October 26, 2013

The Surfer Stoke Project: Finding Happiness & Building Community. ~ Natalie Holtz

If you are a Gen Y-er living in Southern California, the word “stoke” is more than likely a part of your vocabulary.

The word’s most common use is in the form of an adjective:

“We are meeting at Typhoon at 10.”

“Sweet, stoked! (translation: Sweet! Excited!)”

Less common, and the only way I have heard “stoke” used as a noun, is when surf-savvy people talk about a phenomenon known as “surfer stoke.”

“Surfer stoke” is impossible to adequately explain unless you have experienced it. This aside, surfer stoke is basically a surfer’s passion for surfing. Surfers often talk about surfer stoke when an enthusiastic beginner rides a wave for the first time. This happens close to the shore in the white water, usually on a foam board, and it’s not pretty; but there is nothing like your first ride on a wave. Like clockwork (and to the chagrin of locals) that lucky nube, kook or Zonie is hooked.

She or he now has “the stoke.”

If you have never surfed, trust me when I say, there is no other feeling like it. I have skydived, bungee-jumped, and traveled around the world, but there is nothing like paddling, feeling gravity take hold and becoming part of a wave. But my project, The Surfer Stoke Project, is ultimately not about a person’s love of surfing. It is about chasing and spreading a stoke-like feeling, happiness basically, and I believe the most powerful form of this comes through human connection.

The way I use the word “stoke” in the title of my project is not as noun or as an adjective, but as a verb.

Dictionary.com defines stoke the way it is used here as: “to poke, stir up, and feed (a fire).” I started The Surfer Stoke Project because I lost my fire, and as far as I could tell, my friends had lost theirs too.

I graduated college in the midst of the worst job climate since the Great Depression. And without making too many excuses for ourselves, for my friends and I to pursue careers that we were “stoked” on was next to impossible. So, we took jobs we weren’t “stoked” on.

And trust me when I say, I have heard plenty of the “stop feeling sorry for yourself” talk.

“You should be grateful you have such a good job in this economy. Most people can’t even get a job”

“Work is not supposed to be fun, that’s why they call it work, not play;” and so on.

But I believed then, and I know now, that it is my responsibility—my paramount priority—to make a livelihood doing what a) involves my natural talents and allows me to share my gift with the world; and b) what makes me happy. There is a big difference between a job and a vocation; and though plenty of people said otherwise, in the throes of my post-college hangover I clung to hope that I could make money doing something I loved to do—that I could find true happiness.

So came The Surfer Stoke Project and my obsession with it. I have thought of little else since its pilot post. Seriously. It’s always in the back of my mind. And I am frequently shocked by the things I think about.

Surfer Stoke started out as a happiness project. I wanted to figure out what happiness was because I myself, was unhappy. But the goals and aims of the project have changed as I have changed. And I could never have imagined how far this, a blog I started, would take me.

I graduated from college in 2010 and moved back home to San Diego out of necessity. Like all 20-somethings, I went from being surrounded by people my age at parties and in class, to finding my sole social interaction being that between I and my parents. I couldn’t get a job, so I had a hell of a lot of time to think about what post-college life was like and what I had just left behind. A few months after I moved home, I compound-fractured my ankle skateboarding. I was bedridden for four months. I left the house about once a week to see a movie with my dad in my wheelchair. I gained 20 pounds.

I took the LSAT because law school had always been my plan. My Dad pushed me, wheelchair and all, to the testing site at SDSU. It would be an understatement to say I did not do well; but, I needed a plan and paralegal school sounded like a good idea. I don’t have any regrets, but I am about as suited paralegaling as Lindsay Lohan is for life coaching. I did it for a year and a half before I was done.

There is a happy ending.

Since the start of Surfer Stoke, I have interviewed Slightly Stoopid, surfed in a turkey costume on Thanksgiving; and left an eight-year career in the legal field behind. I started writing positive messages on the sidewalk in chalk; taking street portraits of Sanevery week; and reading scores of books about happiness and what is important in life. I meditated every day in November; went to 30 Starbucks locations putting up flyers for a random act of kindness week; and have written over 100 essays about happiness and following your dreams.

