Author’s note: This is a story I originally wrote for The Inertia, billed as, “surfing’s definitive online community featuring news, opinions, photography, videos and art from many of surfing’s most talented figures.”
Transformation, reinvention and evolution are rarely easy. Yet they are a part of life as ancient as the ocean and constant as her rhythms. Life is a series of crests and valleys. And our conditions are ever-changing. When we embrace the concept of evolution, we not only learn to roll with life’s changes, we begin to recognize the opportunities they present. At the very least, we overcome our fears of them. I know because I was forced to evolve following a sudden, deep and unexpected period of change in my life recently. And turning back wasn’t an option.
I’m sharing my story for a few reasons: One was a remarkably timely email that I received from The Inertia a few weeks ago, informing me of some changes coming to their website. The note also asked if I might consider writing about a “significant moment of change” in my own life, something that led to “personal growth and transformation” in conjunction with their re-launch. “Ideally,” the email read, “it could relate to surfing, but also just to life in general.”
My experience certainly relates to, “life in general,” and, as for “surfing,” to me those two things are inseparable. After God, family and friends, surfing has probably been the most significant influence in my life since first standing up on a wave at age 15. Most major decisions I’ve made in my life – where I’ve lived, who I married, how I’ve spent my time and money, have almost always been linked to surfing in one way or another. Isn’t that the all-consuming nature of the sport (activity) that so many of us have freely surrendered to?
Interesting is the role that The Inertia itself played during my period of evolution. I don’t even know if Zach, Alex, Ted or anyone else was aware. Another reason I thought it an ideal time to share. Most importantly, I thought there might be others out there navigating similar times of unexpected change in their own lives who could find some value or encouragement in my experiences.
My “transformation” began in late 2007 when the collapse of the housing market struck a devastating, and ultimately fatal, blow to my 11-year old real estate marketing firm. The business I had launched with one friend out of a small apartment a decade earlier had grown into a 27-person, full-service integrated marketing agency doing about $5 million-a-year, every year.
Until the housing bubble burst.
Understand that there’s a reason people use this specific language when talking about sudden market collapses. When “bubbles burst,” by definition, they cease to exist. And that’s exactly what happened to our industry and our business. One day, we were working 20 or so large accounts. Then, seemingly overnight, all new development just… stopped.
All of it.
The next four years would become a steady series of layoffs of people I considered family, and for whom I felt responsible in much the same way. I delayed every cut for as long as I could while methodically feeding the company with all of the resources my wife and I had worked hard to accumulate over 15 years of marriage.
We liquidated our savings.
Our real estate investments.
And finally, our home, which we were forced to sell to tap its equity. Thank God it sold when it did, or the bank may well have taken it from us.
Now, I have never been materialistic and can be as happy with nothing as I can with abundance. But, the fact was that my life had turned upside down, and the changes were painful. The home my wife and I had built eight years earlier was located directly across the street from the ocean with private access to a beautiful empty beach, with three extremely consistent sandbars within 150 yards of each other. For years, I could walk right out my front door and go surf anytime I felt like it.
As owner of my own business, I rarely missed a swell.
When my boards lost their pop, I ordered new ones.
And I traveled… Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Barbados, The Dominican Republic, Mexico (Mainland and Baja), Costa Rica (over and over), the Bahamas (over and over). But those days had come to an end.
Breaking down our 10,000 s.f. office was physically and emotionally grueling. My partners and I had invested $425,000 building it out to create a one-of-a-kind environment. Now I was selling designer furniture and high tech equipment for next to nothing on Craigslist.
I remember a revelation I had when boxing literally hundreds of local, regional and national awards we had won over the years for just about every creative marketing and design category you could imagine.
You know the saying, “You can’t take it with you?” I get that now. At the end of the day, what value do these things really hold? I wondered then, and do still today, if Kelly Slater feels the same way about his collection of awards which must certainly far outnumber those we had accumulated. I have to believe that he must.
Still, stubbornly, I packed every last one of them with care, lugging five God-awful heavy boxes home with me. My justification: this was for my daughters – so that one day in the future they might pull these things down from the attic, brush off the dust and discover, “Damn – Dad was pretty good.”
A few weeks later, I reconsidered.
I realized that my daughters already know exactly who I am, and everything that is truly “important” about me, and to me. My values. My beliefs. The things I feel are important to stand up for. And what they might understand or think about my professional accomplishments one day in the future… well, that’s the last thing I’d ever really care about. Even at the pinnacle of my career, my work never defined me.
And it never will.
And I hope the same is true for them.
Following the four-year unwinding of my business, I spent the next full year trying to figure out, “What next?” By now, the rest of the country was gripped in the recession, and I was on the front lines with millions of others trying to find a job.
My circumstances were less than ideal. If you think it’s tough trying to find a solid job out of college, try doing it when you’re 40-something with an extensive resume, a reputation as a “specialist,” and you’re a life-long entrepreneur. Employers interpret this as “expensive,” “one-trick pony” and a guy who “can’t work for others,” regardless of what the truth may be.
The one thing that was genuinely vexing, however, was that I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I had been doing the same thing for 15 years and that industry was now dormant. This is when I really began to embrace the idea of “transformation” and the opportunities it presented.
