Connecting surfing to a more meaningful life--new book tackles complex subjects

By @sachintrivedig on
Aaron James
Aaron James, author of "Surfing with Sartre AN AQUATIC INQUIRY INTO A LIFE OF MEANING." Credit: Aaron James

Can surfing teach you how to live a more meaningful life? Aaron James certainly thinks so. The bestselling author who wrote “A--holes: A Theory” has come out with a new book “Surfing with Sartre: AN AQUATIC INQUIRY INTO A LIFE OF MEANING.”

The book tackles complex subjects of philosophy like work-life balance, capitalism and climate change. In an interview with International Business Times Australia, James teased details about some of the questions he explored in his work. 

International Business Times: Your book connects surfing with philosophy. When and how did you first come up with this idea?

Aaron James: I guess I've had vague ideas about it for a long time, but only had a sense of how to go about it after I wrote _A--holes_. There the approach is to run a bunch of philosophical questions through a certain type of person. Grounded in that way, I found I could connect up big ideas in a way one can't in specialized academic philosophy. The surfing book takes the same approach. I run an even more ambitious set of questions for the ages through surfing, or what the surfer knows in knowing how to ride a wave, which is "adaptive attunement."

IB Times: At the start of the book you spoke about the leisurely style of capitalism we enjoy. But the technological changes today have led to a lot of job losses, mostly due to automation. What are your thoughts on the current situation of society?

James: The forty-hour workweek was a huge improvement at the time. It was the beginning of the leisure revolution within capitalism, in which it is understood that work isn't everything. We could be working even less by now if workers were seeing the benefits of technological innovation. We produce more and more per hour, but workers in large swaths aren't getting raises over decades. So shouldn't they at least be paid in extra time? You get the same wage for a shorter and shorter and shorter workweek, with more time for surfing or fishing or time with the kids. I think people would feel much happier about that. They'd feel richer overall. There'd be less unemployment. And maybe, just maybe, this might assuage the angst and anger Americans now feel about not getting ahead, about not getting the "American dream" for their labors. Time, I'm thinking, should be part of a new "social compact."

IB Times: There is an interesting notion in the book about how a surfer should work less, but more efficiently, in order to free up time to enjoy life (go surfing). However, most people tend to chase dollars in the hope to be happy in the future. How does one solve this problem?

James: The key is realizing that you'll get used to having a bit more money and revert back to your current level of happiness. We don't account for our adaptability, so we're bad at predicting how happy we'll be if we got richer. Plus, you have to constantly remind yourself that all the myth-making and idolatry on TV, the movies, and social media is frankly a lot of B.S., which is all about driving sales, vanity, or a misplaced need to feel worthy or an equal. The cultural onslaught is so steady and ubiquitous that you need a daily, almost religious dedication to staying clear for yourself about what matters most. A life of working less requires that kind of discipline, that kind of virtue.

IB Times: You also touched on the idea of how conspicuous consumption is the main contributing factor to climate change, and how the workaholic is the real "troublemaker." Please talk about how the surfer is the ideal citizen of the future with regards to climate change.

James: It's a weird thought but true: nowadays taking more "leisure" and keeping it simple is not self-indulgence; it can contribute to society, by making the climate change problem a little bit less terrible than it would otherwise be. I think we shouldn't bet the farm on a technological fix to climate change, in which case (along with more urgent measures) we'll have to also do things like cutting back the workweek, which would reduce emissions significantly. But is that feasible for us given our attachment to the Protestant work ethic? Not if the workaholic is our model, and "just work harder" is suppose to be the answer to our ills. Then we might well be doomed, because we can't adapt capitalism as we have to. Surfers mostly work, but they're happy to work less and surf more. In that respect they're a new model of civic virtue.

IB Times: Although the idea of having more free time to spend with kids and take up other leisure activities sounds exciting, at the same time it can be a little terrifying to people who have been brought up thinking the only way to live life is to work hard and make as much money as possible. Do you think people will be able to transition into this better way of life?

James: I think so -- after sorting through our confusions. We often confuse "hard work" for money and "getting ahead" with the value of *efficiency* or *skillful activity* or *hands-on, full on embodied engagement with the world, without too much thinking.* The meaning people now find in work and paychecks can be found elsewhere, but it requires time and timing, rest and persistence. Things can come easily, but only with a measure of focus and discipline, while gradually taking on now challenges or directions. Surfers really know that, as do fishermen and mountain climbers, or even golfers. Even charitable service involves similar attunement and overcoming, while simply enjoying others. Everyone can appreciate this, or live more consistently with what they already know. The key, I think, is getting clearer about why work matters and finding your "surfing" -- not as a "hobby," but as big part of the very meaning of your life, of what all the work for money is for.