Kook. In Surfing parlance, a kook is an absolute beginner. But there’s a much stronger subtext here than the single word indicates.
At best, a kook is a fuck-up. They have no construct of the social norms of the sport, much less the skills to perform on even the cleanest of days, so they tend to excel at pissing off veteran surfers. At their worst, their inexperience makes a kook dangerous to their selves and their fellow surfers. At their best, they are an obstacle, something to work around in the water.
But we all have to start somewhere
We all start as kooks. It doesn’t matter what we’re doing, whether it’s sports or starting a business or learning a new skill, we all suck when we start out. Through the work, through practice, through reflection we gain experience and learn how to perform appropriately. We learn the social norms of what we’re doing, and we eventually develop our personal style that is unique to us. Like most things in life, it takes time and energy and we have to be patient with the process. All this gets much harder as adults.
When we see a child getting started, it’s cute, but when we see an adult taking on something new, we feel embarrassed for them. Because, of course, they should feel embarrassed by their own ineptitude. Of course as we are learning something new, it’s a completely vulnerable situation, especially as adults we are supposed to appear as if we have our shit together and get it. After all, we’ve spent years becoming adept at other things, so our egos seek the protection that comes from doing the things that we know. Nobody wants to be the FNG (fucking new guy), so we protect ourselves by falling back into the routines, tasks, and habits that we know. Starting over seems the great impossibility.
Never Stop Learning
A few years back, I decided I wanted to learn to ride a longboard skateboard. Nothing fancy, just wanted to control the board, do some slides, maybe learn a few simple tricks. If you’ve never seen one of these, as their name implies, they’re longer than a standard skateboard and can vary in shape and design. They’re great for pushing and great for building speed while going downhill. Longboards have their own group of aficionados who can do all sorts of incredible things on their boards. There tends to be less nut-busting on longboards as compared to skateboards just due to the size and weight of the board. Less grinding; fewer airs.
I bought the board, because I’ve always wanted to learn to surf. I know it’s not surfing per se, but the skills that I build on the land board could easily help me translate to surfing. It’s a baby step toward an ultimate goal. Plus, it’s the opportunity to learn something new.
Just purchasing the board was a step outside of my comfort zone. I tried to do it online, but I did select the option to pick it up at the store. I didn’t want to expose myself to too many people who were more knowledgeable than myself about my new hobby. I didn’t want to have to answer any questions or admit that I was just starting out on the thing at age 35.
But when I showed up at the shop, it turns out that the order was canceled. A few weeks had lapsed since the assembling of my board had been complete, and when I didn’t show, they put it back into inventory and refunded my money. But standing in the shop, I was faced with a question: did I want them to pick the items and assemble it there?
That meant I had to linger in the shop and potentially get caught up in a conversation about something I had little or no knowledge of. That worried me. I knew nothing about these guys, but the thought of hanging out with them in the shop intimidated me. They had been nothing but nice to me while I was there and diligently tried to track down my missing order and answer every question. But when faced with the possibility of revealing that I was a kook, my fight or flight response was suggesting flight.
I had them build it in the shop while I waited. I kept conversation to a minimum. All was going smoothly until a question arose: do I want the spacers?
Spacers? What the hell are spacers for? I was having trouble recalling the function of spacers. I had read about them when I did the research on long boarding. I heard the clock on the wall tick, tock, tick. The guy looked at me.
“Are you going to do slides?”
Of course I was going to do slides. What long boarder didn’t do slides? That was the point of long boarding (though I was mostly thinking I would use it to cruise around).
“Ok. I’ll go ahead and install them.”
I was practically sweating about the fact that I nearly revealed my ignorance. Not just ignorance of the equipment used in this sport, but ignorance of the sport in general. I knew vaguely what a slide was and had even watched a few videos on how to accomplish it, but I had never done one or knew anyone who had. It is a fundamental long boarding move, that much I knew.
They finished assembling the board, and I do have to admit that the final product was beautiful. So it sat in the back of my car for two more weeks before I took it out, before I tried it. It’s not that this was my first foray into skateboarding — I had done it for a time as a teenager, now twenty-some odd years ago. So my hesitancy was about something other than the board.
