Shaun Tomson
Shaun Tomson

Former world surfing champion Shaun Tomson, who comes from South Africa, is acknowledged as one of the greatest surfers of all time. A successful entrepreneur and author of two best-selling motivational books, he inspired attendees at the recent RSM Leadership Summit with his heartfelt insights into the power of purpose. Here Shaun elucidates on that subject with Russell Gilbert, RSM Outlook’s managing editor.

Russell Gilbert: Your books, The Surfer’s Code – 12 simple lessons for riding through life, and The Code: The Power of "I Will" were not only bestsellers, but they also became something of a cultural phenomenon. How did they come about and what motivated you to write and share a “code” in the first place?

Shaun Tomson: It all started 20 years ago at Rincon in Santa Barbara, my adopted beach in southern California, which was facing a severe environmental challenge. It’s a beach I’ve surfed often and still do. Sewage was leaking into a river and into the ocean there. An old friend, Glenn Hening, phoned me and said we should work together to tackle the problem. He told me he was bringing a group of young people down to the beach along with the media and people from local government so that the public could be alerted to what was going on.

He asked if I could offer something that might inspire the kids to become more purpose-focused and environmentally connected – create a wave of awareness – so that they could see the problem in context. He also told me he had a budget of US$100.

Wondering what I could offer them, I sat down at my desk and decided to write down everything surfing has taught me about life, and expressed it as a form of commitment. I wrote 12 lines in 30 minutes and called it the Surfer’s Code.

I had 100 laminated cards printed with the code on each, and because I’m an entrepreneur and like to keep within budgets, they cost me 100 bucks! The cards were given out to the young people who came down to the beach and everybody loved it – the kids, their parents, and the media. That, for want of a better word, turned into groundswell: it activated a sense of inspiration and consciousness among the young people. We solved the environmental problem not long after, but the cards kept going.

I kept getting requests from people who wanted them. So from a hundred we printed 1,000, and then 10,000. I would just hand them out whenever people asked and later we started putting them in the pockets of the clothing lines in our apparel business. Soon we were handing out hundreds of thousands of cards.

This statement of purpose – of my purpose – started to permeate through the culture. Then I started to get calls from people inviting me to give talks at leadership conferences, schools and universities. I think people became fascinated with the concept of a code. There’s something fundamental about a set of principles by which you try to live your life. And although I wrote the code and it’s personal to me, when people take possession of it, it becomes theirs – because their perspectives and interpretations of the code will be different to mine. The 12 lines are about honesty, integrity, courage, persistence, empathy, honour and more. They’re the building blocks of our humanity, life, business, and everything we do.

Having created this wave, it seemed logical to take it further and write a book?

I have to say it wasn’t really my idea. A guy I met at a conference, coincidentally organised by Glenn Hening who had alerted me to the environmental issue at Rincon, suggested the code would make for a great book and he [co-author Patrick Moser] and I eventually collaborated together. There are 12 lines in the code, so 12 chapters, each with stories based on my own experiences that illustrate the point and bring home the message of every line. The book was due to be published when my son, my beautiful boy Mathew, died in a tragic and pointless accident. It was a very, very hard time for my wife and me. We couldn’t understand the senselessness of his death. He was just 15. Our lives were destroyed.

The day he died, in fact two hours before he died, he read me a beautiful essay he’d prepared for school that day. In it he written the words “The light shines ahead.” In re-reading his essay at a later time, those words struck me really hard. My son had given me these very powerful words: a message of encouragement, of hope, and of wisdom, and I knew this was my call to purpose.

So having postponed it, I decided the book should be published, and I started giving talks about the code. The book, The Surfer’s Code – 12 simple lessons for riding through life, was a very powerful talisman; it cemented what I spoke about, which was purpose, commitment, and the power we all have to influence others in a positive way. It’s something that clearly resonates with people.

Then one day, sitting in the surf waiting for a wave at Rincon, a man – a headmaster at a local school – paddled up to me and asked if I would speak to a group of about 80 pupils. It was while speaking to them that I had an epiphany. I said to them: the Surfer’s Code is my code – I wrote it. What’s your code; what’s your purpose, what’s your path, and where are you going to find your power?

As an exercise I asked them to think about their own code, and to write their own 12 lines in 30 minutes, just as it had taken me 30 minutes to write mine. The very first line, written by a young girl, said: I will be myself. When I read those words, I was deeply touched and I wanted to cry, and when I think of them now, I still do. It’s an anthem – I will be myself! With the many challenges our young people face every day, that 13-year-old girl had, with those few words, put a flag in the sand. It’s such a profound statement.

Everything else the class wrote was just pure poetry, without them intending it to be: they were just writing about their purpose, their path, their passion and their power.

It’s such an incredibly honest statement to make, and especially for one so young.

Exactly. It’s a fundamental inner truth, and it’s authentic. Your purpose has to be moral, and you have to be authentic. You can’t tell a fake story about yourself. So the kids have written their codes and I love what they sent me. I’m so inspired I decide to write the second book: The Code: The Power of “I Will”. Just like the first book, there are 12 chapters, one for each line of the code. Except instead of using my code, each chapter uses one of the kids’ statements. The first chapter, inspired by that young girl, is “I will be myself”.

