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Laird Hamilton and the Art of Surfing

A lesson in intrinsic motivation from Laird Hamilton.

Laird Hamilton is considered by many to be the greatest surfer of all time and one of the greatest athletes in the world.

Laird Hamilton, used with permission
Source: Laird Hamilton, used with permission

He's known for “big wave riding,” particularly his Aug. 17, 2000, ride on the “Millennium Wave” in Teahupoo, Tahiti, which is considered the biggest wave ever. He's also credited for helping to invent an unorthodox form of surfing called “tow-in surfing,” which allows a water vehicle to tow someone into large waves, so that they may gain enough speed to ride it.

So it may have come as a surprise to many that Hamilton decided to stop participating in surfing competitions.

But this surprise would belie a fundamental misunderstanding about Hamilton because, for him, surfing has always been much more of an art, a creative process for which the motivation is intrinsic, rather than a sport dictated by external reward. In fact, Hamilton felt that competition was actually detracting from his progress. And in looking at his approach to the art of surfing, we can understand how one’s own internal drive, backed by years of hard work, can help anyone achieve his or her goals and dreams.

Intrinsic motivation can be defined as the drive that comes from within a person and the satisfaction that is derived from the activity, which is determined by internal rather than external rewards. There is a long history of research suggesting that higher levels of intrinsic motivation are associated with increased creativity. Further, research suggests that intrinsic motivation is a key factor in predicting health behaviors such as adherence to exercise regimens.

Hamilton describes the feeling as a deep sense of internal drive that he's had for as long as he can remember. “I have something in me. I’ve had it in me since I was little,” he told me. “I don’t accept things just because that’s the way it’s done. I have a need and an urge inside of me to do stuff. Ultimately, my pursuit in trying to ride giant waves or my desire to be innovative; it’s really for me.”

For Hamilton, his ability to find intrinsic motivation has developed in tandem with a clear sense of purpose. He described finding a sense of purpose as “[f]inding what brings you a feeling of accomplishment” and how that is a big part of contentment. Hamilton references the movie The Jerk, about finding his "special purpose."

“I think I was fortunate at a very young age to find ‘my special purpose,’ which was ultimately, being in the ocean and riding waves," Hamilton said.

Research suggests that individuals who have a more clear and defined sense of purpose live longer. Part of the explanation is that we feel better, and are more motivated to engage in healthy and productive behaviors if we feel that our life has meaning and direction.

During our discussion of intrinsic drive and purpose, Hamilton quickly linked the role of dedication and hard work in his approach to achieving his goals. “I believe that there is a formula to success and a formula to achievement. In the formulaic process of achieving, you set yourself up. It’s all that preparation, the hard work, the learning, the success and failure, you pick yourself up, and you do it again. And then over time you achieve whatever it is that you’re set to achieve. And each time there is a new situation, you repeat that formula until you get proficient and until it becomes a new skill.”

And failure is part of the path to success. Hamilton explained, “You don’t get nearly as discouraged as you did the first 100 times you failed. Because you’re used to failing and then achieving. Injury is a great teacher. You get hurt and wonder, ‘Is this leg ever going to be the same? Will I be able to do the stuff I do?’ And then you get better, you rehab and your leg is stronger than [it ever was]. Then the next time you get hurt it’s worse than you’ve ever been hurt and then you come back stronger than you’ve ever been.”

What Hamilton is describing could be considered either conscientiousness, the ongoing focus on goals while delaying gratification, or perhaps grit, which is the tenacity and distress tolerance needed to manage the pain and suffering that one often experiences when pursuing goals. Conscientiousness has been shown to predict healthy behaviors, such as exercise, and increased longevity, and grit has been linked to improved academic performance.

In describing the importance of pain tolerance, Hamilton said, “What you can endure is what you can achieve. So in the ability to achieve great accomplishment, there’s enduring great suffering. And there’s really no way around that. By taking what can be described as an “acceptance-based” approach to distress and pain tolerance, Hamilton concludes that, “what you learn is that you succumb to it. And then at the end of succumbing to it, you end up finding that it’s not as bad as you thought it was. The ocean is a great teacher of that. It’s relentless in its discipline. It doesn’t stop when you ask it to stop, and you can’t run away from it when you’re in it.”

While Hamilton sees the road to success as starting with having a purpose and dreaming big, a key for him is to be realistic about one’s efforts. “I’d be lying if I said that when I was a little kid I didn’t say that I wanted to be the greatest surfer that ever lived because you have to have those dreams, right? And you have to believe that you can do the impossible to ever have a chance of doing the possible. But within that is still the realistic expectation along the way. So, if I jumped off a 90-foot cliff, I think I can jump off a 100-foot cliff. And then through that process you start to gain confidence. You start to cultivate that skill. And over time, things I didn’t think I could do become more realistic.”