Highlights of The Surfer Stoke Project include listening to advice about life and happiness from surf legends and heroes of mine: Skip Frye, Bird Huffman, Tim Bessell and Jesse Billauer. These men not only gave me sound advice I will never forget for as long as I live, they touched my heart in their willingness to help me.

I have written to many people asking for interviews, so when DeLa of Slightly Stoopid actually wrote back, you can’t imagine how “stoked” I was. He even suggested we go for a surf.

Surfing with Slightly Stoopid? Is this real life?

DeLa shared with me his own trials—finding a baseball-sized tumor in his brain—and described how that experience changed his perspective on life and happiness forever. How it taught him to appreciate the little things: like ocean sets rolling in at Swami’s and the feel of sunshine on your face. Needless to say, that was an unforgettable conversation over coffee at Pannikin off the 101. DeLa gave me free tickets to Slightly Stoopid’s concert with Atmosphere this summer, and restored my faith in the good of people.

I don’t want to be famous. I don’t want to make a ton of money (although that wouldn’t be horrible). What I want is a more beautiful San Diego where people actually smile at each other. What I want is for young people who are going through what I went through, the after-college fog, to know that they are not alone in their feelings of confusion and desperation. I want people to recognize that we have so much more in common than we realize. That the psychological distress you feel—the doubt, the fear, the worry—is common to everyone. I want every person in the 20s and 30s boxes to know: you can find work that makes you happy.

When I started The Surfer Stoke Project, I was just another lost Millennial.

It’s 2013. Look around you.

The 20-somethings are having a hard time. And there is a lot of debate about whether or not we are spoiled; filled with a sense of entitlement. Or if in contrast, we are the future. The visionaries. But following your dreams became a focus of The Surfer Stoke Project because in the studies on happiness I read and listened to, I learned that finding a passion—a purpose for your life—is of paramount importance to capturing that bluebird of happiness. I hated being a paralegal, but it took me a considerable amount of time to figure out what I actually wanted to do. That interim period—that limbo land which all 20-somethings suffer through—is no fun, but you can figure it out. You can use your talents to do something you love and be paid for it.

I have found that what makes me “stoked”—what stirs a fire in my heart—is not what I thought it would be. It’s not money, it’s helping others. It is feeling solidarity between the members of my community. It is trying for the impossible and realizing, to my surprise, it can be achieved. And am I happier now? Eight months later? Now that I have searched for something that fills me with that feeling—that surfer stoke?

You’re damn right I am. 10,000 percent happier. 1,000,000 percent happier. I have discovered something that gives me the peace that surfing does.

I have found my stoke out of the water.

For the young people out there: I know it’s a bad economy. Trust me. I know. But you can fight your way to your stoke. You can work incredibly hard—experiment, volunteer, work your way up, take your circuitous routes—to dreams undiscovered. And guess what? It’s worth it.

You can’t even imagine how happy you will be on the other side.

And to everyone: life is hard enough. As human beings we more isolated than we have ever been. We are supposed to connect with one another. We are supposed to help each other. Connecting with others will make you a happier person. Helping someone else is a sure-fire way to get happy.

Nelson Mandela said, “A thing always seems impossible until is done.” I think together we can make San Diego a better place. But I can’t do it alone.


Happiness Interviews.

—Bird Huffman—

What is your definition of happiness?

Happiness for me, in simple terms, is a good open communication with God. In a nut shell, that’s it. If you’re comfortable with your creator, whatever you want to call him, her, it, whatever, higher power, for me it’s God. If you can be comfortable with him and know he has your back and that everything happens for a reason, that’s pure happiness in a spiritual sense.

In an emotional sense, or a human sense, having my wife, having a woman who shares my life and who has raised kids with me for 30 years. That’s another source of happiness, being able to share that with somebody is pretty amazing.

