Pursue Your Passion Without Burning Out With 11x World Champion Surfer Kelly Slater

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Every Monday on The Verywell Mind Podcast , Editor-in-Chief Amy Morin, LCSW, interviews authors, experts, entrepreneurs, athletes, musicians, and other inspirational people about the strategies that help them think, feel, and do their best in life.

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Episode Transcript

Editor’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript does not go through our standard editorial process and may contain inaccuracies and grammatical errors. Thank you.

For media or public speaking inquiries, email Amy at amorin@verywellmind.com.

Welcome to the Verywell Mind podcast. I’m Amy Morin, editor-in-chief of Verywell Mind. I’m also a psychotherapist and a bestselling author of 5 books on mental strength.

Every Monday I introduce you to a mentally strong person whose story and mental strength tips can inspire you to think, feel, and do your best in life.

And the fun part is, we record the show from a sailboat in the FL Keys.

Don’t forget to subscribe to the show on your favorite platform so you can get mental strength tips delivered to you every week.

Now let’s dive into today’s episode.

Today I’m talking to Kelly Slater, the greatest professional surfer of all time. He’s been the world surf league champion 11 times and he holds 56 Championship Tour victories. He’s the oldest surfer in the World Surf League at the age of 51. And he’s still winning championships. He won his 8th Billabong Pipeline Masters title at the age of 49. As you’ll hear in the episode, he’s headed to the Olympics too.

Kelly started surfing when he was 5. By age 10, he was winning titles. So I wanted to know how he stayed passionate about surfing for more than 45 years without burning out. We see so many other people who after just a few years of doing something they love, walk away because it’s no longer fun anymore. This seems to be especially true when people turn their passion into a competition or when they try to earn money by doing something they love. Sometimes, it just isn’t fun anymore.

So today, Kelly talks about how he manages his mental health, and he explains how he’s stayed passionate and competitive without burning out.

Make sure to stick around until the end of the episode for The Therapist’s Take. It’s the part of the show where I’ll give you my take on Kelly’s mental strength-building strategies and I’ll share how you can apply them to your own life.

So here’s Kelly Slater on how to stay passionate without burning out.

Amy Morin : Kelly Slater, welcome to The Very Well Mind Podcast.

Kelly Slater : Thank you.

Amy Morin : So we podcast from a boat in the ocean, but you're the first surfer that we've had to come on the show. So we're excited to talk to you today.

Kelly Slate r: Interesting. You're on a boat now?

Amy Morin : I am. We podcast from a boat. So I heard something and I can't wait for you to tell me if it's true that you are interested in being in the 2024 Olympics.

Kelly Slater : Yes.

Amy Morin : Good for you. So now I also know with Tom Brady's recent retirement, people must be asking, like Kelly, aren't you thinking about retiring anytime soon?

Kelly Slater : Yeah, they're doing the same thing when he retired last year.

Amy Morin : Exactly. How about for you? Do you think about retirement or are you going to surf forever?

Kelly Slater : There's a small part of, in the back of my brain that makes me think that maybe I convinced Tom to go one more year, but I don't think, but I put a post up when he announced his retirement and I was like, come on man, you still got it in you. But yeah, I think about retirement a lot actually at this point. I have had some injuries. My life's gotten a lot more busy with work and other things. My daughter just got married. Life just evolves and surfing isn't the number one thing all the time. So I mean it is as my pleasure. But as far as competing and being completely, totally on top of my best level, my equipment, my mindset for competing, I've struggled a bit the last couple years to have the same desires that I had when I was younger and that's okay because that's just how things go.

Amy Morin : How have you not burned out from surfing after doing it for so long?

Kelly Slater : I probably have. Competitively I have. I know I have competitively. It's all I want to do when I was younger, it was my way to stamp my place in the world I guess. But just at the end of the day, I love surfing more than anything else. So it's not that hard to go and get paid for it.

Amy Morin : I happen to be a therapist and as a therapist, I know that we use surfing a lot of times for mental health issues. There's tons of studies that show surfing is good for PTSD for depression. There's surf camps and surf therapy going on in the world. But I'm curious, when you compete when you turn surfing into a competitive sport, what does that do to your mental health?

