Review “Let my people go surfing” — Yvon Chouinard

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Yvon Chouinard published this book in 2005 and I have to say it remains an amazing book, more actual than ever, especially as his premonition of increase consumerism have come true. I would say that besides wisdom, the first thing you should buy this book is because of the pictures: they are amazing :)

The structure of the book is quite pragmatical:

  • 1st part about his life which is quite enthralling, I was impressed by his rebel nature and extraordinary courage to explore and his capacity to learn principles by doing, by keep trying to improve and create the best product.
  • 2nd part about the principles he tries to instill in Patagonia. It covers product design, production, distribution, marketing, finance, human resources, management, environment. I bolded the ones that were quite impressive, but all are very good lessons.

I find a similar structure in Ray Dalio’s “Principles”, just that Ray Dalio separated life principles from work principles, buy in “Let my people go surfing”, Yvon Chouinard mentions that if you really get good at something, then you cannot tell the difference between work and play.

I will go through the book by citing the passages that I consider most interesting.

Actually the first quote is a quote from Wang Yang Ming, and it expresses a permanent truth that has echoes in many civilizations as well: if you do not walk the walk … then why so much study? Why so much thinking? Study and thinking is limited in knowing the truth and experiencing reality. The augmented experience is in doing.

“To know and no to do is not to know”

Second is also from another author, Antoine de Saint-Exupery and it covers simplicity, which is common in well designed and functional products, like Apple:

“Have you ever thought, not only about the airplane but whatever man builds, that all of man’s industrial efforts, all his computations and calculations, all the nights spent working over drafts and blue-prints, invariably culminate in the production of a thing whose sole and guiding principle is the ultimate principle of simplicity?”

The nest paragraph reminded my of my hikes, but also of Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Nature essay. I reached a personal conclusion that nature is infinite HD and it can offer infinite beauty and awe. I was impressed to find something I believe similar eloquently expressed by Mr Chouinard hanging in a hammock on Muir Wall (Yosemite Park)

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“For the first time we noticed tiny bugs that were all over the rocks, so tiny they were barely noticeable. While belaying, I stared at one for 15 minutes, watching him move and admiring his brilliant red color. How could anyone be bored with so many good things to see and feel! This unity with our joyous surroundings, this ultrapenetrating perception gave us a feeling of contentment that we had not had for years.”

Great life approach. Life is short, do not get lost in smallish improvements, unless you perform at the highest level and you need to get peRFect :)

“I’ve always thought of myself as an 80 percenter. I like to throw myself passionately into a sport or activity until I reach about an 80 percent proficiency level. To go beyond that requires an obsession and degree of specialization that doesn’t appeal to me. Once I reach that 80 percent level I like to go off and do something totally different”

From the Product Design Philosophy, straight anti-consumerism statement (besides obvious personal preference)

“When I die and go to hell, the devil is going to make me the marketing director for a cola company. I’ll be in charge of trying to sell a product that no one needs, is identical to its competition, and can’t be sold on its merits. I’d be competing head-on in the cola wars, on price, distribution, advertising, and promotion, which would indeed be hell for me. Remember, I’m the kid who couldn’t play competitive games. I’d much rather design and sell products so good and unique that they have no competition.”

From same chapter, Product Design, and entire segment called “Is it easy to care for and clean?” which i found it inspiring in how to manage and approach clothing/fashion. I am updating some T-shirts with 50/50% cotton/polyester, extremely fast to iron or not at all —to safe energy.

A quote from R.B. Fuller (which I didn’t heard about before) about beauty and design:

“When I’m working on a problem, I never think about beauty. I think only how to solve the problem. But when I am finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.”

This quote I heard it in many forms on many blog posts and podcasts, so it is not new, this focus on the process, which can be heard at sports people too. I find this advice also another way to say live in the present and focus on step at a time in order to reach your objective:

“Again, like the Zen approach to archery or anything else, you identify the goal and then forget about it and concentrate on the process.”

Oh boy this one is actual, especially in the current world of social media, flawless pictures, neurological infused marketing campaigns and very well designed products in about any domain (good design has become cheap and standardized). You need to have a bigger picture approach to live to resist, navigate and curate the current onslaught of advertising, influencing and social media addiction.

“We make certain assumptions about our customers, not just that they are intelligent. We assume that they don’t shop as entertainment, that they’re not out to “buy a life”, that they want to deepen and simplify, not junk up their lives, and that they are fed up with or indifferent to being targets for aggressive advertising


“It’s ok to be eccentric, as long as you are rich; otherwise, you’re just crazy”

The entire chapter on Human resources is manual and aspirations for other companies, especially in this transactional world and personal branding world, where the sense of belonging and community is extremely rare, or is faked as hell.

Speaking of community and purpose, I was impressed with the details about the child care offered by Patagonia to its employees and the education children get

“We provide on-site child care because we know parents are more productive if they’re not worrying about the safety and well-being of their children. … The staff-to-child ratio in all parts of the center exceeds what is required by the state, and the caregivers are highly trained, and most speak more than one language to the kids. … We encourage our parents to interact with their child by breast-feeding, having lunch together, or visiting at any time. More than once we have had a father who fell asleep with his child at naptime. The first few years of a child’s life are recognized as being the most important learning period of their entire lives. When their brains are actively growing is the best time for them to learn cognitive skills, including problem solving and sensory processing, and language, social, and emotional skills. They are also learning physical skills, including gross and fine motor skills, as well as perceptual skills. Allowing freedom to make mistakes and structuring opportunities for success gives children a sense of power over their environment that fuels self-esteem, independence, and problem solving. An outdoor experience ignites a world of learning and wonder for children that cannot be duplicated indoors. A child plugged into watching television for hours a day at home or at a low-quality child-care center is wasting many of these opportunities to develop their skills.