While a significant chapter of my life seemed to have simply vanished into thin air, I couldn’t repress my inner desire to get on with something new– to dedicate my considerable experience and passions to new challenges, whatever lied ahead. It was the feeling you get when paddling into large surf you’re not certain you’re equipped to handle, but that you’re committed to dropping in no matter what – a mix of nerves, fear, anticipation and excitement. During this time, I continued to rely upon those same foundations I always had during challenging times in my life – God. Family. Friends…
Yes, my travels had come to a halt about three years earlier. But during my year of career transition, I had plenty of time to get out in the water, and I did. Often. I used this time to try and decompress, focus my thoughts and figure out exactly what it was I wanted to do. I also began teaching my 9-year-old daughter how to surf. I relished the opportunity to share time with her in the ocean for that entire year, and I would never give one second of that time back. Those are days I will never, ever forget.
To keep my creative metabolism flowing, I began to write more and, in late 2011, stumbled upon The Inertia. I loved the website, admired Zach’s vision and reading posts from so many intelligent writers and surfers on subjects that weren’t being addressed in the mainstream print surf pubs.
I submitted a few of my own articles and received an incredibly warm reply. Before I knew it, my first piece was published. By coincidence, happened to share the home page with Kelly Slater’s first post to the site, lending a high number of views to my own article and a great response as a result. This would happen again just a few weeks later.
These were comforting distractions during otherwise stressful days. For a time, I considered transitioning into the surf industry full-time. But ultimately, I wasn’t ready to relocate to Orange County to try and do it. With limited resources and a family to support, the risks just didn’t make sense.
Instead, after months of searching and sending resumes into the black hole of online recruiting sites, I came across a notice for a position that perfectly suited my experience and passions for surfing, travel and marketing. The Southeast Volusia Advertising Authority needed an Executive Director to lead tourism marketing for New Smyrna Beach and the surrounding area. New Smyrna may be the most consistent break on the east coast and I knew it well because I had spent much time surfing there while finishing college at the University of Central Florida. I applied for the position, made the list of finalists, and eventually won the job.
I then began commuting to work from my home in Ponte Vedra Beach– 90 minutes each way, every day. While this was less than ideal, I was ecstatic just to be working again in a role I was perfectly suited for.
Not long after starting, I realized that our office needed a content producer – a photographer/cinematographer who could capture New Smyrna in the way I knew it needed to be represented: beautifully honest. Unpretentious. Pure and real. One of my team members suggested long-time local Patrick Eichstaedt. The name sounded familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it. “You probably know him,” she said. “He surfs. And, he writes for that same website you do – The Inertia. But, he goes by the name ‘Tupat.’”
“Ah, Tupat!” Yes, I knew Tupat, who was an active contributor not only forThe Inertia, Surfline, ESM and others but who had worked for …Lost Enterprises for many years. I asked him to come in and ended up hiring him to help with our NSB re-branding efforts. Tupat would pull in local surfing icons like Shea Lopez, Lindsay Perry and others who graciously helped us create a series of marketing videos and other promotions.
During this same time, I conceptualized a new events festival for NSB I called, “Beach Weeks.” It would consist of seven straight weeks of coastal-themed events incorporating new events with existing ones in early summer. Beach Weeks included surfing and SUP contests, Reggae and Blues festivals, fishing tournaments, movie nights and many family-friendly events. We even brought Bethany Hamilton to town to help kick things off. The festival was a hit and Beach Weeks since expanded to include both Summer and Fall versions.
Although my fortunes had turned and I was doing something I loved, my transition was not yet complete. The commute had begun to wear upon me. I was rarely home for dinner with my family and we realized if I was going to stay, that we’d have to relocate. As much as I love New Smyrna, I am a third-generation native of Jacksonville, Florida, and our city has a lot going on in its own right. The surf scene is thriving from St. Augustine to Jax Beach and the home we were living in (and still do now), while far more modest than our last one, was still within walking distance of one of our area’s best breaks. My kids enjoy great schools and all of their friends, and so many of my own, are here.
As decision time approached, I was contacted by a former employee of my agency, who began recruiting me to come back to Jax for a position at a large public tech company where she was now working. The role: Director of Social Media sounded interesting and I was only weeks from having to make a decision on moving prior to the start of a new school year.
I live by the motto, “You don’t know until you go” and so decided to investigate it further. The more I learned, the more appealing the thought became. No moving. Short commute. Better hours. Better compensation. Better benefits. This included generous stock options – the type of benefit that, more than just a good salary, can truly help to build long-term financial stability. The perfect fit for someone starting over on rebuilding their retirement.
I accepted the job.
Looking back today, I am at peace with the changes that occurred in my life. I’ve continued to grow personally and professionally. I’m thankful for the time I was able to spend in New Smyrna Beach and stoked to see the programs we put into place there, producing positive results for the area. I’m grateful for the full year I was able to surf with my daughter, and for the fact that after 15 years, I was able to try something brand new with my career.
For those who might be going through similar periods of change, I would encourage you to never give up, never lose hope and never lose confidence in your own abilities. Recognize that no matter your circumstances in life, there are always countless numbers of people navigating greater challenges than your own. I reminded myself of this fact every day during my period of transition and never fell into the trap of feeling sorry for myself. Recognize that life truly is a series of ups, downs and changing conditions. Embrace those changes and enjoy the ride. Remember that it is always the most difficult conditions that provide us the greatest opportunities to learn, grow and evolve, and facing them that provides our highest levels of joy and satisfaction.