My reflections on the book, Let My People Go Surfing

Jonathan Nathaniel Hayes
By Yvon Chouinard November 1, 2014

The book “Let My People Go Surfing” by Yvon Chouinard was required reading for our Building Sustainable Organizations class in grad school. I was certain our professor had read many of the same ideas rephrased by students rushed to meet all their assignment and life and career obligations. It was my intent in this review, to take three things that resonated with me in the book (particularly from the “Our Values” section) and elaborate on them from my personal experience. It was my hope that, in this way, I would bring a fresh perspective to the message the book is conveying.
Let My People Go Surfing is written by Yvon Chouinard, the founder and CEO of Patagonia, a premier outdoor clothing and equipment company. In it he describes Patagonia’s darkest days after Black Wednesday, in July of 1991. Patagonia had to lay off 20% of its workforce and the leadership was meeting to rethink their business model. During the meeting’s lunch break, one of the board members, an Ecologist named Jerry Mandor, wrote a document that was adopted with overwhelming support. “Our Values” is a seven point Patagonia Creed that outlines the philosophy that has propelled the company forward to the environmental model that it is today.
Having been trained to measure the sustainability of a corporation through four lenses- the Ecological, Economic, Social and Managerial- It was striking to me how these seven points effortlessly fell under these four categories. And then again, toward the end of the book, Yvon stated their philosophy in an even more succinct five points when he wrote,
“I would summarize the elements of (our) Philosophy as follows:
Lead an examined life.
Clean up our own act.
Do our penance.
Support civil democracy.
Influence other companies.”
Consider how leading an examined life, touches on the managerial/leadership as well as the economic lenses. Again, Cleaning up our own act addresses both the ecological and economic lenses. Doing penance for environmental and social injustices address both the ecological and social lenses. Supporting civil democracy falls squarely within the pale of the social lens. Finally, influencing other companies is an obvious application of the leadership/managerial lens.
I’d like to take a moment to focus on the “Do our penance” point. In an environmental sense, Patagonia acknowledges that there is a bit of negative environmental and social effect as a result of doing business in the current structure of the modern society, even if the company is environmentally conscious. Therefore the company levies a self imposed tax of 10%. Although they call it a tax, I find it more than coincidental that it mirrors the 10% tax the nation of Israel imposed on itself in the Old Testament for its “cost of doing business” in the promised land. The biblical word “tithe” means tenth and is used to describe a practice wherein people contribute a tenth of their crop, profits, and herds to their religion or nation.
It is not so much the percentage number that makes the relation so striking, but the intended use. The Old Testament book of Deuteronomy tells us that the tithe was collected to support widows, orphans, strangers in the land, and priests (who were required to live without business or inheritance). This surely is an ancient representation of a social tax like the one Patagonia imposes on itself.
Even the notion of doing a 10% tax for environmental reasons is not foreign to the ancients as the Laws of Moses required a year long Sabbath rest for lands and a percentage of animals harvested in hunts to be regulated (Exodus 22:11, Deuteronomy 22:6).
There was an observation made about the book that dominated much of our small break out group class discussion. Some in our group found the philosophy of “Let My People Go Surfing” (or the idea that employees needed time to unwind, relax and enjoy and explore the activities that the items they make are designed for) a contradiction with the philosophy also set forth in the book of “Yarak.” Yarak is a word the author borrows from the ancient art of falconry. The word is used to describe a raptor that is “super alert, hungry, but not weak, ready to hunt.” as the author defines it.
Many in our class discussion group found these two philosophies to be contradictory. As I reflected on it though, I was reminded of a story I had once heard about an ancient hunter that went on a pilgrimage to see a prophet or sage. When he finally reached the wise man, he found him sitting in the city center, feeding pigeons.
“Don’t you have anything better to do with your time than feed pigeons? I thought surely a man of your reputation…”
The wise man answered, “I see the bow on your back in unstrung. Why is that?”
“If I left my bow strung all the time, it would lose its strength and power.” answered the hunter.
The sage answered that the mind is much like that bow. In order to stay powerful, sharp and strong (Yarak), there must be times when we are unstrung.
I do not, therefore, find these two philosophies at odds.
In conclusion, Although it is hard to relate to a man that is worth an estimated $200 million dollars, I do not see Yvon Chouinard’s success as something to begrudge and think there is much to be gleaned from this book both on a corporate and an individual level.