Silicon Valley start-ups often reference companies like Facebook and Uber to help justify their risks. As in, "Facebook didn't have a revenue stream and now they're worth billions, so we'll figure out a way to make money later." Young surfers — and their parents — do the same thing, pointing to anomalies like John Florence and Kolohe Andino to justify skipping the traditional education model in hopes of hitting the CT jackpot. Never mind the vast majority of kids that skip school to pursue professional surfing, only to end up professional serving. At Chilis.
In 2010, with sponsorship secured and an NSSA career in the rear view, Santa Cruz's Shaun Burns was set to hit the QS and go all in on surfing. It'd be him and Nat, reppin' SC on the big stage. Then a friend's dad convinced him to apply to college, even helped him with the application and financial aid forms. Shaun was on the couch with his dad — always his biggest surf supporter — when he got an email from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.
"I was sitting there and got the email and said, 'Dad, I just got accepted to Cal Poly,'" he laughs as he retells this story. "And his response was, 'Well you're not going, are you?' Just totally the opposite of what you'd expect a parent to say. So I was like, 'Nah, why would I go? I'm going to be a surfer.'"
I talk to Shaun about all this over lunch at the West End Tap Room in Santa Cruz. He takes a bite of his chicken sandwich and explains how he changed his mind about his future after a favorable visit to the campus. "I felt like I was surfing well and wanted to do the QS, but I had to be honest and recognize that my surfing career wasn't really taking off at that point," he says. "It was probably best to get an education to fall back on."
After a couple years on academic probation in the forestry department, Shaun switched majors to environmental management and became more engaged. "I was taking more interesting classes and started thinking, 'Whoa, this is something I could see myself doing.'" He went to class. He studied. He surfed 2-foot, wind blown Morro Bay and Pismo. He interned with a coastkeeper. He took a four-week immersion class in the redwoods, studying sustainable forestry and environmental management. "At first I thought, 'There's no way I'm going to take that class, you can't surf for a month.' But it turned out that I had to take it, and it ended up being my favorite course."
College was a series of these types of transformations for Shaun. From surf-surf-surf to surf-surf-study to surf-study-something new. "I met some really cool guys from all over that surfed, but weren't super into it, which was almost better. They got me into mountain biking, hiking, sports, photography. And that's what's so cool about college, you get to meet so many people that have their own things going, but you're living together so you get exposed to more than you would if you just stayed in your hometown."
And Shaun's not the only one that transformed. "My dad did a full 180, like, telling me I better be studying and do well in school. He just saw how much I changed, being more open minded about everything and aware about our environment. He got really into it, started recycling and everything. We both kinda got an education from it."
I've known Shaun peripherally for years, and knew that while his good friend Nat Young chased the tour, he had gone to Cal Poly. And when I saw him at The Lane a few months ago, and asked him what he was going to do now that he graduated, I expected to hear something with the words "job" or "internship" in it. Instead he said, "Go on tour," with a straight face and confidence. And now I sit with him at lunch and he maps out his QS attack plan. "We [he's traveling with his lovely girlfriend] are going to start in Australia, then go to New Zealand and Bali. Then we'll see where I'm at, but there are a couple 1000s in Japan as well."
Will he make it? It will be a long road, to be sure. But he's got four years of average beachbreak practice under his belt. He's got four years of pent up competitive frustration inside him. He's got four years of new experiences and a wide-open mind. All points in his favor. But really, whether he makes it or not doesn't matter. Because if Shaun walks the QS tightrope, loses his balance and falls, he's got an environmental management degree waiting to catch him. And there's nothing like a safety net to give someone the confidence to go big.