I couldn’t lie to myself and say that I didn’t have the time. My wife and sons were 2500 miles away. I was alone in a new city where I knew very few people. Even with putting in many hours of work, I still had time. I simply chose to spend it doing other things. So it was something deeper.
But it’s mostly about ego. So much of the time, the ego gets in the way. That’s very often what prevents us from learning something new, especially as an adult.
It’s only natural that ego would be the problem. Our egos are our feelings about ourselves that evolved from a built-in sensor linked to physical survival to today’s ego, which is almost entirely determined by social acceptance. Our ego is good when we think we belong to the group, and it’s bad when we think that we do not meet the requirements for membership of the group. That group could be the club of professional writers that we see in the magazines, or veteran surfers. It’s whatever social circle we feel we want to join.
As ego is still associated with a sense of survival, that primitive part of our brain that tells us to fight or flee, so our feelings are very intense, strong enough that we may choose inaction, and instead sit on the beach, watching the surfers in the lineup, rather than participating in the lineup. Paddling out and giving it a go means that we’re going to look foolish in front of the group of people who we really want acceptance from.
In my case, I drove around with the board in my backseat for weeks. It’s not as if I forgot about it — it’s 42 inches long and takes up more space than two children back there, and without the mess. It rolls back and forth, striking my doors as I turn and go around curves. I most certainly knew about it. But I didn’t want to embarrass myself. I didn’t want to let others know that I was brand new to this sport, that I had no conception of what I was doing. It was about self-protection.
I started to wonder: even though I had just undertaken a huge risk by moving 2,500 miles across the country, where else was I holding myself back in life? I thought about my writing. Writing is a core component of my daily work and an art that I spend a lot of my personal time engaged in. And while I think about submitting my work for publication, I rarely do. But why? Was the answer as simple as ego? I decided to dive into the problem.
The ego problem worsens as we age and we gain a stronger sense of our self. As a child, we have not yet developed the inhibitions. Our existence is carefree and easy. We act on impulse with little recognition for how those actions will make us appear to others. So it’s easy to be a kook.
As an adult, it’s hard to be a kook because our ego is so powerful and our sense of self so strong. We know our limitations — at least we think we do — because we’ve spent so many years working within them. We’ve allowed them to define us. To prevent potential damage to the ego, we avoid doing things that will expose our vulnerabilities. We don’t want people to know what we really think, to question what we’re doing, or worse yet, to judge us for what we do. But it’s this exposure that allows us to grow stronger.
What’s a shame is that this is entirely a head game. It’s about what we think others will think of us, and most of this thinking is pure bullshit. What you start to realize is that most people will support you in your endeavors if you are open and honest with them about what you’re trying to achieve. Some will say nothing. And a few may even judge us for what we do. But this judgement is an ego-protective reaction to their own sense of self and is quite rare. In fact, the vast majority of people are so caught up in their own lives that they’re unlikely to notice a 35-year-old dude who struggles to ride a skateboard.
Knowing that there are just a few outliers, and that their reactions are purely based on their sense of self (their own egos) can be used as motivation for our own actions. I find that whenever I’m starting something new, or even working just outside of my comfort zone, when the inner critic begins throwing judgement on my inchoate work, I pause, recognize that reaction and why I’m doing it, then take action to counter the critic. We shouldn’t let the opinions of a few outweigh the support of many. Plus, if we are sitting out, we are losing out on the many great benefits to learning something new.
Let it fly
A few beers into the evening, I decided to grab the longboard and give it a ride (I’m not condoning this behavior). It was dusk, nearly night, a few stars overhead, the moon on watch and the western sky fading from black to purple to the last embers orange along the horizon. Never having skated a longboard before, I chose to walk the half mile to a local elementary school with a slightly sloped parking lot. This time of day, it was wide open and the only people passing by were the occasional suburbanite on their evening jog. It would be a small audience at best.