So my mission now, my goal, is to create this positive wave of purpose, inspired by other people’s codes. As well as talking to kids in schools, I work with some of the biggest organisations in the world. I say to everyone that this is a simple tool to help you define your purpose – with just 12 lines, each beginning with “I will…”

In an organisational context, my process is super simple. I talk for an hour and tell some stories. I get a sense of what the organisation needs and use stories to reflect that. So my stories might be about courage, resilience, engagement or whatever I feel those participating will appreciate most.

By the end of the hour, everyone knows me. By that I mean they know where I stand; they know my spirit. Afterwards they get together for 30 minutes and write their own codes. They then take it in turns to stand up and tell everyone theirs – and they always read their codes like champions. I might be talking to the CEO of a multinational company and C-suite executives, or a group of kids with no money, who don’t know where their next meal is coming from, but when they write and share their code, it creates this engagement among people that’s mind-blowing.

Earlier this year you were in South Africa giving talks to kids in schools as part of your Positive Waves Tour. Do you find a difference between how kids and adults respond to the code?

About 70 per cent of my work is with big established organisations where one might assume they have a certain way of thinking. Yet they’re very receptive to what I do. Why? Because purpose impacts their bottom line. Just recently, the front cover of Harvard Business Review read “…how to turn purpose into performance”. Without purpose you will not have performance, and without performance you won’t have profit. Purpose and capitalism have become enmeshed.

However, a Gallup Poll in the USA recently showed that 67 per cent of American employees are disengaged. And if they had the chance they’d sabotage their peers and their employer. They have no purpose. At the same time, young people want to be associated with companies that have purpose. The old school realises that if they cannot find and define their organisation’s purpose, they’re not going to attract the brightest people.

When people are so disengaged from the organisations they work for, how do you go about changing that?

It’s a two-part process. Step one is the emotional engagement. That’s really important. I never do this work without putting the emotional engagement first. Just giving people a different perspective on life, hearing my perspective, for example, gives them the chance to reframe where they are. What’s also important is that the stories I tell them are true. They’re not someone else’s and there’s no BS. They know what I’m telling them is authentic, and that I’m an authentic guy. By sharing interesting stories about courage, honour, integrity, optimism or self-esteem, you can engage your audience and create emotional resonance. Once engaged, they become more open and receptive to looking at themselves differently.

Incidentally, when someone reads their own code, there’s usually spontaneous applause. I don’t tell them to applaud – it just happens. Some stand up and cry when they read their code. The CEO of a company with 60,000 employees cried in front of his team.

When they’ve written their own code, each person picks the “I will…” that resonates with them the most and that is then written on a board. So if you have a group of 50 people, you have 50 lines. The lines come together like a mosaic of power, passion and poetry. It really is incredible. It represents the collective consciousness and purpose of the group.

Some companies put that mosaic of purpose on the wall where everyone can see it, because that’s their culture come to life and not a homogenized mission statement or something equally as bland. Instead, the collective purpose is real: it’s authentic, truthful, and it’s come from the people who don’t just make up the organisation, but who are the organisation.

It’s so simple. It’s not rocket science and it’s elegant, inexpensive, and a great way to bind people and create implied accountability. When you put out there what it is you say you will do, for example, “I will be a better leader”, your colleagues will hold you to it.

Why do we sometimes lose our sense of purpose, and why does it take someone like you to come along and help people rediscover their purpose again?

That’s a good question. In the end, I look back to my own experience, and to what happened to me when my son died, when I lost my life and everything collapsed. Then I found those words of his – The light shines ahead. They were so resonant and inspiring. His words gave me the power to continue, and to live up to one of the lines of my own code, which is “I will always paddle back out.” In other words, I will never give up. Perhaps my words can help others find their own along with the power to move from darkness into light.

Sometimes, at certain stages of our lives, perhaps when we’ve experienced terrible losses, we need reminding of who we are and what our purpose is. I say to kids, purpose is power. “I will…” equals power! Psychologists call it agency, but essentially you’re simply going out there and using very basic tools to get people thinking about and moving towards certain paths that are of fundamental importance to who they are. And nothing is more important than a positive attitude, especially about yourself.

As for my role, I like to think I’m just like a pebble. Drop a pebble in the water and it creates a ripple. The ripple creates a wave and people ride it. I’m such a tiny part of the process, but helping people find their purpose and their power is my mission.

What next on that mission? Will you continue to talk to kids in schools with your the Positive Waves Tour?

Yes, indeed. My goal is to continue with the tours, perhaps once or twice a year. And I like to merge profitability with purpose and get corporates involved in this mission. When I go to a school, the school doesn’t get charged, the businesses do. The corporate gets the association, which makes them look good, and employees feel they are part of a movement.

As well as schools, I’ll continue my work within organisations. They have unbelievable power to positively influence the trajectory of the world today. And I love sharing. One of the lines of my Surfer’s Code is: “I will pass on my stoke.” Stoke is surfer slang for the exuberance and passion someone has for life. Ultimately that’s the source of everything; it all comes from there. No matter who you are, it’s all about sharing and creating a wave of positive change – and we all have the power to do that.

Shaun Tomson, thank you very much.


This article was first published in the winter 2018 edition of RSM Outlook – RSM’s alumni and corporate relations magazine. You can download RSM Outlook here.

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