A Search for Stoke

If you are a Gen Y-er living in Southern California, you’re familiar with the word stoke.”   Granted, the Spicoli-like, surfer/stoner types say it a lot more, but we all know it and hear it regularly.  Its a So-Cali social culture staple, brah.

Generally, its most common use is in the form of an adjective: “We’re meeting at Typhoon at 10.”  “Sweet, stoked!”  Less common, and the only way I’ve heard it used as a noun is when surf-saavy people are talking about a phenomenon known as “surfer stoke.”  Surfer stoke is impossible to adequately explain unless you’ve experienced it.  This aside, surfer stoke is a surfer’s passion for surfing.  Usually, surfers talk about surfer stoke when a nube, a kook, a zonie, or just an enthusiastic beginner rides a wave for the first time.  It happens close to the shore in the white water, typically on a foam board, and its not pretty, but there is nothing like your first ride on a wave.  Like clockwork (and to the chagrin of many locals) usually that lucky SOB is hooked.  They’ve popped their cherry.  She or he has “the stoke.”  Not all of these newly former-virgins will become surfers, but they’ve experienced the feeling of being high when you’re sober.  If they are vacationing, live in a different state and will never surf again, it was the first and only date with “the one that got away.”  To quote The Beach Boys, they have been “sitting on top of the world,” if only briefly.  If you have never surfed, trust me when I say, there is no other feeling like it.  I am an avid skier, I’ve skydived, bungee jumped, seen exotic places, but there is nothing like riding a wave.  There is nothing like the feeling of paddling, feeling the gravity take hold, and becoming part of that wave.

The other important thing about surfer stoke is the way it nurtures a human connection between surfers.  For example, seasoned surfers have a responsibility to pass on their knowledge to new surfers.  They have a responsibility to be kind when the new surfer drops in on she or he in the lineup.  I myself have taught more people to surf (that scene from “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” comes to mind) than I can count.  There’s something special in seeing the person’s joy when they first stand up.  But, my project is not ultimately about a person’s love of surfing.  It’s about chasing a stoke-like feeling, happiness basically, and I believe the most powerful form of this comes through human connection.

The way I use the word in the title of my project is not as noun or as an adjective, but as a verb: in its most linguistically pure form.  Dictionary.com defines “stoke” (as it is applicable here) as “to poke, stir up, and feed (a fire).”

In “Surfer’s Code: 12 Simple Lessons for Riding Through Life,” Shaun Tomson offers his definition of surfer stoke.  Tomson describes his understanding of surfer stoke: “One word defines the essence of surfing better for me than any other – stoke.  I do not know how or when the expression was introduced to surf culture, but that image of a fire being stirred up in the pit of one’s stomach captures the feeling surfers get when they see good waves or surf a great session.  Unlike other expressions that began in surf culture, stoke is still fairly exclusive to surfers.  You do not hear it much from the people who do not surf, so it retains that unique quality within the culture.  One of the best things about stoke is that you can pass it along to someone who has never heard the expression.  I have taken beginners out surfing and noticed that even before they have the vocabulary to express their joy.  I can see the stoke in their eyes and in a smile that burns as bright as a bonfire… There is no better feeling than getting another person stoked on surfing… Although surfing has been portrayed for many years as a sport for young people, the youthful part of riding waves is not the age of the surfer but the feelings that surfing produces.  Passing along those feelings – that stoke – brings people, young and old, together like no other activity I can think of.”  Well, Shaun, you’re preaching to the choir.

Lately I’ve been looking at the world around me and I’ve seen very few fires.

I am nearing the end of my 24th year around the sun, and when I graduated college, I entered the worst job climate since the Great Depression.  Without making too many excuses for ourselves, for my friends and I to pursue careers that “we were stoked on,” was next to impossible.  So… we took jobs we weren’t stoked on.  I’m not feeling sorry for myself, its just the truth.  And trust me, I’ve heard all the “stop feeling sorry for yourself” talk: “You should be grateful you have such a good job in this economy.”  “Many people can’t even get a job.”  “To even get the job you have in this economy says something.”  “Work is not supposed to be fun, that’s why they call it work, not play.”  And so on.  At the end of the day, I still firmly believe it is my responsibility, my paramount priority, to do work, to make a livelihood, doing what a) involves my natural talents and allows me to share my gift with the world; and b) what makes me happy.  I do not need to be making money at this right away, but what I’m trying to emphasize is not only that there is a big difference between a job and a vocation, but that I believe its very doable to make money doing what you love.

My friends are bored.  I believe a lot of them are depressed, though would never admit it.  Things are improving as we get older, gain perspective, but I still think they are stomaching a lot they do not need to.  To quote a conversation I recently had with one of my mentors, “A lot of people your age have already given up.” A lot of people my age struggle between doing what they should do, what their parents want them to do, and doing what they believe they should be doing.  I also think they’re lonely.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not free from culpability in doing what my parents tell me or feeling lost.  For the year and a half or so following my graduation from college, I was very unhappy.

I graduated from college in the tail-end of a seven-month, very severe bout of insomnia.  I was a textbook case insomniac.  Not someone who sleeps a little, wakes up, and then goes back to sleep.  I didn’t sleep, really.  People who have had extended periods of insomnia get it.  People who haven’t… just don’t.  The insomnia got really bad when I was studying abroad in Prague in the fall of my senior year, but I was surprised when it persisted after I was back state-side in January.  Cigarettes were my religion, I slept about an average of 3 hours a night.

