Ten years ago I made my first wooden surfboard. It was the start of a journey that has changed – and is still changing – my life, and it’s motivated me to write this post about wooden surfboard life lessons. What’s fascinated me along the way, as I’ve learnt and thought about what I do, is the process of craft, and what life lessons it teaches. It’s a concept that draws into itself a great deal, and I’ve come to believe that it can tell us much about who we are and the society we live in. Here are eight points I’ve noticed in myself and those that have built boards with me in the wooden surfboard workshops I run:
IT’S ALL CONNECTED: As we strive towards lessening our impact on the planet, and as surfers to ride craft that connect us to the natural energy of the oceans, I find myself marvelling at the connections between the boards I make and the oceans I love. In the grain of a piece of wood I see the origins of a swell starting in the deep ocean and fanning out towards us. Taking wood to water almost feels like I’m closing a circle – the storms bring us waves to surf, but they also bring water for the trees and help to form the growing patterns and grains that we marvel at. See the connections!
FEEL THE RHYTHYM: More philosophically is the connection between a sense of craft and the ocean. It’s almost as if the natural process of working with your hands making a timber surfboard is perfectly matched to the rhythms of swell passing underneath you as you sit on your board. It makes me feel at peace when I can find that same rhythm in the workshop as I can find in the sea. Both activities force me to slow down. The lessons are a sense of timing, a deeper patience and making the right movements at the right time.
TRANSFORMATIVE CREATIVITY: It’s amazing how people work with their hands, and the inherent creativity that we all seem to have. I see it time and again in the workshops I run. For many people it is a creativity that they rarely, if ever, get to express. Mostly the opportunity to express this is a passing satisfaction. Sometimes it can lead to the beginning of a hobby or the search for an outlet that meets this need. And sometimes it’s a cathartic experience and unlocks very powerful emotions about who they are and what they want to do. It’s that powerful. If you feel the need to create, on whatever level, get out there and do it. It could change your life.
SKIN IN THE GAME: I find it moving how much of someone goes into what they’re making. It’s almost as if the surfboard they make is infused with a little bit of their soul. That object is just an object, yes, but on another level it has meaning – it represents a place in their lives, something they haven’t done before and they care deeply about it. The board becomes a part of, or an extension, of themselves. They care about it and they care about the outcome. They have skin in the game. When it comes to bigger picture issues, like environmental protection, how can ‘skin in the game’ be used as a concept to involve people beyond the abstract? I’m suggesting that we need to find ways for people to get invested in causes, to care on a deeper level about the world around them.
SOUL SPACE: Many ancient civilisations saw the concept of ‘soul’ extending to all inanimate objects. Yet it often leaves me cold when I’m in an institutional environment like a bank. I look around me at everything that has been made with machines, clinically clean. I’m struck by what soulless places have been created. It’s hard to find that love and passion went into these environments, into the objects we’re surrounded with. Everything has been reduced to numbers. What would happen if, like some ancient cultures, objects were seen with passion and love. How might our spaces change? How might our outlook on the natural world change? What would that mean for us?
IT’S OURS TO CLAIM: Maybe there’s been a slow, insipid creeping of things that are done for us in our daily lives and work which means that we don’t have to think, or that we think differently. Sitting in front of a computer, we’re told by a computer programme when we do something that we can’t or aren’t supposed to do, getting into our cars we’re told to put our seatbelts on, we’re told when to go and when to stop. Making something for yourself claims back a bit of the space in one sense. In another sense, it establishes a relationship between your mind and your hands which is lost in modern society.
IT’S ALL IN THE HANDS: Anne Frank wrote that the final forming of a persons character lies in their own hands. I’d like to interpret that in a different way and say that through working with our hands, character is formed. I say that because I think there’s an undervalued kind of “practical intellectualism” that goes into making something with your hands. Confronted with a problem, you’re forced to establish a connection between your mind and your hands. You think about the approach to the problem and then you enact the solution that you hope will work. It’s great learning and it forces you to face character traits and biases that influence your approach. When your solution doesn’t work or the outcome is not as good as expected, you have to face up to the reasons for that, whether it be impatience, distractedness or carelessness. And if you want to get better, you have to change.
THE MOMENT IS NOW: When you’re making something with your hands, on nearly every level, you have to be in the moment making decisions for yourself – and if you get it wrong it’s hard and you have to learn. That teaches humility. It teaches you to slow down and to work in the moment, and that brings a kind of peace that we are seldom able to access in our busy daily lives. It’s very similar to catching a wave, that rare moment when time stands still.