Interview with surfing legend, Laird Hamilton

Laird Hamilton is one of the world’s greatest athletes and a big-wave surfing legend. His wife, Gabrielle Reece, considers him to be in the 1% of the 1% — in a league of his own when it comes to ability. Physically built as if he was chiseled out of stone, Hamilton solidified his place in history with his epic surf at Tahiti’s Teahupo’o break back in August of 2000, successfully riding what’s known as the “heaviest wave ever ridden.” A feat that had never been done before. Though he has an abundance of athleticism and strength, Hamilton’s most potent wave is his mind. The attitude he demonstrates is infectiously inspiring. His accomplishments of making the impossible possible are true examples of will power.

Hamilton also has a tireless work ethic. He does things his way. He credits an early age visit to Waimea Falls in Oahu with his stepfather, as one of his first examples of living life to the fullest. At Waimea, he noticed the 60 foot cliff. When his stepfather looked away, he turned and jumped. It’s a spirit Hamilton says he’s always had. To be bold and live with no regrets.

I recently had the opportunity to converse with Laird Hamilton about his overall approach to life, surfing and just how much music influences his every day.

photo by tim mckenna

How important is music in your life?

Music has been an intricate part of my life since I was a little kid. My mom loved music. People ask me if I play an instrument and I say “no I surf.” People ask me if I do art and I say “no I surf.” I express my music and my art through my surfing. I always have a tune of the season. Whether I’m working out or on long endurance trips or even when I surf, I have a song in my head that I listen to on repeat that I basically have as a soundtrack. No matter what I do, it seems like music is always present.

How do you go about identifying what your song of the season is going to be?

It’s the way it moves me. It’s the rhythm or something in the music that has a symbiotic relationship to the motion. It’s like what makes a good soundtrack for a seagull flying or riding a wave? There’s a relationship between the music that you listen to and the way you perform. If you’re riding smaller waves and there are some tricks involved, it would have to be lighter and more melodic music, but if you’re on a giant wave and it’s more intense, there has to be more intensity to the music. That’s what I look for most in songs, to connect to an emotion and for it to match what’s front of me.

What is your current song of the season?

“Under the Desert Sky” by Operatica, that’s an incredible song. Then there’s a few by Stan Lee that have been ringing in my head a lot lately as well.

You’re a big proponent for not only following your passion but also living with passion. Do you find adding an element of music to what you do enhances your passion?

Absolutely. I think there’s a science behind listening to music and its ability to strengthen your performance. Not only in the way it affects your body but the actual activity itself is changed because when you listen to music, a certain part of your brain is occupied and stimulated, which results in you using different neuropathways more than you normally would. Classical music is a good example of this. You are forced to be more efficient with the techniques that you are using to accomplish the physical act itself. So there’s a true performance enhancing aspect and I definitely feel that.

In the Iconoclasts show you did with Eddie Vedder, you have an intense conversation about “Post Big-Wave Syndrome,” basically the aftermath of a big accomplishment. How do you recover and get yourself out of that?

Once you became aware of it, that’s half the battle. In the old days I would drink three bottles of red wine and run around like a wild man. (laughs) The first step in any problem is realizing that there is a problem. Then you start to execute a plan. It’s matter of taking care of yourself and paying attention to the basic things like eating well, getting good rest, getting work done and acknowledging that there’s a comedown off of it and then not indulging yourself into the depression but lifting yourself out through taking care of yourself. You have to be aware that you are fatigued and can’t work out as hard as you normally do. You also have to make a conscious effort to treat your family right because you know you are going to be edgy. After a while, you know what to expect and can see it coming so it doesn’t really have as much of an impact as it once did.

Are you a big Pearl Jam fan?

Definitely. It’s hard not to be. I’ve used a lot of their songs during some big winters.

You have always been adamant about surfing being an art form for you as opposed to a competitive sport, how did you arrive at that?

Part of it is I don’t like to be told what to do. I was never really good at that. I don’t want to be told when to go in and when to come back. I’ve always resented judgement. I think there’s confusion in it. Because surfing is an art form, how do you judge it? If it was timed or something more tangible, then maybe I could understand it. It’s an opinion of so-called experts and there’s always some kind of bias involved in that process. Just look at gymnastics. I was fortunate enough to be involved in surfing during a time where many of the surfers were artists. The competitive aspect of it was only one part, it wasn’t the entire thing. You can just be a great surfer. So the possibility of doing it that way was always available to me. There was also the fact that I watched my stepdad surf competitively. I saw what he and others in his peer group went through with the disappointment of the judgement and all the confusion. I vowed that if I ever had any choice to control that I would avoid subjecting my performance to a panel of judges. I opted more to subject my performance to an audience, which is ultimately the public, and let them decide. It all stems from my desire to not want to hurt my love of it. I wanted to make sure I didn’t ever do it in a way that would make me resent it or make me stop enjoying it. So I thought, the less rules that I had, the more opportunity I had to make it something I’d always enjoy. And I did my way, how I wanted, when I wanted, which ultimately reflects freedom.

When I look at people who navigate their path in their own way, the first thing that jumps out at me is the environment they are in. For example, the ocean or nature for you. I think about a pen and a pad or a computer for me and that seems incredibly boring. But then I realize the real environment is your mind. And if that’s the case, your environment is anywhere you want to be and anywhere you explore. It’s everywhere.

Absolutely. That’s it. You start to realize the discipline it takes. If you think of the ocean or the mountains, it seems like an easier environment to subject yourself too, but if you have the discipline, you can be anywhere and be in the right space if you are introspective enough. That’s not an easy thing. It’s a lot easier to subject yourself to a beautiful day in the ocean or a gorgeous day in the mountains, an environment that can do a lot of the work for you. Ultimately, it is just a state of mind no matter what. You are always alone in there too, it’s just you.

From your experiences, what advice do you give people in regards to finding your passion and just going for it?

It’s an attitude. I think one of the issues that we have is that no one has a sense of accomplishment. There are so few people who feel truly accomplished in a real human way. You have to make a conscious decision that you are going to give it all you have. Then you can experience what it’s like to really give it your all. If you are always restraining, then you are never going to get that feeling. Even if you’re doing a breath holding drill in the corner of your room, if you give it your all, when you’re done you are going to feel amazing. Sometimes you’re fortunate enough to be in incredible forms of nature where you are literally forced to give your all due to the situation, you don’t have an option not to do it. That’s a powerful and lasting lesson. But that formula of having the right attitude and giving everything you have; when you implement it into something you are passionate about, you are bound for success.

My full length— Alternative Nation interview with Laird Hamilton here:

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