Most of us graduated from college and moved back to our home towns out of necessity.  We went from being surrounded by people our age at parties and in class, to our sole social interaction being that between us and our parents.  Majority of us could not get jobs and so we all had a hell of a lot of time to think about what post-college life was like and what we had just left behind.  A few months after I moved home, I compound-fractured my ankle longboard skateboarding.  I was bedridden for four months.  The overthinker had 12 hours a day to think.  I went to sleep at 7 a.m. and woke up at 5 p.m. everyday for months.  I left the house about once a week to see a movie with my dad in my wheelchair.  I gained 20 pounds.

There’s a happy ending.

I’ve been soul-searching, and the reality is, I am not going to go grad school to make a difference in the world.  I am not taking on thousands upon thousands of dollars in student loans to become a doctor, or a therapist, or an anthropologist with a Ph.D. who studies Inuit culture for months in an igloo in Alaska (at least, not right now).  So, how do I find purpose?  How do I light some fires?  How do I find my stoke when I’m out of the water?

This is my project.  And I have quite a few ideas (good ones, I’m pretty sure) to figure that out.

First, I believe the largest source of our sadness, anxiety, whatever you want to call it, our BAD feelings, stem from us feeling isolated.

The human being’s need to connect is as strong as it ever was, but we all have busy lives.  We do not always have time to get to know our neighbors or people within our larger community and beyond.  I recently read an article published by the National Community Forum, titled “Guidance on Meaningful Interaction: How Encouraging Positive Relationships Between People Can Help Build Community Cohesion.”  A statement the author made hit home for me, she said, we must recognize that people often are unreceptive to interaction, but that we must keep focused on the goal nevertheless.  What I also realized, however, is that the goal is worthy.  The Dalai Lama, in his book, “The Art of Happiness in a Troubled World,” describes the importance of recognizing the value of your objective, if it is noble.  “I feel that it is crucial to have a clear recognition of how worthy your objective is, the value of the objective.  That’s the important thing.  Recognizing that your objective is worthy, for example, one that involves others’ welfare or the general well-being of the community, helps give you determination in pursuit of a noble objective.  And when things become difficult, simply reminding yourself of the value of your objective can help sustain hope and courage.”

I will start with my immediate surroundings, performing experiments to increase my connectedness with those around me.  These projects will take the form of both short-term experiments and projects, like committing a random act of kindness every day for a week; and long-term projects, like serving as an ElderCare volunteer twice a week for several months which I am signed up to do.  I have two beautiful sisters who share this vision with me.  This is all of our project, and you will see posts, interviews, photos, and other insights from them as well.

Secondly, we only feel better when we make ourselves vulnerable.  This open us up to other people.

Another aim of the project is to promote authenticity.  Just asking people to keep it real.  I am taking a leap of faith sharing my journey with you all.  I implore you to take some of our ideas, use them yourself, and post your experiences to our website.  Or share your story with us in return.  Do you have an idea to help people get happy?  Let’s hear it, and let’s form a plan.  This website is meant to be collaborative.  Have a special moment about human connectedness you’d like to share?  PLEASE DO.  This is the goal of the project, and the hope is that readers will help to take this project to a place I could not have imagined.

Third, living in the moment is everything.  The website will have a section for my favorite quotations, pictures of cute baby sea animals, pictures of hot surfers boys, and the like, to remind us all that San Diego is a freaking sweet place to live, life is good, and that appreciating the little things is critically important.

Fourth, I will find my faith… in whatever.  I will read and write reviews, explore, and just generally gather information until I find a hodge-podge faith that resounds with me.

This is a happiness project.  I believe our relationships are of paramount importance to our happiness.  I believe in helping those who are less connected, connect.  I believe in the aims of this project, but I am also filled with joy thinking about what will come out of it.  For myself.  Who will I meet?  What adventures are to come?  I am about to start learning about something I actually want to learn about.  These ideas stir my soul.  These ideas feeds a passion within me, and I hope you will find something on the website that stokes a fire in you, too.

Below is a link about human connectedness and the nature of same in society today:


6 thoughts on “A Search for Stoke

  1. This is very, very good.
    You are articulating the severely, unique-pathos of your particular generation beautifully.
    I was born, grew up in La Jolla. I married a serious surfer for a little while, 20+ years. All my friends were surfers.
    Until I changed my life.
    There is the concept, how do you articulate what you feel surfing, to the rest of your life.
    I think you just did that.

  2. I’d like you to know your comment means a lot to me. Thank you for taking the time. Thank you for offering your perspective, and maybe one day, if you’re amenable to doing so, I can ask you some questions about your life and surfing. I really appreciate it. Thanks again, Cindy.

  3. Someone once said that the secret to life lies in one thing, and one thing alone. Once you find that one thing, you should spend all your energy and effort ensuring that everything you do and strive for is devoted to that one thing. When questioned as towhat that one thing is, the answer was simply “I don’t know. It is different for everyone.”

    – Unknown

  4. I love this post and totally agree with many of your sentiments but especially your feelings on STOKE. I am an “older” surfer and have developed a blog with a surf sister in a quest reclaim our stoke. Somehow in the midst of life and all that entails we misplaced it. Luckily, our adventure wahinewednesdays, much like your surfer stoke project, is helping us not only rediscover our stoke but carry it throughout our lives on the sand and spread stoke to others. Keep writing and keep surfing!

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