bringforth is honoured to bring you the second of a series of interviews featuring people who inspire, motivate and, well, bring forth. To read the inspirational answers of Canadian surfer, writer, editor of SBC Surf Magazine and (I say!) budding photographer Malcolm Johnson just keep reading.
I love asking people this question and that is what drives you? So, if you were to put into words the force that pushes you to do what you do and experience what you experience—how would you describe it?
It’s a combination of things. I want to be doing work that I see as worthwhile—basically work that’s useful in some way or has some sort of beneficial effect on the present and future life of my community. I’ve also loved being out in the natural world since I was a little kid, so I want to be out in wild spaces as much as possible. That’s the thing that makes me the happiest. There are so many wondrous things around us in this part of the world, so I just want to be able to experience those things as closely and directly as possible. I’ve been really blessed by being able to make a living from surfing and travel writing—through that I’ve had the ability to roam around in some amazing places and call it work. Lastly, I feel like I’ve received a lot of grace and light in my life, and I’d like to be able to reflect it all back somehow.
How did you come to harmonize what it is you do with who you are? What was your process of coming to know what it is that you were to do and then translate what you love into what you do?
That’s a tough question. I don’t think I’m there yet. Ideally you want everything to be flowing in the same direction. You want the smooth water, in both the practical and spiritual sense. You don’t want to be battling the current. If there’s a disconnect between what you’re doing and what you believe, you’re going to have hard times and you’re probably not going to be happy. I had some hard years where I’d made choices that I thought were leading me where I wanted to be, but they actually ended up leading me a bit astray instead. So I had to take some time to step back and gather myself and sort of find my way again. I had to remind myself of the things I loved in the first place—writing and the wild—and trust that everything would work out if I recommitted myself to the things I loved, and if I spoke honestly about how I saw the world.
Do you ever feel afraid (of failure, of judgment, of not living up to expectation of your own or others, of not knowing what to do—whatever it may be)‚ and, if you do, how do you work through it and stay on your path?
People who say they don’t feel fear are either lying or self-deluded. I encounter fear pretty much every day—fear is a huge thing and it’s actually been a bit of a millstone for me. Matthew Hooton, one of my best friends, is a novelist, and he wrote five different novels, for no money, before he finally got a book deal. I have a lot of admiration for that—the will that’s required to push through the fear of failure and stay true to what you love. When we were finishing school Matthew stayed committed to a difficult path, and I took the safer path of writing for magazines and ad agencies. I’m changing things now, but in the past I didn’t take on projects that were truly my own because I was scared of failing at them, and I was scared of what people would think of me if I failed. There was also some self-consciousness involved—I thought that if I wrote the things I really wanted to write, people wouldn’t think I was cool. That seems ridiculous now, but that’s how I felt when I was younger. But over time, if you’re not crippled by it, you learn that living in fear isn’t worth it—it’s a compromised existence. There’s a point where you just have to say “f— it!’ and go for it. Living with the fear is usually worse than what you’re actually scared of. Surfing and yoga have helped me a lot in the last few years—you learn how to trust yourself, and you learn how to relax and breathe through situations that are scary or uncomfortable. The goal isn’t eliminating fear—it’s learning to move freely despite it, and to be able to face it rather than turn from it.
What is it about sport, in your case surfing, that you feel is so important to a full human experience and development of the Self?
A lot of the messaging we get through the media and advertising is structured to tell people that they’re inadequate in some way or that they can’t do things for themselves. And that messaging also tells people that the natural world is something they need to protect themselves from. Surfing, to me, is a counterbalance to those—it teaches you self-reliance, and that the natural world is a source of wonder rather than a source of a danger. It’s also a totally useless activity, in the best way. Yvon Chouinard talks about that—how surfing doesn’t produce anything tangible or even transport you anywhere, and you end up exactly where you started. At its simplest, surfing is just pure, simple fun. When you’re riding a wave all your worries are pretty much gone—you’re not thinking about anything, it’s just a perfect little moment. You’re just existing in energy. Surfing is a reminder that the simplest things are the things we need the most.