And then just being able to pretty much live a healthy, productive life doing something that I want. I’m not making a lot of money doing it, but it was never about the money for me. That’s pretty happy. Coming to work and being able to have a good time stoking people out. That’s pretty happy.

What does “stoke” mean to you?

Stoke… it’s funny ’cause it’s an old term that was used when I was a kid. It’s a surf slang term that went out of fashion for a long time and somehow it sort of came back in somewhere along the lines. But, to me, stoke maybe another word for energy, and maybe positive energy. You can’t use stoke in a negative way. It’s positive. It’s putting out good vibes. Putting out good energies and sharing in a lot of ways. Stoke and sharing, sharing and stoke it’s kind of the same. So it’s just another way of saying sharing, maybe or happiness, I don’t know. Stoke is stoke.

What is your advice to 20-somethings trying to find their way?

Number one again, I don’t want to sound like a bible-thumper or what not, but think about God, about a higher power. And take some of the pressure off yourself. Realize that we’re only here for a short while, and there’s a reason why we’re all here. Go with the flow sometimes. If it gets too hard to do, it’s probably because you’re not meant to do it. That doesn’t mean roll over and shy away from a challenge. But if you feel like you’re forcing something, sometimes it’s best to take a step back and reassess where you are and make some serious decisions as to if where you’re going is really where you want to go. Breathe deep, take life slow, and stay happy and stoked.


—Skip Frye—

What is your definition of happiness?

When you feel good. Happiness is feeling good—everything is in sync. It’s a pretty hard one because this world keeps you in trouble and stuff happens all the time. I think my faith has a lot to do with keeping me happy. I try and follow through on the principles that are set in the Bible. There are priorities there—family, friends and work. I try take care of those things first, and then all the rest—like surfing or whatever, comes after. You have to balance it out, but you gotta take care of the priorities first. If you don’t take care of the priorities, then even if you’re having fun, you’re not happy because you know you gotta take care of school, work, family or whatever it is.

What is your advice for 20-somethings trying to find their way?

You always need to do something that you really like. So many people are unhappy in the job they are in and are not doing what they really like. I think as far as a vocation or something, you’ve got to get something that you really like to do, no matter what it is. It doesn’t have to make you a million dollars or anything, but it’s worth a million to just to do something that you really like, and that you can get involved in.

You gotta enjoy what you’re doing. You gotta have a little bit of a passion for whatever you’re doing. Sometimes, something might be more economically viable, but you don’t have a buzz for it. I’d say, just go for something you have a passion for and follow through. Because your energy is going to be more involved in doing whatever you have a passion for. If you have a passion for something and you really enjoy it, just keep with it. It will follow through, and you’ll have fun, and you’ll be successful at it.


—DeLa of Slightly Stoopid—

What’s are some simple things that make you happy?

Again, there are a ton of those. It could be the sun on an 80 degree day… When I get home and my beautiful girlfriend makes me a beautiful meal to eat after being on the road. Something so simple. My daughter’s smile in the morning when I go see her. There’s nothing that you need that’s more than that. Or 10 days after the surgery when I got onstage at ACL (Austin City Limits), and I was able to play my horn, you know? That’s pure happiness. You feel like you’re on a mountain. And that’s because the proverbial wool that was over your eyes is gone. You don’t see all the stuff that’s in the way anymore, you just see that one thing: and say, that’s so simple, but I’m so happy to be able to do that it again.

But let me pick one. Surfing. Surfing because there’s a part of music now, that is work for me. Not that it’s a bad thing. Not that it’s a negative thing, but it can be an energy-consuming thing. And surfing is peace. You go and focus on nothing. You go and immerse yourself in somebody else’s world for two hours and feel about an inch big. You feel about this tall when you’re in the ocean.

What’s something you know about happiness now that you did not know at 25 years old?

