MR. HAND: Am I hallucinating here? Just what in the hell do you think you’re doing?
JEFF SPICOLI: Learning about Cuba and having some food.
—Fast Times at Ridgemont High, film, 1982
There is no single accepted definition of “intelligence,” yet most of us know it when we see it. Some might value verbal jousting or quick wit. Others revere analytical prowess and pattern recognition. Maybe intelligence manifests as the ability to take care of your own crap without resorting to mechanics, the IT department or other experts. If you devote your life to pursuing adventure sports, all of these qualities can help you.
WE WANTED TO EXPLORE THE RELATIONSHIP between thinking and doing, between perception and proprioception, between pursuing your dreams—and living someone else’s. To address this admittedly First World conundrum, we rounded up discerning dirtbags, clever climbers and rational radicals to see how adventure sports, education (self- and formal), resort towns and risk-taking all hang in the matrix.
Is our definition of intelligence too narrow to contain the split-second decision-making, athletic intuition, and heightened proprioception necessary to become a Travis Rice, Kelly Slater or Candide Thovex, not to mention the creativity and biz smarts required to succeed at their level? Mainstream TV viewers will see the rad in that 10-second clip, but will they acknowledge the smarts it took to get there?
Have we maybe bought into the extreme mindset that all of us are super passionate but kinda dumb fun junkies?
What matters more, a degree or degree of difficulty? Should you pursue your passion at all costs or find a way to let adventure, education and career concerns coalesce and resonate? As we’ll see below, there are no definitive answers, but the best among our tribe don’t see the equation as either/or” and never will.
Marcus Hutter, PhD, an artificial intelligence researcher in Australia, co-authored a wee paper in 2006 with Shane Legg, PhD, that attempts to define “intelligence” by looking at all accepted descriptions of the notion. From dictionaries to sage psych tomes, they collected over 70, the largest lexicon of its kind.
What matters more, a degree or degree of difficulty? Should you pursue your passion at all costs or find a way to let adventure, education and career concerns coalesce and resonate?
The standout from the 18 layman definitions is from a humble encyclopedia: “[The] general mental ability involved in calculating, reasoning, perceiving relationships and analogies, learning quickly, storing and retrieving information, using language fluently, classifying, generalizing, and adjusting to new situations.”
The best definition by the eggheads is from R.J. Sternberg, former president of the American Psychological Association, an outspoken critic of IQ tests and a champion of creativity: “I prefer to refer to it as ‘successful intelligence.’ And the reason is that the emphasis is on the use of your intelligence to achieve success in your life. So I define it as your skill in achieving whatever it is you want to attain in your life within your sociocultural context…”
Socioculturally, as gravity slaves, many of us have found ourselves a (odds with the college-career path because it gets in the way of, say, our appetite for singletrack. Society might write off the young, 3.9 GPA-woman dumping a full-ride bio-chem sponsorship to try and become a professional freerider, yet by some expert definitions of intelligence (see above) she’s actually making a smart move. She can use the same awesome, God-given mental hard drive that helped her breeze through freshman physics to become a 4.0 freerider.
Raph Bruwhiler Photo: Jerermy Koreski
Surfers must adapt to a wave that is different every second (“adjusting to new situations”). Mountain bikers have to give themselves over to their front tires and shocks to harness gravity (g0) and friction (μ) in a way that makes the most of their $10K gear investment and without making a mockery of their $60K education (“perceiving relationships”). Career risk takers—be it big-mountain, big-wave or superpipe—aren’t typically the “raw-nerve, screw-loose” types offered on MTV; they’re usually experts in risk management and self-belief above all else.
DAVE SHORT, 30, A (THE?) PRO SNOWBOARDER with a philosophy degree, nails the equation: “I play through sports because it is fun and prefer the sports that give me higher adrenaline boosts, he says. “I feel sharp as a blade and very aware and intelligent when I am performing big mountain lines that most people think I ought not to be doing... You can’t expect a mountain man with no formal education to be able to write a paper on string theory, just in the same way that you couldn’t demand a physicist with no experience to analyze a big-mountain slope for potential hazards, avalanche trigger points, and then successfully navigate his way down.”
A climber eyeing up a short free solo finds her first hold and computes, from her fingertips, the amount of moisture the limestone retains, how much !#&*%! sunscreen’s left in there and how much tougher the crosswind’s going to make that undercling. This data is of no use to any other person in the world but her. Yet, once she’s 60 feet off the deck and far out of sight of the parking lot, this knowledge at her fingertips is more valuable than her MBA or jedi-yogi stature. (Plus, who’ll feed “Prusik,” her heeler-rescue mix, if she peels?)
“Almost everything I own fits in my van and by being homeless I get to travel all over...working from coffee shops and climbing and mountain biking in my spare time,” Leonard continues. “It makes me happy, and I think that’s intelligent."
A lifelong surfer checks his iPhone as a $0.99 app gives him basic information on swell and wind speed. Without really “thinking about it,” his (admittedly kinda-green) grey matter crunches data on this break he grew up at, factoring in tides, crowds, kelpiness, etc. As his breakfast burrito drips molten lava onto his bare torso, and he scratches some old salt from behind his ear, he might not look…smart. But he has knowledge of his chosen environment that even an oceanographer with a desk full of charts might have a hard time calculating. (Dude could play chess with a dolphin—and win!)