It may seem surprising for someone who attempts what are considered unattainable feats to speak in terms of being realistic. But Hamilton feels that his high aspirations are best understood in the context of his years of practice and development. “When I set out to ride the biggest wave in the world, I was also raised at the most aggressive beach in the world. I learned how to swim at three and had my own surfboard at five, and by the time you’re 25, you’ve been surfing for 20 years. So when I set out to do something that seems impossible, from where I’m coming and where I’m walking, I’m looking at every split step on the way to the top of the mountain not just the shot of me at the top where someone goes, ‘Well, how realistic is that? You looked at the top of the mountain and went there.’ They weren’t with me for every single step along the way and during the discouraging moments in the process,” he said.

As Hamilton strove for more “impossible” goals in surfing, he explains that he wasn’t driven by competition. “My desire to ride giant waves is purely out of my own desire for me, and not because I want to do it more than some other guy. He acknowledges that many people are motivated by competition and references a quote by Ayn Rand: “A creative man is motivated by the desire to achieve, not by the desire to beat others.” Hamilton said, “A creative person gets achievement through accomplishment and a competitive person gets achievement through beating others. And those are two different things.”

Hamilton’s decision to stop participating in surfing competitions makes sense in light of the fact that in certain cases where someone is invested in a particular activity, the external reward can actually undermine intrinsic motivation. Research suggests that for those who experience intrinsic motivation to engage in a task, the presentation of outside reward may actually undermine this effort.

Hamilton also feels that a focus on social comparison may have hindered his goals. Research suggests that people who make frequent social comparisons often tend to experience negative emotions.

“I normally don’t use other people as a gauge of where I’m at.” Hamilton talked about how doing so can lead you to disappointment: “I always took responsibility for the outcome on myself…and, granted, there are some situations where it’s not completely in your control. But ultimately what is in your control is how you feel about it. And at the end of the day, when you put your head on your pillow, if you feel a sense of accomplishment, then it’s easy to re-enact that.”

“And then, inevitably, you’re doing these miraculous things that other people are not doing or haven’t done before because you never did use that as part of the equation,” he said. “It was never about ‘Oh, no one’s ever done that, so I’m going to do this thing that no one has done.’ It was never about that. It was always about you trying to figure out ways of feeling accomplished and doing the things that you wanted to do.”

In fact, Hamilton found that the supposed extrinsic rewards of competition are a distraction to the point of being a nuisance. “It’s a complete nuisance. And I was fortunate enough to identify it,” he explained. “I go, ‘Yeah, this isn’t worth it.’ It’s not bringing me closer. It’s not like, if I won, I’d be like, ‘Wow, I’ve accomplished my goal’ because that wasn’t my goal at the beginning.”

To be clear, it’s not that Hamilton ignores competition. “I don’t want to just pretend like I’m just this artist guy. Because at the end, I think that there’s a competitive side of me. And one of my favorite terms is ‘Victory through attrition.’ I always have loved that concept. And when I was young, somebody would want to be competitive, or they’d want to fight. And I’d be like, ‘No, let’s just go to a cliff, and we’ll start jumping. And when we get to a point where you won’t jump, and I will, well, that means that I win. That’s a very defined definition of competitiveness. Which is that I’m willing to endure more, go further, jump higher, last longer, whatever it is, to the point where you are just alone — the last one standing. And then there really is no question. Like time, it’s a very clear position of achievement,” he said.

Hamilton then went on to talk about the book, Natural Born Heroes by Christopher McDougal and the concept of how competition is ultimately entertainment. “In our evolution as a species, we’ve been entertaining each other only for the last 10,000 years, when we were abundant enough and we survived evolution enough so that we could be comfortable enough that we could have entertainment.”

Hamilton described how the competition also interferes with the social support and cooperation that can be developed through working together, rather than against one another. “But we were around a lot longer before that. We had to have camaraderie, we had to have compassion. We didn’t beat each other up to the point where we would posture and dictate aims. We needed each other to survive. And coming from that, it’s the whole concept of lifting each other up and having everybody do the best they can do because everybody succeeding and achieving was in the interest of the species. That only when there became too many of us, and we became too comfortable and too bored because of the environment, there wasn’t enough resistance and hostility against us to have to work together, then we created entertainment and competition, and all this other stuff that bred these things that really weren’t so natural to us.”

Hamilton is not alone in his approach to his craft as art rather than sport or commodity. Perhaps not ironically, this is an issue that has been discussed by Hamilton’s friend and partner in an episode of the Sundance Channel’s “Iconoclast” series, musician Eddie Vedder of the band Pearl Jam.

At first blush, it may seem that the pairing was made because of Vedder’s prominence in music and love of surfing in combination with Hamilton’s prominence in surfing and love of music. But a closer look reveals a deeper connection between the two. More than two decades ago, Vedder was very outspoken about his belief that music is an art form and his distaste for judging art, which he accurately views as subjective and biased interpretation. Vedder and Pearl Jam have often discussed the tension between their music as an art form versus as a commodity. In fact, it has been suggested that they named their album “Vs.” to comment on this issue, mocking the competition of their second album not only to the success of their first album but also to Nirvana’s album “In Utero.”

