I’ve always looked at other businesses and hobbies to find parallels for my work in the booze industry, originally starting with professional wrestling and the similarities between the levels of fan involvement. The connections are truly uncanny! Today, however, I’m fixated on surfing analogies. I’ve never surfed in my life. I know little about it other than what I’ve seen in the Endless Summer movies (the first films that really inspired me to travel), but for some reason I’ve uncovered an incredible amount of correlations lately that have helped me better understand both my own field and my own values. I really relate to the philosophies involved with surfing if not so much the beach lifestyle. I’ve always had a vague interest in the sport, but my interest picked up again a little over two years ago after interviewing surfing hall of famer Taylor Knox for the D2D series. He was a man very in tune with himself and I was caught off guard by how much I related to his experiences. We talked for a while about finding balance in life without having to make drastic changes, a far cry from what I saw going on around me at that time in Silicon Valley, where everything is about creating huge, monumental shifts. One day you’re eating pasta and drinking wine, the next day you’re gluten free and training for a marathon. People where I live are constantly searching for ways to hack and dominate life, rather than find harmony with it. Surfing philosophy has a lot to do with the latter, which is what got me started in my research.
It was around that same time that I started reading a magazine called The Surfer’s Journal, one that I still subscribe to today and wholly enjoy despite the fact I’ve never once had the desire to pick up a surfboard (although I did start skateboarding again last year as a result). After taking my nephews up and down the Las Vegas strip yesterday, pooping them out with endless activity and lessons on gambling, I finally got into bed and began reading the latest issue, including an interview with surfer Bobby Martinez who apparently hated surfing for much of the time he was a professional. Reading his account of life on the pro tour resonated with me in a very personal way. There was a time not so long ago where the business of wine and spirits was ruining the act of drinking for me, something I’ve enjoyed immensely since I was about fifteen years old. While turning your hobby into your job can remove all the pleasure derived for just about anyone, Bobby’s experience seemed to run close to my personal struggle. His words reassured me that I wasn't alone with my doubts or frustration:
“During my whole surfing career, there was no satisfaction the entire time,” he says in the interview with writer Jake Howard; “I hated it. I had the best waves of my life and it was all hate because I wasn’t surfing for the right reasons. Today it’s for pure enjoyment. You’re out in the water and you’re alone by yourself. There’s something beautiful about that. You leave all the bullshit behind.”
There seems to be something very spiritual about surfing, which is why I think it’s like a religion for many of the folks who do it. I see people getting religious about whiskey today as well, making pilgrimages to their favorite facilities, bowing down on the hallowed distillery grounds, sometimes even weeping as they take communion—a dram of their favorite malt—from an ordained master distiller. It’s not uncommon at all these days for a hobby to replace organized religion as the end all be all of existence, a new form of dogma for those who live and die by their interests. I was emailing with a customer this past week about the similarities between the modern church of whiskey and Christianity, both the good and the bad, when he responded with something quite profound. I’m posting it below with his permission:
“Your analogy of Christianity made me recall a conversation I had about twenty years ago with an older uncle who was a Protestant minister. We got along great and enjoyed having lunch from time to time and he asked me one day, “What made you choose to no longer attend church?" I laid out my case of intellectual grievances and when I was done he said to me, “All that stuff is about the hypocrisy of making the adherence to morality into a contest. What I wonder is: did anyone ever teach you that church is supposed to be an expression of joy and love?" I’ve never forgotten that. I still don't go to church, but from that day forward I stopped exclusively thinking of spirituality in terms of ideology. I learned that people attend services to find joy, not to do whatever I was sitting around grumbling about them doing.”
I was very moved by this experience (and the fact that this customer shared this with me) because again it’s an account of what happens when we become disheartened by the realities of humanity and lose both the meaning and the enjoyment of activities that were once important to us. Surfer Bobby Martinez lost his passion for wave riding when he began associating it with everything making him unhappy in his life. I know many people who have lost their interest for whiskey, much like my customer lost his interest for religion, for the same reasons. They begin obsessing over everything possibly related to whiskey—the prices, the production details, the scarcity, the reviews—and they completely lose touch with what interested them about whiskey in the first place. I’ve watched newcomers get seriously into the hobby and then burn out within a year, never to buy a bottle again. I’ve also seen hardcore collectors evolve into casual drinkers, having done a little self examination and realized that drinking is supposed to be something enjoyable not stressful or aggravating. Much like with any religion, everyone’s journey is different, but sometimes hearing about those journeys can help us tremendously in improving our own.
Regardless of whether you take it literally or not, the Bible is still a giant book of parables and experiences that are meant to help us understand and find meaning in our own lives. Many of us seek fellowship in shared experiences and wisdom from the trials of others. We rejoice in finding similarities between our struggles. While I don’t attend church today, I’m in constant need of that exact same therapy; it’s just that I search for it in comparative analytics rather than a communal cathedral with religious scripture. Lately I’ve found a lot of personal meaning in the accounts of both amateur and professional surfers, but next month it could be something else. It might even be professional wrestling again, even though I stopped following it years ago. However, I did spend Saturday night at the Rio hotel drinking California cabernet with some of my childhood heroes of the squared circle. I hardly said a word the entire time, taking it all in. After three hours of incredible stories, I found a deep communion with those giant men. The booze business and wrestling have so much in common it’s crazy! Sometimes listening is the best therapy. Through the tribulations of others we often better understand own joy and our passion.