“I think it’s interesting what we consider to be ‘intelligent’ and what we think is of value,” says Brendan Leonard, 34, a climber and the brain behind the outdoor blog Semi-Rad.com. “If you graduate from Ivy League schools and get a great job and buy lots of nice things, we’re probably more apt to think you’re intelligent than if you live near the mountains and work less so you can ski, climb or bike more. I got a 36/36 on the science portion of the ACT [US college admissions standardized test], a 31 overall score, have a master’s degree and am in my mid-30s; I live in a van and have a very low net worth. Are people like me unintelligent? …
“Almost everything I own fits in my van and by being homeless I get to travel all over...working from coffee shops and climbing and mountain biking in my spare time,” Leonard continues. “It makes me happy, and I think that’s intelligent. I don’t think anybody’s moving to Moab, or Jackson…because they’re driven to be an astrophysicist or a successful investment banker, but I think people are after a different type of richness and inspiration, which a lot of us get by spending time in beautiful places.”
Pep Fujas in the Whistler Backcountry Photo: Blake Jorgenson
When you fully immerse yourself in your sport, you are probably choosing adrenaline over opportunity at some level. Perhaps even action over intellect in some ways. You want to surf some phantom point break or ski Air Jordan and you are choosing, at least temporarily, to feed your soul rather than your bank account and/or “intellectual” mind. The city will always be there. College can wait. Sleep when you’re dead. Etc.
ADVENTURE ATHLETES FROM ALMOST ANYWHERE can truly excel and become sponsored pros, or possibly be absorbed into their sport’s industry, but what about the hardcore enthusiast who wants to keep it pure, letting a 150-day ski season in California’s Mammoth be its own reward?
Bruce Lee said, “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once; I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.” Lee was right, (and Malcolm Gladwell probably ripped him off, too). Getting really good at an insanely fun thing that has no value beyond itself is a form of smart—if you squint. It’s just that it’s one that’s really hard to explain to your parents...
The problems arise when you move to Tofino for that “year” before college to surf and wake up a few years later, 41, living on a decomposing boat, perennially baked, and the father of two—no, three!—kids. The fish-plant stink has permeated your very being. You haven’t paddled out since October. You just traded your 5/3 steamer wetsuit for a Swedish stroller with four inches of travel.
“I did meet a lot of people [in a resort town] who didn’t seem motivated to grow or challenge themselves past keeping their ability to work winters on the mountain, travel in mud season, and then find a rafting job...for the summer,” says Rachel Wright, 30, a multi-sport enthusiast from Portland, Oregon. “It’s enviable in someone fresh out of college but depressing when that person is middle-aged and still ‘living the dream.’”
The problems arise when you move to Tofino for that “year” before college to surf and wake up a few years later, 41, living on a decomposing boat, perennially baked, and the father of two—no, three!—kids. The fish-plant stink has permeated your very being. You haven’t paddled out since October.
Jasmin Caton on The Shadows 5.12d, Squamish, BC Photographer: Paul Bride
So, what’s ultimately more valuable: A degree? Or a few years of truly living your passion? Stephen Thoreson, 36, a civil engineer and serious solo adventurer from Seattle, ponders the question: “[An] engaging life can be had in either scenario, so what’s valuable here?” he asks. “Knowing what you want. And if you don’t, follow your bliss. Let your gut set the course and your brain work out the details.”
THORESEN KNOWS OF WHAT HE SPEAKS: he once hiked the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail) solo and had so much fun he did it again a few years later, travelling 3,219 and 4,265 kilometres (2,000 and 2,650 miles), from Canada to Mexico. His pack wasn’t light enough so he built his own, and then he built his own tent, too. He also solo kayaked from Seattle to Alaska, rode a bike to the Arctic Ocean, then turned around to ride “downhill” to Seattle and was having so much fun he kept going—to Key West, Florida. Oh, and two years ago he rode his DR650 motorbike from Seattle to New York City, put it on a plane and then rooped it from Barcelona to Vladivostok: 41,803 kilometres (25,975 miles) total, all alone.
Sean Penn’s Spicoli character in Fast Times at Ridgemont High wasn’t damaging to surfers forevermore because he was so dumb. Spicoli was that perfect idiot-savant you do meet billowing out of smoky vans in state beach lots. Penn nailed it: that’s the problem.
In a brilliant blog titled, “Sick, Brah: The Ineloquence of Talking About The Outdoors,” Brendan Leonard writes, “I always wanted to be a writer, so I read great authors… Then I went to college, then grad school. The kinds of things that increase your odds of being able to hold your own in an intellectual conversation at a dinner party… Then I became a climber, which somehow made me less likely to quote Shakespeare, and more likely to refer to The Big Lebowski or the Beastie Boys.”
A doctorate in philology is never going to help you express the inexpressible feeling you have after your first day heliskiing. The sports we’re talking about here are personal, rich, exciting endeavours that, at their best, are beyond language in a weird way. That’s almost their point in some metaphysical sense.