I set the board down on the parking lot, gave it a couple of pushes, then I climbed on. There was not a lot of skill demonstrated in these first few pushes — they were clumsy, my knees were wobbly, and getting onto a moving skateboard proved to be a greater challenge than I had anticipated. My clumsiness aside, I could almost feel the dopamine flooding my brain as I tried to figure out how to control the board, how to balance my body, how to make it turn. What was the most natural position for my feet? How much pressure did I have to apply to the balls of my feet, to my heels to exercise some control? How do I position my body? How much bend in my knees? All these processes were firing, and I was feeling it as it rolled over the blacktop and down to the bottom of the hill.
A couple more times to the top of the hill and back down, and I was beginning to get a feel for the ground and the way that it translated the topography through my feet. I could feel the peaks and valleys of the rippled parts of the pavement and the nose low profile of going downhill. When I turned it, I quickly realized that I had to swivel my hips but that my shoulders should almost always be perpendicular to the direction of travel. I was thrown off balance by a few of the maneuvers, but I stayed on the board most of the time. I was making small gains and using my prior knowledge to figure out something new.
We build knowledge by creating relationships. When we’re learning something new, especially as an adult, we almost always have some prior knowledge we can access to start the relationship building process. For me, it was thinking about the dynamics of a sport like hockey, which I had been playing since I was a child. Using the information about how I position my body for different movements on the ice allowed me to quickly get a feel for body position. Accessing knowledge on physics that I had acquired through school and my work as a pilot gave me a sense of how the board would behave and interact with the three-dimensional world. I then recombined this knowledge into something new, something that was specific to the longboard and continued to experiment.
A few times I slowed to the point that I couldn’t maintain a turn, and I lost balance, falling off the board but landing on my feet. Speed was important. In low speed situations, I had to lower my center of gravity to maintain my footing on the board. The concave shape of the board made it easy to get my feet locked in, but it was still necessary to react to what was happening in the moment. To maintain control of the board in most conditions required a deep stance.
I was so heavily concentrated on what I was doing the I nearly forgotten that I was in a parking lot of a school somewhere near Portland, Oregon, basking in the glorious moonshine. For once, I could say that I was legitimately stoked.
The Urban Dictionary (if you believe that it has any sort of legitimacy) defines “stoked” as “to be completely and intensely enthusiastic, exhilarated, or excited about something. Those who are stoked all of the time know this: being stoked is the epitome of all being. When one is stoked, there is no limit to what one can do.”
This is an incredibly concise definition for the Urban Dictionary, with some beautiful poeticism, too. It actually got me thinking about what it means to be stoked.
Stoke comes from the Dutch stoken, to feed a fire. It originated in the early 1600s and first changed meaning in 1837, changing to, “to stir up, rouse.” It was first recorded in surfer slang in 1963, meaning enthusiastic, extending from “to eat, to feed oneself up.”
Like most people, I had heard that word associated with surfers, but for the first time in my life, I was experiencing it. Riding the board was so exhilarating that, at those moments, nothing else mattered in life. I was able to shut off my brain and concentrate fully on the board and my body and its movement through the world. Nothing else mattered.
In 1975, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi used the word ‘flow’ to describe a mental state of intense concentration and full absorption in the activity that you’re doing, so much so that you eschew the rest of the world, even refusing food or water, to remain immersed in the activity. In this positive psychology concept, the person in a flow state inherently enjoys whatever it is that they’re engaged in at that moment.
The Chinese have a word for it — Wu Wei. Literally translated, it means “not doing.” Not laziness, but action free of desire, motivation, or intention. It’s a state of being when our actions are effortlessly aligned with the ebb and flow of the natural world. This state of doing and not-doing is what Lao Tzu called the highest state of virtue in verse 38 of the Tao Te Ching.
For those practitioners who attain this state of mind, their actions align with their nature. They move without moving, act without action. This is what it means to be stoked, to find flow. For me, when I was a child, being stoked was easy.
