfer's story can teach us about the promises we make to ourselves about the future.

A number of years ago a surfing friend of mine, Glenn Hening, invited a group of kids to a surf contest at my adopted home beach of Rincon, a famous break that straddles the county lines of Santa Barbara and Ventura in Southern California. Glenn is also a teacher and environmentalist, and Rincon was facing a severe sewage problem during winter rains—the time of year Rincon breaks best. He was holding an event to bring attention to the issue and to encourage homeowners along the beach to modernize their aging septic systems and help clean up the water. He asked me to present each kid with a keepsake to remember the day—something that would encourage them to become more environmentally aware—and he gave me a budget of $120.

My wife, Carla, and I ran an apparel company at the time—Solitude—and it would have been easy for me to grab some gear for the kids or use my contacts in the surf industry to get a pile of surf-related products donated. Instead I went home, sat down in front of my laptop, and quickly wrote out the twelve most important lessons that surfing had taught me about life: twelve lines, 105 words, each lesson beginning with the words “I Will.” It was all done in twenty minutes. I had no fixed objective, no targeted number of words, just the idea of getting something down that I thought would be useful and important to these young people. The lessons fell into a natural order, one by one, like a twelve-wave set that I’ve often seen at my favorite break in the world, Jeffreys Bay in South Africa. When I was finished I titled the lessons “Surfer’s Code.”

I had the lessons printed onto one hundred plastic cards at a local shop, and it cost me $120—right on budget. I handed them out to the kids at the event. I told them that I didn’t create the code, I simply wrote down lessons that were already out there—in my heart and in the hearts of many surfers—but that sometimes get overlooked in our busy lives. After my little talk the kids asked me for more cards for their friends and family.

The cards turned into a groundswell, and I began giving talks at various schools and other gatherings about the life lessons that surfing had taught me. I handed out more cards and even put them in the pockets of the boardshorts that were in our Solitude clothing line. The talks eventually evolved into a book called Surfer’s Code, in which I told the stories I’d learned from traveling around the oceans of the world and how I used surfing as a metaphor for riding the waves of life. I gave motivational talks from Las Vegas and Abu Dhabi to Johannesburg. I spoke to multinational corporations like Disney, Cisco, and General Motors, and I shared the stage with successful businessman Sir Richard Branson and best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell. No matter the audience I always stressed the fundamental lessons that surfing had taught me about life. I talked about a simple code I had learned that helped me deal with fear, defeat, and personal tragedy.

This book was inspired not by the surf or by my international speaking engagements but by a small group of kids I spoke with at Anacapa School in Santa Barbara, California. I’d been invited to give a talk by Headmaster Gordon Sichi, a surfer I met out at Rincon one day. After I spoke with the students and engaged in some lively discussion, I decided to give them an assignment. I told them I’d written the original Surfer’s Code in twenty minutes—a quick exercise to capture the essence of what was important to me. I told them, “Create your own code. Take twenty minutes and tell me about all your goals. Begin every sentence with the words ‘I Will.’” About a week later Gordon sent me their answers. They were beautiful, sensitive, full of humor and hope. In essence the kids wrote a series of promises they had made to themselves. 

This book is about many things—faith, courage, creativity, determination—but above all it’s about the promises we make to ourselves about the future. I hope these stories will inspire you to believe in yourself and to believe in the power that each and every one of us has to effect change through the power of “I Will.” Once you do that, you begin to shape your future and achieve whatever you wish for.

Editor’s Note: The following passage is an excerpt from Shaun Tomson’s new book, The Code. Visit Amazon for more information or to purchase a copy.
Photograph by Dan Merkel.

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