Hamilton explained his relationship with Vedder: “Eddie Vedder and I, for example, we have a certain kindred spirit about us. What I’ve found is I have more in common with certain people at certain levels of achievement in different fields than I do with other people that do what I do. People go, ‘Oh, you’re a surfer. You must be friends with this surfer and know that surfer’ and really 99 percent of the surfers I don’t relate to. Because ultimately… I’m a contrarian. When you’re a contrarian, you have more in common with other contrarians than you do necessarily with people who do what you do.”

In fact, Hamilton experienced much of his distaste for the commercial side of his art, and saw how it interfered with his relationships during the filming of “Iconoclasts.”

“At one point, I remember we were filming everything we did. We were filming every surf session and I started to really resent it. Because I felt like it was a distraction from the art. Now it’s the filming of the art and not just the art. And it was starting to get to me because I felt that it was really distracting me from the pure focus from what we were doing. And so I was wishing for a special day where we just didn’t film. And the irony was that next winter we ended up having the biggest day to date that we’ve surfed and it was just too big to bring anybody out. And four of us went out and rode the biggest wave we’ve ever seen or surfed. And it was bigger waves than we’ve seen anybody else surf thus far as well,” he said.

“But there were no photographs of it. And in a way it was such a great feeling for me, and it brings me joy to this day that I have that in my pocket. Just because we don’t have footage of it and just because people didn’t scrutinize it and just because somebody didn’t say you rode the biggest wave and just because there’s no Guinness record book and we didn’t get the shot, does that mean it didn’t happen? Oh, no, it happened, it’s for real, and we’ll never forget it, and we have it with us. And in a way, that’s almost the truest artistry. Like those Tibetan monks that do those art castles with the colored sand. They spend a month doing it and blow it away one day. In a way it’s almost like that.”

“Now, I’m still living in a world where I have mortgages and bills to pay and Eddie Vedder still has bands that have to earn a living. Your art can’t just be for you and the purity of it. There is something that you sacrifice in the capturing of it, in the presentation of it, in the scrutiny and public of it. There is something that you lose in it. But there is a balance that you can stay true to your art and still be out there doing things. Because in the end, the painting that no one sees that’s in the closet doesn’t make it less incredible. And the fact that people see it doesn’t make it less incredible,” Hamilton explained.

As Hamilton continues to work towards his sense of purpose, he is discovering that this issue surfaces as he is parenting with wife, former Olympian, Gabrielle Reece.

People ask them if their kids surf or if their daughter is going to play volleyball and Hamilton says, “First of all, if I could raise a content human, then I would feel like I fulfilled my job as being a great parent. If you look, there are really not a lot of content humans. And I have probably learned to become more content over time.”

“I want my children to find their special purpose. And they need to find what brings them fulfillment.”

Hamilton puts an emphasis on introducing their children to many opportunities that might then capture the children’s interest and attention. “It’s all about exposure. First of all, I expose them to me doing what I do and what it brings to me…They see the trials and tribulations and the feelings of accomplishment, the joy, the agony and all those things that come with what I do and what I’ve done.”

“Right now, my one daughter says, ‘Dad surfs. I don’t want to surf.’ Fine, there’s no pressure. But do you like the ocean? Do you like boogie-boarding? What do you like to do? They’re on motorized vehicles of all different kinds. They ride horses. They’re in jiu jitsu. They shoot guns. They shoot bow and arrows. Go to dance class, art. We’re just creating the opportunity to have incredible exposure in all these areas to maybe find something…and they say, ‘Wow, I identify [with] what that brings him. So maybe I can identify something where that’s bringing me a similar thing.’”

To be sure, Hamilton feels that his children should apply the same rules of dedication, hard work and practice that he has in his pursuits. He described: “There’s no easy way around it. You want to get stronger, you have to work until you’re sore. You want to ride farther, you’ll have to ride until you’re sore. In the process of learning, there’s going to be a lot of aches and pains. And the more comfortable you get in that state and the better relationship you have with that, the easier it is. And then pretty soon, you’re like, ‘Well, that’s just part of the process.’”

In addition to helping his children, Hamilton enjoys the process of helping others through this process. “I find that now through time what I really do enjoy is helping others achieve things that they thought they couldn’t. It helps me in my process of doing it myself. It’s confirmation again of the process. And in some ways it’s in the betterment of everybody. At the end, we all win, because we’ve upped our own bar, wherever that bar may be. And we’re not using the other person as reference for where the bar is. You’re using your own bar.”

And Hamilton looks forward to continuing his journey, knowing that he will continue to allow his intrinsic motivation and sense of purpose drive him to continued achievement.

“And in the end, it’s so that you can put your head on your pillow and feel that accomplishment.”

Michael Friedman, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in Manhattan and a member of EHE International’s Medical Advisory Board. Follow Dr. Friedman on Twitter @DrMikeFriedman and EHE @EHEintl.

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