Wright concurs: “You probably aren’t going to dive into Foucault’s Panopticon on the lift, but you can certainly talk about all the untracked turns under Six Chair.”
Your librarian mom or Dow-scientist dad chiding you for butchering the language isn’t necessarily pedantic either, bro. (“Double-dudes” notwithstanding.) How you speak has a lot to do with how smart people deem you to be, and when talking about our favourite thing in the world, a lot of us turn into THC-dipped cretins.
That said, a doctorate in philology is never going to help you express the inexpressible feeling you have after your first day heliskiing. The sports we’re talking about here are personal, rich, exciting endeavours that, at their best, are beyond language in a weird way. That’s almost their point in some metaphysical sense: all by your lonesome you can be subsumed into a mountain, a wave or a slab of granite in the way Wittgenstein would insist we are trapped in, and by, language.
Deep can come across as blank.
You might talk about snowboarding all the time (tricks, video parts) but, in my experience, a truly epic powder day—one of those once-in-a-decade ones—tends to shut you the fuck up. Why? Because talking about it dilutes its power, its meaning. Talking about it gives it to somebody else. And that day was YOURS.
Nate Goodman, 39, a snow, surf and skate enthusiast from Portland, Oregon, who works on both Portlandia and Grimm, two of the sharpest shows on TV, used to live in sleepy Hood River, Oregon, for 12 years and had a lot of time to think when the snow sucked. “I think it’s very likely to meet passionate people in a lift line, surf lineup or skatepark. And I believe that intelligence can really be talked about as a measure of passion and practice,” he says. “The more something holds your attention or captures the imagination, the more knowledge one gains of the subject… To me, the ability to recognize something that you love to do, and pursue [its] regular practice, is one of the most intelligent things any being can do…
“The importance of physical movement in learning [shouldn’t be understated]. I have been practicing yoga since I was a teenager, and more recently tai chi, and this is a very important concept in those worlds,” he continues. “Shaolin monks meditate with movement. Engaging the body requires the mind to split work between physical and mental. If we look at the right brain-left brain theory, half is controlling physics, scientific thought, and the other is creative. Sports that require the use of both sides of the brain naturally expand intelligence.”
Similarly, Devendra Banhart, a musician for whom skateboarding started it all back in Caracas, recently told Xgames.com: “If I am initially attracted to a sport, that is not a sport, but an active meditation or a meditation activity. Skateboarding is immediate freedom.”
Immediate Freedom. Active Meditation. Where’d Spicoli go?
“I always wanted to be a writer, so I read great authors… Then I went to college, then grad school. The kinds of things that increase your odds of being able to hold your own in an intellectual conversation at a dinner party… Then I became a climber, which somehow made me less likely to quote Shakespeare, and more likely to refer to The Big Lebowski or the Beastie Boys.”
The classic X-treme sports type does exist as portrayed by the sugar-water peddlers: young, male, Caucasian. Mad ADHD. Mad talent. Sponsored in grade 10. Quit school in grade 11 to join the show. Live for the moment. Bring your homies with you. Die doing what you love!
“THERE ARE SO MANY PEOPLE DOING ADVENTURE SPORTS NOW that they are all just microcosms of life; there are savants and idiots and everything under the bell curve,” says Julez Orr, 38, the man behind Skookum Surf Co. in Seaview, Washington. “I think when sports start out, the first folks in the door setting the culture, designing the equipment, breaking limits are all gifted in one or more forms of intelligence.”
As an acolyte of such sports, you’ll actually face your fears and desires regularly -- e.g. dangling off a 50 ft. cliff by a sapling. If you nearly die doing something you love and continue to do it, many will write you off as daft. But maybe the person who has actually felt Death’s hot breath on their neck knows more about living than the ontology student surrounded by airbags, books, and a lawyer-run nanny state.
“[Mono]-dimensional fun junkies of any…adventure sport are not actually intelligent when they’ll do anything for their ego and have nothing else going for them,” says Ptor Spricenieks, a freethinking ski mountaineer with a butt load of legit first descents. “[They] are missing a balance in their awareness. Therefore, intelligence shouldn’t be the point at all but rather conscience and consciousness. The brain can remember, repeat and calculate all kinds of twisted stuff that can, depending on semantics, be deemed intelligent.”
So what’s smarter: Working your way up the ladder or being First Five to Spanky’s? Knowing your limits or accepting those imposed by your parents’ suburban mega-church?
(See? You knew those were rhetorical questions!)
WHEN ASKED WHAT HE’S ENJOYED MOST about the unorthodox smart folks he’s met on his many off-the-grid missions, Thoreson says the best part of these occasional exchanges is “The proof that I’m not alone. It’s like a small shot of validation and [it] counters all those ‘That’s crazy!’ comments that people put out so effortlessly. I don’t feel crazy, quite the contrary, really. What looks crazy to me is to take this one, incomprehensible shot at being alive and spend substantial portions of it dreaming about what you want to do and never doing it. Fuck that. You’re going to get your nuts kicked in no matter what happens around here… Might as well be doing something you find interesting.”/