Force of Nature: Mind, Body, Soul, And, of Course, Surfing

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About the Author

Laird Hamilton is known as the guiding genius of crossover board sports, and he is truly amazing in the water. His size–6’3″, over 215 pounds–makes him seem indestructible. Laird is the elder son of sixties’ surfing legend Bill Hamilton and is a throwback to that time when surfers prided themselves on being all-around watermen. His mother, JoAnn, gave birth to him in a “bathysphere” with reduced gravity as part of an experiment at the UC Medical Center in San Francisco. JoAnn was also a surfer and decided to move the family from California to Hawaii when Laird was just a few months old. They lived on Oahu’s North Shore and later in a remote valley on Kauai, not far from one of the world’s best surf breaks. He learned to surf between the ages of 2 and 3 on the front half of a surfboard; and at age 8, hi father took him to the 6-foot cliff at Waimea Falls, where Laird looked down, looked back at his dad, and jumped. “He’s been bold since day one,” says Bill, “and hell-bent on living life to the extreme.” He lives in Hawaii and California with his wife and three daughters.

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We’re all human, which means we all have the same opportunities and the same struggles. It’s all about that voice inside our head that we call our mind–what it leads us to believe determines how we act and how our lives unfold. Which is why when I catch myself thinking bleak thoughts, I’ll go out and do something physically strenuous, like clear brush or move rocks or paddle down the coast.

I believe that our thoughts have real, powerful effects on us. For instance, let’s say you wake up one morning in a rotten mood. You don’t know why, but you’re just looking for a fight. Well, in my experience, the moment you walk out your front door you’re going to find someone who wants to fight you back. He’ll probably be standing right there. On the other hand, if you’re just thinking about enjoying yourself, you’re probably not running into a lot of complications. Everything comes down to attitude: You determine what yours is, and the external world will reflect it back.

Whether that’s good news or bad news depends on you–on your outlook. If you think you’re not able to do something, guess what? You’re right. What if you believe that everything’s for the best and see the beauty all around you, and you have faith that things will be good? You’re right, too. If you cultivate something in your mind, you give it a life. It’s really that simple.



When I was 10, my step father took me to Waimea Falls on Oahu. I walked to the edge of a 60-foot cliff, and when he looked away, I jumped. For whatever reason, from the start it’s been in my spirit to do those kinds of things. I’ve always wanted to jump from the highest place, experience the greatest thrill.

I may be an extreme case, but we all need to take risks. I think it goes back to our primitive state, our deepest DNA, when we were hunters and had to avoid getting eaten by large animals. Survival meant risk. The need for adventure is part of human nature. It’s in every cell of our bodies. When some people hear the word risk, they think of life-or-death situations that they’d rather avoid. But risk doesn’t always have to be life threatening. It can be as simple as putting yourself in an unfamiliar situation.

Some people don’t need to go out of their way to seek risk. If you live in Afghanistan, for instance, you’re not in need of any extra uncertainty. But for those of us who are fortunate enough to live in places where our lives are relatively safe, I think if we challenged ourselves–even scared ourselves–once a day, we’d be better people. It helps to have that little jolt of perspective to remind you that life’s fragile.

The distinction between being courageous and being reckless is an important one. “Courageous” means you’re able to calculate what you’re doing. In my life I’ve taken calculated risks, as well as inadvertent risks. I’ve seen 18-foot-long tiger sharks in the water with me; I’ve been trapped under waterfalls. My mom was surprised that I made it to my 20th birthday. I guess it’s the whole nine lives thing. There were a few close calls, but I’m still here. I’ve got a few of those nine lives left.



FEAR: NOT TO BE FEARED Every so often, in an article or an interview, someone describes me as “fearless.” In my opinion, that’s like calling me an idiot. Fear is a natural response. Without it, we wouldn’t survive. If you’re never scared, then you’ve either never been hurt or you’re completely ignorant. The idea that fear is something to deny is completely misguided.