When people encounter obstacles entering into sport (whether it’s a question of finances, gender, disability, etc.) what would you tell them about persistence and how to translate those obstacles into opportunities?
I’d say just remember that sport is supposed to be fun. I think the professionalization of sports has discouraged a lot of people—it’s easy to think that if you’re not performing at a high level, you’re not doing it right or you can’t have fun. Which is totally untrue, of course—the kid with no shoes kicking a soccer ball in the street is having as much fun, or or probably more fun, than the star who’s in the Premier League and making millions a year. Just keep at it, enjoy the level you’re at, and don’t buy into the messaging that you have to be a pro. You don’t need the flashiest gear—just go have fun. You have to ditch the ideas of performance and remember to do things just for the joy. Don’t worry about what you look like, just take pleasure in the feelings the sport provides, whether you’re riding some heavy wave in the wilderness or just floating around in the shallow end of a swimming pool.
Have you ever encountered obstacles in your sports career? If so, how did you navigate them?
As far as surfing goes, I’m always pretty motivated. I always want to go surf, so the obstacles are pretty easy to deal with. If I have a bad session, it just makes me want to get back in the water again as soon as possible. In terms of writing, the obstacles are a lot trickier. I find that being around people who inspire me is the best thing for getting through bad spots, and making sure that I’m taking the steps I need to take to stay happy and health. Eating well, sleeping well and being around positive and inspirational people. Those things are essential.
What is your photography a reflection of and how does it fit into the big picture of what you want to express?
I’m not a photographer, but I love taking photos. It makes me look at what’s around me in a more focused way. I don’t really have the technical skills, so generally I just shoot photos of things that interest me or that I find beautiful. So in that way, I guess my photos reflect some of how I view the world. I also tend to use a camera as a notebook—when I’m traveling I don’t take a lot of written notes, because it’s so time consuming, but I snap a lot of shots of things I want to remember.
How does where you live fit into the picture of who you are?
It’s a huge part of who I am. Living on the coast has shaped a lot of how I live and how I think. Vancouver Island, in particular, is a pretty incredible place—we have clean air, clean water and good growing land, and we have the increasingly rare privilege of living beside real wilderness and real wild creatures. I’ve received a lot from the land I live on, so more and more I see myself as having a responsibility to take part in protecting the land that has supported me and my community. I think our own well-being and the well-being of the land are inseparable. It’s also just a really fun place to live—and when I have kids I want them to be able to experience the same things I have, to be able to swim in clean lakes and surf in clean water and go pick blueberries from the farm down the road.
What would you say are some of the best ways to inspire, educate and ignite the spark, the possibility and the life force that exists in all people?
It’s all pretty simple, I think. Try to act out of love, not out of fear, and encourage others to do the same. Remember that everyone has some sort of struggle, so try to support everyone you come across and extend as much compassion and encouragement as possible. Remind people that the world is good and full of wonder. Be as kind as possible to yourself and the other beings around you. Encourage people to embrace freedom of the mind and freedom of the spirit, and remind people that it’s more than okay to follow their own path. Remind people that diversity is beautiful and essential.
What’s next for you?
I’m getting on a train and going out to the Maritimes to see some dear friends and surf some out-of-the-way waves, and then I’ll be back to the Island for the fall and winter. I’ve also been working on a series of essays that I hope to send out into the world pretty soon. That’s about it—just keep trying to live well and enjoy my friends and my family. Gary Snyder has this quote that I love: “Find your place on the planet, dig in, and take responsibility from there.” That’s what I’m trying to do.
Thank you Malcolm for agreeing to participate in bringforth’s interview series. If you want to check out what Malcolm is up to you can visit him on the web at www.theshinysea.ca or follow him on Twitter @malcolmrjohnson.