In the 1970s, Shaun Tomson helped to revolutionize surfing, moving it beyond a recreational hobby and into a professional sport and industry. He won the Professional Surfers World Championship in 1977. In 2010, Surfer Magazine named him one of the greatest surfers of all time.
Now, at 63 years old, he still makes time to surf regularly. The activity has not only helped him achieve success, but it has shaped his own personal philosophies and motivations. Tomson visited the University of Oregon on Thursday, Feb. 7, to give a presentation hosted by the Department of Product Design.
“Surfing affected me fundamentally from the moment I first stood up on a board when I was nine years old,” Tomson said in an interview with the Emerald. “From a mental aspect, surfing gives you a different perspective on life — on connecting with nature, on connecting with this exhilaration and freedom associated with the sea.”
For Tomson, the activity represents an ultimate challenge. “No matter how good you are and no matter how well you surf, you can never totally master it,” he said.
“The Surfer’s Code,” Tomson’s own personal manifesto, is a distillation of the lessons he learned from surfing. It includes a series of twelve statements, all beginning with the phrase “I will,” framed through various surfing metaphors: “I will always paddle back out; I will never turn my back on the ocean.”
At first, the code was simply a way for Tomson to motivate a group of students working to solve an environmental issue. But, since then, it has taken on more significance in his own life, and he has used the code as a tool to help others.
When he started achieving success as professional surfer, Tomson began to speak to young people, encouraging them to find their own passions and motivations. “I felt that surfing had given me so much, I kind of had this responsibility to give back,” he said. Tomson now speaks regularly to businesses and schools all over the world.
While the code has acted as a grounding in his own life, and basis for his motivational speeches, he recognizes that each person must bring their own experiences and perspective to the table; he believes one code cannot work for each individual.
“I don’t outline a prescription,” he said. “I just say, ‘that was a path that I took, and here’s a method to really help you find your own path.’ We all have to find our own way.”
He places a great importance on this type of self-analysis. “It’s this process of introspection and thought, and I watch people do it… everyone writes passion and power,” he said.
During his presentation at UO, over the course of an hour and a half, Tomson drew from his experiences as both a surfer and a businessman, weaving in both practical tips and personal anecdotes.
The significance of his stories often lied outside of his professional achievements and in personal triumphs. In one story, from Tomson’s days as a competitive surfer, his sixth place finish was less than impressive, but his insistence on paddling back out — after an intense wipeout on an intimidating wave — held a weight of its own.
“Surfing really teaches you humility,” he said. “Once you think you’ve got it under control, it just plows you upside the head really hard. It takes you down to level where you should be.”
In the ’80s, Tomson also used his experience as a surfer to create his first clothing brand, Instinct. The company focused on both athletic and lifestyle wear for the surfing community.
“I called it Instinct because the best moments in surfing happen when you're inside the tube, and the best tubes happen when you’re operating on instinct,” Tomson said. “It was really fun when I was an athlete to get involved in marketing.”
During his presentation — geared somewhat toward the product design students in the audience — Tomson emphasized the importance of having a strong brand, something that’s worth believing in. “The bottom line is important, but you have to think about your purpose and your mission, because that’s what sustains you,” Tomson said.
He also made connections to Phil Knight’s history with Nike and UO. “I think there’s certain parallels there with the solitude a surfer and a runner has,” Tomson said. “[Phil Knight] was there at this whole new time when people were looking for something alternative and a different culture, and brands that represented something different.”
Tomson would later go on to sell Instinct when he retired as a professional surfer, but his passion for business and expression would remain. In the late ’90s, he co-founded a second clothing brand with his wife, Carla. He named the company Solitude, inspired by the meditative nature of surfing.
But nowadays, Tomson is content to focus most of his time on speaking and connecting with others. “I love telling stories about my life and how surfing impacted me,” he said. “If I can be a helper and a servant — helping [people] deal with some troubles that they’re dealing with — I’ve lived a fulfilled life.”