We encourage the kids to climb and fall and scrape themselves. When they are ready for kindergarten, their new teachers often comment that they are the most confident and polite children in class. We used to let the kids go barefoot all the time — until we started getting complaints from their teachers that the kids refused to wear shoes in class

Patagonia is consistently included in lists of the hundred best companies to work for and for working mothers. Why on earth would anyone run a company that was hard to work for?”

I liked the philosophy on change in the Management chapter, I think a lot of people get it, but few apply it, few can get away from the sweet comfort of monotony, of platitude … until it is to late. It could be interpreted as a liberal philosophy, but given that change will happen anyway, you cannot not think about Covey’s “be proactive” principle.

“The lesson to be learned is that evolution (change) doesn’t happen without stress, and it can happen quickly

People don’t understand that how you climb a mountain is more important than reaching the top

When there is no crisis, the wise leader or CEO will invent one. Not by crying wolf but by challenging employees with change … a wise leader knows that you also move when everything is going too well; everyone is laid-back, lazy, and happy. If you don’t move now, then you may not be able to move when the real crisis happens”

The Environmental Philosophy chapter is probably the most important of the book, given Patagonia’s and Mr Chouinard bleak perspective on planetary sustainability and the insufficient effort individuals, communities and companies do to change the dire course we are walking. While the part comprises of 6 sub-principles, I will quote the parts I considered relevant from an individual perspective, where the change really can start:

“I don’t really believe that humans are evil; it is just that we are not very intelligent animals. No animal is so stupid as to foul its own nest, except humans. We are certainly not smart enough to foretell the long-term results of our everyday actions.

The problem is a failure of the imagination. Uncurious people do not lead examined lives; they cannot see causes that lie deeper than the surface. They often believe in blind faith, and the most frightening thing about blind faith is that it in turn leads to an inability, even an unwillingness, to accept facts.”

The revolutionary belief, the hardship of walking the walk and the bias of rationalizing and also hope, that education is the key, proper education.

“Under certain circumstances, the company will also post bail for those who have taken a class in civil nonviolent disobedience and are subsequently arrested in support of environmental causes. When a government is breaking or refusing to enforce its own laws, then I believe civil disobedience is the rightful course of action.

If you ask people today what they want for their children, they’ll say they want to leave the world a better place, and they want to give their kids the things they didn’t have when they were growing up. But people aren’t making the choices necessary to make this rosy future happen. Part of the reason no one will act is that people perceive themselves differently from the way others see them. SUV owners are a good example. They know that their SUVs are a bad environmental choice for a vehicle, but they rationalize it by saying they only use them for short trips or for carrying lots of people and gear


The difficulty of convincing people to act is evident from walking through Patagonia’s own parking lots and offices. SUVs are studded all over the lot, and people are wearing jeans and shirts made from nonsustainable fibers grown with toxic chemicals. Even here, where everyone knows how bad all this stuff is, environmental values are a hard sell. One hopes that the kids coming out of our child-care center will do better.”

One passage about growing sustainable food has all the rational arguments … but do people follow this? Are they conscious food consumers, do they make the extra effort to organize themselves and consume sustainable food? Also a preview of the bullshit jobs topic that has come into attention in the past years, quite prescient.

“If we go back to these old ways, we win on three levels: First, we produce food that tastes better and is better for us. Second, we reduce unemployment — a lot of the conflict around the world has, as its source, the lack of meaningful work for generations of people displaced by technology. And finally, organic agriculture and responsible harvest and husbandry represent our best shot at saving the planet.”

Final chapter is a call for individuals to start acting and contains some good lines, then again talks about complacency and one part reminds me of Ray Dalio’s principle “Evolve or die”

“The Zen master would say if you want to change government, you have to aim at changing corporations, and if you want to change corporations, you first have to change the consumers. Whoa, wait a minute! The consumer? That’s me. You mean I’m the one who has to change?

In these trying times, when we are seeing the results of our high-tech, high-risk, and highly toxic economic system, many of us are questioning our frenetic consumer lifestyles. We yearn for a simpler life based not on refusing all technology but on going back to appropriate technology.

When I look at my business today, I realize one of the biggest challenges I have is combating complacency … In fact, one of the biggest mandates I have for managers at the company is to instigate change. It’s the only way we’re going to survive in the long run …

Our current landscape is filled with complacency, be it in the corporate world or on the environmental front. Only on the fringes of an ecosystem, those outer rings, do evolution and adaptation occur at a furious pace; the inner center of the system is where the entrenched, nonadapting species die off, doomed to failure by maintaining the status quo.

Evil doesn’t have to be an overt act; it can be merely the absence of good. If you have the ability, the resources, and the opportunity to do good and you do nothing, that can be evil.

A certain void exists now with the decline of so many good institutions that used to guide our lives, such as social clubs, religions, athletic teams, neighborhoods, and nuclear families, all of which had a unifying effect. They gave us a sense of belonging to a group, working toward a common goal. People still need an ethical center, a sense of their role in society. A company can help fill that void if it shows its employees and its customers that it understands its own ethical responsibilities and then can help them respond to their own.”

Last paragraph is quite conservative and it makes you wonder if there isn’t a mix of philosophy between liberalism and conservatism that could be the unifying truth that could solve the never-ending microscopic conflicts we see around us.

PS: How is this book not made into a documentary?

Written by

Data, Economics, Investments, Quality, Redesign— Romania

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