Matt Niswonger

 Tales of entrepreneurship, adventure, family, happiness and power

By Matt Niswonger

On July ninth, over three thousand surfers took to the ocean in honor of Jack O’Neill, the founder of O’Neill wetsuits and apparel. This was by far the largest paddle out in history, and a beautiful spectacle to behold.

O’Neill left an impressive business legacy, but the reason so many people came to honor him was not just because he was an icon in the surf industry. For the most part, surfers felt moved to honor Jack because his invention of the wetsuit made surfing possible for many who wouldn’t have had access to surfing otherwise. He made the cold ocean waters of Northern California feel warm and inviting, creating happiness for generations to come. What a gift.

Jack’s paddle out made me think about happiness, and how the outdoor sports we cover in ASJ are a key ingredient to a happy life.

Jack O’Neill (1923-2017) showing off a bit of marketing genius. Photo courtesy O’Neill Wetsuits.

I was a literature major in college and as a result I tend to be a big picture thinker. One of the eternal mysteries I have spent my entire adult life pondering is happiness: my own, for the people around me, and for humanity in general. It’s a big subject, and I can’t claim to be an expert, but I know happiness when I see it. For example, as a parent, nothing is more important than the knowledge that my kids are mostly happy, and on the right life path towards continued happiness. I’m pretty sure everyone in my family would say I’m quite opinionated on the subject – to the point of being annoying. I can live with that.

So what is the exact connection between adventure activities like surfing, climbing, and mountain biking to  our happiness in life? We use the phrase “recharge my batteries” quite a bit to describe the connection between happiness and adventure, but what does that mean exactly?

A few days after the Jack O’Neill paddle out, I was working on an article about Yosemite for this issue and came across an image of Dean Potter, taken right after he had soloed the Yosemite testpiece known as Heaven. As you can see in the picture on the right, the look on his face is priceless. The climb is wickedly overhanging and at 5.12+ Potter blew minds when he climbed it without ropes. Looking at his facial expression in the picture, what I saw was the deep satisfaction that comes with empowerment. This caused me to have an epiphany: adventure makes you powerful, and feeling powerful is a key ingredient to happiness.

Dean Potter (1972-2015) feeling powerful after his ropeless ascent of Heaven. Photo: Dean Fidelman.

As a result of this realization, I now describe happiness as a three-legged stool with power, compassion, and integrity as the three legs.

We all desire to have compassion for those around us, and integrity is almost universally admired, but how do we get there?

I believe the answer is found on the adventure path. Adventure, with all its effort, fear, and uncertainty, creates power. Don’t ask me how, but it does. What’s clear is that powerful people are free to choose compassion and integrity, and disempowered people are generally incapable of being either compassionate or acting with integrity. In other words, power is the key that unlocks the door to happiness.

The progression that is fundamental to all adventure sports keeps one fit, focused, and honest. Whether it’s leading a harder climb at the gym, or surfing a more advanced wave, or competing in a marathon, or backpacking for longer periods of time, you have skin in the game and the risks are real. Risk management is a part of the deal, and it turns out the entire process increases that mysterious key ingredient to happiness that adventure seems to generate: power.

Some people are critical of the adventure lifestyle because they say the risks are too great. They point to Dean Potter, who died BASE jumping in Yosemite after this picture was taken, and other extreme athletes as cautionary tales that demonstrate the unacceptable risks of adventure sports. In my opinion this is throwing out the baby with the bath water. Not everyone needs to push the envelope like Dean Potter, Shane McConkey or Jay Moriarity to reap the rewards of drinking from the cup of adventure. Still, when it comes to the adventure path, a certain amount of risk should be considered. For some a beautiful hike is enough to recharge the batteries of the soul, but I’d bet most people need a little voluntary risk in their lives. That’s the trade off to access the personal power that leads to happiness. Either way the choice is quite personal, but clearly without happiness life is like a sailboat with no wind, drifting in the doldrums.

This point was driven home poignantly when we attended the funeral of Mariann Claesson, my mother-in-law and a long time supporter of ASJ since the beginning. To us she was simply called “mormor” (Swedish for grandmother), and Cathy and I could not have kept ASJ going all these years and raised three kids without her help. Unfortunately we did not get a chance to truly thank her because a cruel form of dementia robbed her mental function in the last years of her life. Looking in her eyes it was painful to see the confusion and hurt while she tried to understand what was happening around her in the final chapter of her life.

We always jokingly told her she was a partner in Adventure Sports Journal because she would show up during deadlines and heroically watch the kids while Cathy tied up all the last minute loose ends and I was working at my other job. She moved from room to room cleaning up all the messes while humming cheerfully to herself. She intentionally brought the gift of happiness to our house in a time of stress. She truly was the embodiment of power, compassion, and integrity.

At her emotional funeral ceremony people spoke about how she always served those around her, and made everyone feel well cared for. In short, she made everyone feel happy.

Inspired by Mariann, I have to ask myself, am I brimming with happiness and making others around me feel the same? Mormor taught us that our happiness is a gift to the people in our lives. When she stopped recognizing her family, dementia took away her favorite thing in life: sharing her happiness with the people she loved.   

Mariann Claesson (1940-2017) devoted her life to creating happiness for family and friends. Photo: Claes Claesson.

So thank you mormor, Jack O’Neill, Dean Potter, and everyone else who inspires us to choose happiness — this issue is dedicated to you. People get there in different ways, but the adventure path is the most reliable route I know.

Do you agree with me that adventure is fundamental to your happiness?

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Matt Niswonger