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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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.