When I was a teenager and even into my early 20s, I regular slipped in and out of flow with minimal effort. No passport required. Great bursts of inspiration would come to me and I would feel inspired to write. Focused, I would sit down at my computer and begin typing. The words arrived with little effort. I wasn’t writing self-consciously. I was writing what begged to be written without conscious thought of what I was writing.
I would stay up nights riding the wave of energy. It was a joy to be absorbed in what I was doing. Then there came a time when my practical mind would interfere. “It’s getting late,” it would say. “You should go to bed. You’ll regret this in the morning.”
And at times I would snap out of the flow state, then I would go to bed, all the energy of potential wasted. Once it’s gone, you can’t get it back.
So when your mind reaches a flow state and you find you’re stoked by what’s happening, hang on to it for as long as you can. Don’t let go. Because that flow state is the state of perfect equanimity where you want to spend as much time as possible.
Learning a new skill is great for the brain. Humans are wired to with the desire to learn, and doing so actually elicits the chemical dopamine in our brains. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that’s released in the brain when you do something pleasurable, be it sex, eating, listening to music, or learning something new.
Learning a lasting skill can fill you with a sense of fulfillment, what psychologist Abraham Maszlow called self-actualization. Because of the release of dopamine, this sense of fulfillment can act like a drug. But the good news is that unlike drugs that lead to hardcore addiction because you need more and more and more of them to get the same high, the same high can be achieved over and over again. And this “high,” the one that comes from fulfillment is natural. There are no side effects from it, except satisfaction.
A new skill or activity is awkward at first. This is the early stage of the learning process, and our brains are just figuring out what we’re doing — how to control our bodies, what our senses should be focused on, etc. We’re processing an incredible amount of information about the experience we’re having, and we’re beginning to rewire the brain. There’s so much electricity flowing in order to understand just how to go about conducting oneself on the task. Our brains want us to be better. The more we engage in the activity the better we become, and the less awkward we feel.
To protect our precious egos, it’s important to recognize just how good you want to be. The level of expertise that you’re shooting for will dictate just how intense and how often you need to practice the skill. In this case, if you want to be a world-class writer, you can continue to do it daily. Slicing out just a half our of time from your day to start will go a long way toward getting you there. Focusing on the goal of continuous improvement incremental gains, rather than comparing your draft work the finished work of others — especially what you read in journals or books — will help you protect your ego.
In the movie The Big Lebowski, The Dude (played by Jeff Bridges) goes to the Big Lebowski’s house to replace a rug that was damaged in a case of mistaken identity. After being fulminated upon for some time, he decides he’s had enough and can’t reason with the man. So he says, “Well…fuck it.”
He calmly puts on his sunglasses and walks out of the room while the Big Lebowski just screams at him. When he sees Lebowski’s assistant, Brant, in the hall, he tells him, “The old man said to take any rug in the house.”
If the Dude had allowed his ego to get in the way, he would have never gone to see the Big Lebowski in the first place. As it were, he had to tolerate some derision in order to meet his objective. His approach may have been underhanded, but he did it despite the way the world was treating him.
This is often the attitude that we have to take when we’re approaching the world. We have to let go of our ego and trust that things will work out in our favor. We have to work to make things work out into our favor. If we want to achieve something, it takes that little bit of effort to get there.
Take for example that novel you’ve been talking about writing, the one that’s been lingering in your mind. It’ll never get written if you simply think about it and never do anything. It’ll never make it to the world if you simply talk about it. Talking about it with friends is a great way to build in some accountability, but you still have to do the work.
So who cares what the world wants you to be? Who cares what others think about it? It’s your goal, and if you have something to say, then it’s worth sharing. Start by getting a little bit down on paper (or virtual paper) every day. That’s the only way that you’re going to eat this proverbial elephant. Focus on the work to be done, and leave your ego behind. It’s meaningless to compare. Just get at the work and things will fall into place.
And that’s really the formula for anything. Get going. Don’t be afraid to be a kook and make mistakes. Be vulnerable. There’s no better way to learn than messing something up and reflecting on how you could do it differently next time. Then doing it again. We all start as kooks.