Kelly Slater : I don't know because I did that when I was eight years old and I haven't stopped, but it does create a stress. There are times when I have separation from it and then I start to compete and I realize that a lot of the trappings that come along with using the thing as a career you're turning something that you love to just do as a hobby, as a kid, into work and that it's a little bit of it messes with your mind a little bit I guess. Because the thing that gives you an outlet as a child, for me it gave me a real outlet to get away from people and be on my own and make my own decisions and figure out who I was and how my mind worked, all those kind of things. And just time alone out in the water and then it turns into a job and then eventually I became world champion and fame and money and all those kind of things come with it. And it is a little bit tricky to navigate at times because you don't know where you begin and end somewhere in there.

Amy Morin : Yeah, I was going to ask about that. How does fame factor into all of this? Because clearly you're all over the tabloids, even all these years later. Everybody still talks about Kelly Slater. How's that affected your life? And again, you probably don't know anything different because you've been famous since you started competing as a kid.

Kelly Slater : Yeah, some of those things are or have been annoying in my life. Some things I don't know. I always felt like if something came from surfing from my surfing and my success in surfing, then it was something positive and good. Anything else that's been would be from personal stuff that can be annoying, but it's also been part of the fun and the excitement of life. It's very strange to see yourself in a tabloid magazine no matter what.

Amy Morin : I can imagine. How have you stayed mentally healthy throughout all of it?

Kelly Slater : Have you evaluated me?

Amy Morin : We're going on the assumption that you have some degree of mental health.

Kelly Slater : Well, you need to recognize, I think everyone needs to recognize they need some help with things and that's a healthy thing to do. My girlfriend and I go to therapy, I do things very specifically that help me separate from my normal life and try to help me get a perspective that's healthier or help with things that, look, everyone's got issues in life, family stuff and work stuff and anxiety. So you have to find some kind of outlet that works for you. Some of those are healthy and some are unhealthy. I think surfing has been that for me, but then that's where it gets tricky because that thing that's helped me has also become a job. You actually mentioned surfing with regards to PTSD. I met a guy. He had done 11 tours of Afghanistan and Iraq and he was very affected and he's an Australian military guy and he told me that without his prescriptions, prescription drugs to keep his brain in certain working order and surfing that he wouldn't be alive today. And he said surfing was really the big part of that that's helped him enjoy his life and separate the difficult things that are stuck in there.

Amy Morin : That's amazing. And surfing's the trifecta. We have nature, physical activity, being outside doing something that you can do as an individual, all of the things that we usually say are good for mental health. But I'm glad you talked a little bit about what it's like then to turn that into then competing and figuring out how do you make a living off of this and the pressure and the risk of burnout and all of those other things that probably come with it.

Kelly Slater : Yeah, there's definitely a part of me that we just did this, we're doing this show that we've been promoting called Make or Break. And in the show in the one that they focus on me from last year, I win this event in Hawaii and I do an interview afterwards and people have asked me, a bunch of people have asked me, what did you mean by what you said there? And I said something about I've loved it and I've hated it. It's been everything all wrapped up into one. And so it's been all my dreams coming true. But at the same time there's a big part of it that I've resented in a lot of ways because there's things that come along with success that you don't like that are painful that confuse you. And so it was hard to give a context to what I said, but that's really what I meant.

Amy Morin : Well sometimes people assume or they have that saying, if you turn your passion into your business or you make an income on the things you love, you'll never work a day in your life. But I don't believe that. I think even when you love doing something, there's days it still feels like work.

Kelly Slater : It still feels like work, but I can think of a lot worse things to do. The things people have to do for work. I have two brothers that have to go work hard, they have a different life than me and one of them is working on boats, the other's doing construction. He has actually hurt his shoulder right now so he can't work for two months. And the anxiety and the stress that comes with that is really difficult. In a lot of ways that's a lot more difficult than anything I have to deal with.

Amy Morin : Can I ask you about that too? What's that like to you grew up in a working-class family and then you suddenly become this famous surfer and you have this completely different lifestyle than probably a lot of your friends and your family did and it's different from what you knew growing up, what's that been like?