Forget your emotions around fear for a second and look at the simple reality: It’s an energy source designed to increase performance. Adrenaline and the natural hormones your body creates when you’re scared are more powerful than any drug. The ability to harness it constructively, that’s the tricky part. Once you start to understand fear, it becomes something you can tap into. In my experience, fear usually prompts me to make really good decisions. I’d even go so far as to say that it gives me power.

How do you use fear to empower yourself? You don’t fight it, and you don’t overanalyze it. Thinking too much about a frightening situation causes your mind to start chattering, and it gets in the way of your body.

At Teahupoo, Tahiti, in 2000, I faced what has been, to date, the most dangerous situation of my career. I’d surfed this wave before, but never at the size it was that day–and neither had anybody else. The thing about Teahupoo is that it’s a massively thick, deep, fast-moving barrel, and when it breaks it heaves so much water over the falls that it practically drains the reef. And the noise–you’d think it was a neutron bomb exploding. If you fall in the wrong conditions at Teahupoo, you’re looking at a serious problem–possibly the last one you’ll ever have.

When I let go of the rope after being towed in, I knew that the wave I’d just caught was a monster. But a split second later, I realized that it was actually a two-headed monster, unlike anything I’d ever ridden. My mind tried every trick in the book to get me to doubt my ability to survive what everyone could see (and I instinctively knew, even though it was behind me) was a potentially fatal ride. But if I had listened to those panicked thoughts and jumped off that wave, I probably wouldn’t be here to tell you not to let panic dictate your actions.

If you think about it, the flip side of fear is commitment. You can spend your life fence-sitting because you’re frightened of something bad that might happen–or you can launch yourself into it with all of your conviction and all of your intelligence. Here’s my advice: Meet up with your fears. If you’re afraid of sharks, go learn all about sharks. Get into the water with one. If you respect fear, face it straight on and act anyway. What you’ll find isn’t terror–it’s exhilaration and the moments that you never forget.

NEGATIVITY: WE ALL GET IT, BUT THAT DOESN’T MEAN YOU HAVE TO TAKE IT Negativity is going to crop up in your mind. I think that’s an unfortunate part of being human. It’s as sure as daytime, nighttime. The question is: How much life do you give it? How dominant do you let it get? You have to make sure that the positive has more power and gets more time in your head than the negative. If you let that negative side take charge, you’re going to find yourself in a hole.

I can be as negative as anyone, but when it comes to what I’m doing in sports, that stuff is out. For instance, if I’m surfing and I start thinking about wiping out, that is getting pushed out of my brain. I’m consciously removing that thought; that’s not something I’m giving any kind of life to. Mental discipline is key–and when it comes down to it, negativity is the easy way out. Quitting: easy. Daring to triumph: hard.



I think I’m a pretty good athlete. I mean a good athlete. But it’s a humbling thing being with someone like Laird. There are the 1 percent athletes–the people who are at the top of the college sports scene; the ones who become pros. About 1 percent of talented athletes will make it that far. But then, every so often, you get a Tiger Woods. He’s like the 1 percent of the 1 percent–a different breed. And Laird is in that group. I’ve been around a lot of pro athletes, and I’ll watch him training and think, That’s just a whole other existence going on over there. Being around someone with that talent, whether it’s in sports or art or science or whatever–you don’t get in the way of it. You’ve got to support it because it’s unique.

When we met, I knew exactly what Laird did for a living. As far as being nervous about it, I think I just accepted a long time ago that it’s part of his destiny. You couldn’t live with him if he wasn’t doing it. It’s all part of the deal. Over the years I’ve come to understand surfing and to appreciate how Laird approaches his sport. He has a lot of control and a lot of speed. His board is pushed into the wave rather than chattering across the face. Often he’ll ride in a deeper position than other surfers, farther away from the shoulder, the wave’s outside edge.

Even though the situations he’s in can be radical and powerful, there’s something straightforward about his arena. Nature isn’t as capricious as humans are. The ocean lets you know up front: “I’m dangerous. And I’m coming from the north.” It’s consistent that way. I’m not going to say there aren’t days when I say, “Hey, could you just call me when you get in? Please just check in with me.” Because you do have those days.