I hate to tell everybody at 25, but at 25 you don’t know anything. I’m sure at 45 I’m going to say the same thing to my 34 year old self. If I could say anything to my 25 year-old self… I was always driven so that was good, but the getting caught up stuff was a waste of energy.

That being said, you have to walk before you can fly. Like if you could just all the sudden be mature without having to learn about what that actually entails… If you don’t put in the work its just like anything, its just like everything we’ve been talking about. If you don’t put in the work or the experience or the time, you’re not going to get it. You’re going to get to it eventually. To my 25 year old self, I would say you’re doing the right thing, but keep doing more of it.


—Tim Bessell—

What’s something you know about happiness now that you did not know at 25 years old?

Life is whatever you make of it. If you fear things, then you’re going to be afraid. If you embrace things, then you’re going to embrace them.

And you have to think beyond doubt. It’s like surfing. You can have fear about surfing, right? We all do. Everybody does. And when the surf gets bigger and bigger and bigger, your fear level goes up and up and up, because it’s natural. It’s natural to be afraid of something so powerful and potentially life-threatening or disabling. But, if you ignore that, and focus on the task at hand which is one step at a time: getting in the water; getting out there safely; getting yourself in the right position for success; taking off; not falling; not being freaked out; not being afraid… you usually don’t eat it. And if you do eat it, you’re going to eat it with a good attitude. If you eat it with a good attitude, you’re not as likely to get hurt or make bad decisions. I think it comes down to attitude. I really do.

There are so many different factors that come into play with happiness but if you appreciate what you have, you will be happy. If you value the things that you have and the things that you do – that’s the road to happiness. I think also you need to know when to say “no” to life choices that are wrong for you – that are super critical in your future. My suggestion is to decide what makes you the most happy and if you do it well, people will give you money for it.

What are your favorite surf spots?

I love Windansea, and I love Black’s. And I love Chasms, and Little Macaw. Those are my favorite breaks in Southern California. But I love Pipeline, Cloudbreak, and Uluwatu. There are a lot of places I have surfed that I just absolutely loved. Hanalei Bay is one of my favorite waves. There are so many. They are like women—there are so many to love.


—Jesse Billauer—

What do you think is most important in life?

The most important things in life are your health and your own happiness. Without those two things, you can’t put out positive energy. If you don’t put out positive energy, you’re going to get negative energy. Whatever you put out into the world is what you’re going to get back. And some of the most important things in life are finding out what your passion is, and believing in yourself. That confidence is what is going to take you to the next level. If you don’t believe in yourself, you’re not confident, and you’re not a leader, then that’s how people are going to perceive you. And you don’t want that.

What is your advice to 20-somethings who are trying to find their way?

My advice for anyone in their 20s: try all the things you feel you want to do. Find what your passion is. Don’t follow your friends’ dreams, your parents’ dreams. You have got to follow your own, because those are the ones that are going to make you the most happy. And finding out what you love, what your passion is, that will get you the money. Don’t be driven by just the money. If you have a lot of money but your job sucks, it’s only going to last for so long. But if you love what you do, the money will come, and come, and come, and it will just feel easy. When you love something, everything is just seamless.

Do you believe in a higher power?

Do I believe in a higher power? Yeah, I believe in a higher power. Like the beautiful storm system that brings in beautiful waves, or the power behind that fish “Going man, I want to bite your line today.” But, I’m not really religious, I’m more spiritual in the way that I think life is beautiful, and there is opportunity for everybody.

Maybe things happen for a reason, maybe, maybe. And if, right now, that’s the reason that I’m paralyzed, I think I’m answering to the God above. I think I’m doing the right thing. Because at the end of the day, I’m the only one who really knows if I’m doing the right thing, and I have to put my head on my pillow and fall asleep and share my life with the people that I love. And if I’m not doing it right, it’s going to be an uncomfortable, unhappy life. I’m super happy, and I’m good, so I must be doing everything right.


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Ed: Sara Crolick

{images: via thesurferstokeproject.com}

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