Kelly Slater : It's been awesome. As a kid I used to read surf magazines, I fell in love with surfing at a very young age. I would look at surf magazines and just dream of going to Hawaii, of going to Australia, of surfing these different waves, of meeting my heroes and maybe competing alongside of them one day. I didn't think of that as a kid, but yeah, eventually came to that and I got to do all that and it's been absolutely a dream. Met the most incredible people all around the world, been in contact with just the who's who around this Earth in music and sports and all that stuff. And it's really been enjoyable to dip your foot into all these different walks of life and cultures and have friends in Fiji or Tahiti or Ireland or Japan. You could just pick the phone up and call anyone around the world that you want to make contact with. Oh, I got a friend going there and hey, you got to eat at this restaurant, you got to call this person. It's so fun for me that my life has really happened around the world and to be exposed to so many people and that's probably the most special thing to me about it.

Amy Morin : Was that ever your dream or have you exceeded even your wildest dreams of what you imagined life could be like?

Kelly Slater : It's probably exceeded it exponentially to be honest. Yeah, because when you work towards something for decades, a lot of things just keep happening. And I don't know, it's hard to explain, but I feel like I had this inner belief as a kid that all this great stuff could happen in my life. And I think a lot of it was because our family wasn't super happy at home and my parents had a bad relationship and we had a lot of toxic stuff in our environment and not as bad as some. Worse than others. And I think I got just caught up daydreaming about what life could be one day and went out and made that a reality for myself. And I'm super pleased with how my life's been. Not everything's perfect, but that's part of the spiritual aspect of life, the lessons you need to learn, the things you need to go through in order to become evolved and a better version of yourself. So I don't bring up negative things to complain more just to acknowledge that there's work to do and growth to happen.

Amy Morin : So would you say then some of the difficulties you've experienced during childhood also helped you have that drive to become who you are today?

Kelly Slater : Oh for sure. Absolutely. I think I was born into when you get older and everyone wants to get mad at their parents about this or that, and I've definitely gone through that with both my parents over the years. My father passed away 20 years ago, but I've been through all that as I grow, but you wouldn't be who you are without them no matter what and you wouldn't exist. And those lessons are things you need to go through because they're not just for you, they're for your family, they're for humanity, they're for something bigger than yourself and you don't know who you're going to get in touch with in this world and change. So it's good to always, no matter who you are, have some bigger picture of the world and everything around you.

Amy Morin : And you do a lot of things for the planet and for outside of surfing too, I've seen you comment on things and working on charity things and educating people about the planet and doing things bigger than surfing too.

Kelly Slater : Well, I'm interested in those things and no one should be narcissistic enough to think they're the person that's going to change everything in the world and no one should also think so little of themselves that they can't. So you should just have a healthy perspective that hey, maybe my support on this thing can be helpful. Maybe I'll learn something I could pass on to someone who could do something good with it. So as far as social media goes, I think the great thing about it is just connecting people around the world and allowing people access to information. Of course there's a really strong heavy negative side to that and opinionated thing and I think that's actually driving a lot of people crazy, including myself at times. But the access to people, the networking of people around the world to solve problems is all there to be had.

Amy Morin : Do you have any strategies that you use to stay healthy? Even if you're using social media.

Kelly Slater : Try to forget about it. Everything you see on there, no one's going to remember it in two weeks at most if it's a huge big problem. But yeah, social media can be toxic. I've had people wish me death on social media many times for a comment or an opinion, literally I'll come find you. Almost like scary stuff. And I think those people probably don't even remember they did that, it's weird because there's this separation. You're not in front of the person. 50 years ago, 30 years ago, 20 years ago, they could just punch you in the face. Now there's a paper trail and it turns into this whole thing. It's like a legal battle, but at the same time people can say whatever they want with no accountability behind that. And so the face-to-face interactions with people are really what should build you up and make you who you are. And I think the social media thing, it's sad because you see a lot of kids struggling with it. There's a lot of bullying that goes on. I think there's a lot of stuff that you don't see unless you're really right in these little pockets of people. I hear these stories of kids being bullied in school by other people and then committing suicide and it's just terrible just because people want to be mean, it's life's a struggle for everybody in some capacity. And social media can make it harder. But like I said, it can bring you great access to a lot of really wonderful things also.

Amy Morin : I believe that as well. Is there anything that you do on a daily basis to work on your mindset or to stay as mentally healthy as you can?