Your mind has 100 percent power over your reality. Whatever you believe, that’s what you are cultivating. So if you’re hurt and you’re funneling all your energy into thinking I’m getting better, I’m getting stronger–then that’s what will happen. At the same time, if you’re thinking Poor me. I’m wounded. I’m never going to be the same, then you will end up with the fruits of those seeds.

If you’re plagued by negative thoughts, here’s a simple cure: Do something. If you think about it, negative thoughts are a luxury. They’re a way to avoid getting down to work. We are each our own greatest inhibitors. We stop ourselves. The irony is that if you just get out of your own way, you’ll do really well. And the sooner you face the work, the easier it’ll be. The work will actually be the fun part.



No matter what it was–whether someone was bitten by a shark, fell off a cliff, or anything–I’ll bet 95 percent of the time anyone who’s had something bad happen to them had a feeling right before. That prickly feeling on the back of your neck that says, “That’s a dangerous spot.” It’s an intuition we’ve developed as a species because it’s been necessary for survival over millions of years. And yet animal instinct isn’t something we pay much attention to on a day-in, day-out basis. To a large extent, modern life has removed the necessity of being on our toes. The average person loses a lot of those signals.

I’m consciously aware of trying to cultivate my instincts. The less you react to them, the less you have them. They become numb. And I think most mistakes come when you don’t pay attention to that inner knowledge. Ignore it and you end up going against your natural instincts. Learning to interpret what that sixth sense is telling you is as important as living and dying. I learned that the hard way.

Three years ago, I was heli-snowboarding in the Caucasus Mountains in Russia, between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. Little place called Sochi. I was with a group that included other snowboarders and some guides, and before we went out, we’d had this safety meeting about how to walk near cornices, which are always dangerous because they can collapse–and there’s usually nothing beneath them but air. The guides stressed that if we saw stones (which can indicate an edge), we should always walk on the inside of them. But as we made our way along the steep traverse, the guides weren’t doing that. I had a funny feeling, a sense something wasn’t right, and I hollered at the guy in front of me. At the moment I yelled, I fell through a cornice, and due to nothing but luck, I landed on a rock shelf a few feet below. (Had that shelf not been there, I would have fallen 1,500 feet to my death.) And then I was thoroughly pissed. These guides were supposed to be getting me down safely. I was going down all right: the long way down, and the wrong way down.

When we’re not operating in life-or-death situations, a lot of times we tune out. If you’re sitting behind a desk all day, you don’t have to be hyperaware. But it’s important to exercise your instincts like you would a muscle. If you don’t try to tune in to every-thing–smell, hearing, sight, vibration–you can get dull, and that might come back to haunt you when it matters most.

You can start by consciously turning your senses on. Be still, stay rooted in the present moment, and you’ll start to become aware of all kinds of subtle things you hadn’t noticed. Try to detect very faint smells. Or train your eyes to adjust more easily to the dark. The more you play with your senses, the more you’re aware of them, the more you’re in them. And the more you use them, the better you get.



In general, people don’t want to try new things if they think they’re going to be bad at them. The tendency is to say, “I haven’t done that, I don’t need to do that, I’m not good at that. You guys go on ahead.”

But the truth is, you have to be willing to subject yourself to failure, to be bad at something, to fall on your butt and do it again, and try stuff you’ve never done. That’s the ideal mind-set in sports and in life–you have to be willing to have people laugh at you at first.

Why? Because you need to keep challenging yourself. That’s the whole idea behind seeking out things you’re not good at: It forces your mind to engage. When you reach a certain level of proficiency in a sport or activity, your effort level is really diminished. Your body has adapted. For me personally, cross training–snowboarding, windsurfing, and mountain biking–keeps me physically and mentally sharp. Learning different sports always has a positive effect on my surfing. When you’re a novice at something, it takes more focus and more concentration.

When you’ve got something mastered, it takes a lot for you to have fun, but when you’re new at something, you have fewer expectations, so it’s easier. Trying something for the first time, you may think you’ve just been out fumbling around for a few hours. But in truth, you’ve worked your brain, your nervous system–your entire body–more than you know.

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