Kelly Slater : I try to do something active each day. I surf a lot. I golf, I do jiu-jitsu from time to time. I play guitar a lot. I've been playing guitar for 35 years or something. So I just strum the guitar every day. I actually really like playing guitar right before I go to bed because it helps my mind just relax and just be right in the moment. And so we got a siren going by. And I focus on my diet. I try to focus on my diet a lot and my intake, I have a sauna and a cold plunge about 10 feet away from where we're sitting right here. So I try to do that almost every single day. It's a great way to start the day. In fact, a couple nights ago I did the cold plunge when my girlfriend came out and I was shaking violently. I think I had it set at, I don't know, it wasn't like the freezing freezing ice. I had it at 49 or 48 degrees. But I went as long as I could until my body was just shaking uncontrollably and she's like, whoa, is that okay for you? I think it's actually good because your body's fighting. It's a controlled stressor on your body. So I try to do things that make me slightly uncomfortable. I have a pretty cush life, my house is paid off and I get to travel and I get paid to do this stuff. So it's really easy to get complacent and get lazy. So I just constantly am trying to stimulate myself mentally and physically and include things I like doing.

Amy Morin : Clearly it works for you because here you still are competing. Last question for you, what can we expect from the next season of Make or Break? I haven't watched it yet, but I'm looking forward to it. And I actually, I came across you years ago because I watched Riding Giants and became super interested in the fact that surfers are out there doing this cool stuff. So what can we expect from season two of this show?

Kelly Slater : It's really a behind the scenes. I couldn't tell you the other, I haven't watched all the shows. I've only literally watched my episode, well I call it my episode because they really focus on me for the first, or is it first or second episode? No, the first episode of Make or Break season two. It's basically like a documentary about the event at Pipeline last year and which I hadn't won the event in like eight years. I hadn't won an event in five years and they really did the behind the scenes with me. And it's just funny how they pick a group of people at each event to start focusing on and filming on in Make or Break the Box To Box guys. And then some storyline starts happening. And it was really just wild how much footage they had on me behind the scenes and with my friends and all the stuff we were doing. And then everything fell on the line. There's this one moment in the contest where I should have lost and just in the last moment I end up winning. And that was about, it was just in the third or fourth round of the contest. And that was really the thing that springboarded me into just getting in the flow for this event and ultimately winning it. But I was going through a lot of stuff in my own mind that gets in the way. When you don't win for a long time. I spent a lot of years winning on average, every fourth event that I surfed for 30 years basically. And then I didn't win a contest for five years, a couple years I had off for injury and stuff. But still it starts to creep in your mind, I don't know if I can do this. And just like the opposite when you're young and you start to win, when you start to get on tour and you start winning some events, you see some of the young guys now, Jack Robinson, Gabe Medina, John John, Felipe Toledo, Griffin Colopinto, all these kids coming up. Once they start winning a few heats and beating the guys that they thought maybe they couldn't beat at some point when they were younger, the confidence just gets there. You don't question it. And so there's a lifeline for all things. And so I was getting to this point where I didn't know whether I could win again. And I knew I could on paper, I knew I could, but inside you go through your own struggles throughout an event and you have doubts. And even when it was seconds from happening, I was like, I can't believe this is real. And so the feeling was really, for me, it was really pure and magical like when I was a kid again. And as far as the other episodes throughout the year, I haven't watched them all, so I couldn't tell you. But Felipe Toledo had an amazing year last year. He was definitely the standout surfer of the year and he won his first world title and I'm sure they're going in depth to cover that. And each individual event, somebody's going through something good and bad. And it's just interesting to see all those stories that even if you're not a fan of this sport, even if you don't surf, there's a lot of people who've been sucked into Formula One through what Box To Box has done and now they're getting into the golf as well. And I think it's the individual stories that are compelling for people to learn about. And I think through each of those, if they're told right, you learn about yourself.

Amy Morin : Absolutely. I think we can always take away stuff from other people's mindset and learning how do they overcome adversity, tackle challenges, and get through tough times.

Kelly Slater : Yeah.

Amy Morin : Kelly Slater, thank you so much for being on The Very Well Mind Podcast.

Kelly Slater : Thank you and great to talk to you.

Amy Morin : You as well. Thanks.


Welcome to the therapist’s take.

This is the part of the episode where I’ll give you my take on Kelly’s strategies and share how you can apply them to your own life. Here are three of my favorite strategies Kelly discussed.

Find something that helps you relax that doesn’t involve your passion.

Sometimes high performers tell me that they feel pressured to devote every second of their day to the one thing they’re passionate about. If they aren’t actively engaged in their passion, they spend their time reading about it, thinking about it, and seeing what their competition is doing.

While it’s cool to keep learning and growing and engaging in the thing you love, you also need some helpful things to do that are outside of your passion.

So I loved that Kelly said he plays the guitar and he enjoys playing to help his mind relax before he goes to sleep.

He’s been playing the guitar for 35 years but he doesn’t play it for any other reason other than for his own enjoyment.

No matter what your passion is, it’s important to have some other things that you consistently love doing that have nothing to do with your passion.

Expose yourself to controlled stressors.

You’d think that one of the greatest athletes in the world would say his body goes through enough stress and he has plenty of opportunities to challenge himself just by surfing.

But Kelly says he does cold water plunges as a way to stress his body in a controlled environment. Stepping into ice cold water and forcing yourself to stay there for longer than you want to is a tangible way to remind yourself that you don’t have to listen to your brain.

If you’ve ever done a cold water plunge, you know your brain will tell you to get out after about 2 seconds. It will tell you that you can’t stand it one more second. And the trick is to stay there a little longer just to prove that you can do it.

There’s research that shows when you engage in stressful conditions in a controlled environment, you can teach your body to manage stress better.

When your body is exposed to stress, it’ll release stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. Purposely exposing yourself to stress in a controlled environment for a short period of time can help build up your body’s resilience to stress.

So you might find ways to challenge yourself in a very controlled way–whether that’s a cold plunge or a hard sprint–just to give your brain and your body some practice in dealing with stress. With practice, you can actually get better at handling stressful situations–whether that’s a surf competition or trying to close a tough sales deal.

Accept that struggles and doubt are part of the process.

It’d be easy for Kelly to say that he always feels completely confident–after all, he’s an 11 time champion. And if he experienced any self-doubt, he could have easily decided his competitive surfing days were over. He might tell himself that now that he’s older, he’s not going to be as good.

But that’s not his style at all. Instead, he says struggles and self-doubt are part of the process.

Accepting that probably has a lot to do with his success. Studies on elite athletes show that the best ones respond to bad days or even slumps with acceptance.

For example, major league baseball players all get into a batting slump sometimes. But the ones who start to panic or who start telling themselves they’re going to get let go from the team if they don’t get a hit, actually stay in a slump longer than the ones who just accept there are highs and lows.

So I love that Kelly said he accepts there are struggles–on the water and in life. And that doubt can be part of the process.

I’ve talked about accepting a little self-doubt on the show before too. People who accept a little doubt tend to perform better.

And Kelly says he sees a therapist to help him deal with life’s struggles too. I’m so glad he said that because sometimes people have unrealistic expectations that life would be easy if they just lived their dream, made a lot of money, or got famous–and while I’m sure all of those things are really nice, everyone–including Kelly Slater–still has struggles. I’m glad he’s not afraid to ask for help and that he acknowledges that he sees a therapist.

So those are three of Kelly’s strategies that I highly recommend: find something that helps you relax that doesn’t involve your passion, expose yourself to stress in a controlled environment, and accept that struggles and doubt are part of the process.

To learn more about Kelly’s life as a surfer, check out Make or Break on Apple TV+.

If you know someone who could benefit from hearing this message, share the show with them. Simply sharing a link to this episode could help someone feel better and grow stronger.

Do you want free access to my online course? It’s called 10 mental strength exercises that will help you reach your greatest potential. To get your free pass, all you have to do is leave us a review on Apple podcasts or Spotify. Then, send us a screenshot of your review. Our email address is podcast@verywell.com We’ll reply with your all-access pass to the course.

Thank you for hanging out with me today and listening to the VW Mind podcast.

And as always, a big thank you to my show’s producer, who is to surf in New Smyrna Beach which is also known as the shark bite capital of the world, Nick Valentin.

By Amy Morin, LCSW, Editor-in-Chief
Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a licensed clinical social worker, psychotherapist, and international bestselling author. Her books, including "13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do," have been translated into more than 40 languages. Her TEDx talk,  "The Secret of Becoming Mentally Strong," is one of the most viewed talks of all time.