What the Human Brain Craves

Here is a story from my travels around the world on a year long surf trip. It won First Prize in a surf wipe-out story contest and it’s a totally true story. It also illustrates a point that you will do well to consider in your own story telling!

SurfPulse/Surfco Wipeout Contest Results

The Winner of the SurfPulse/Surfco Wipeout Contest Tells His Story

1st Place – JOHN BATES (receives $100 worth of SurfCo merchandise)

In about 1990-1 I was traveling and surfing around Southeast Asia for about a year. It was totally fantastic. I loved it. Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Singapore were all wonderful in their own rights. However, for surfing, none beat Indonesia. My best friend and traveling companion, Matt and I had ‘zenned’ our way into a free stay at Grajagan, which is a surf camp located on the Southeast tip of Java in the middle of a huge and very wild National Park. (Fishermen still sometimes get eaten by Tigers there, no kidding. That’s another story.) Anyway, with a huge amount of going with the flow and some heavy duty letting go we had gotten an invitation to come stay for free at the surf camp. Now as we pull up to the camp in the colorful wooden fishing boat that has been chartered to deliver us to Grajagan we see that the waves are coming in like big, light green, freight trains – just zippering and barreling down the shallow reef.

We meet our hosts, exchange pleasantries in the stiff offshore breeze. And then, as they can see we’re just aching to get out into the green rolling hills breaking a few hundred yards from where we are talking, they invite us to go surfing. And they even offer us a ride out to the break.

Now, if you’ve ever surfed places besides CA you have probably surfed with Brazilians, friendly fun people. Today, Grajagan is inundated with Brazilians. They are usually really good surfers (which I am not) and they don’t seem to mind surfing waves together. Even if it means running into each other, breaking their boards, cracking their heads open and so on. They’re pretty tough. In fact, they act like that is how you’re supposed to surf and they are often friendly and fun while turning everything that rolls through into a party wave. Well, I’m new to surfing and not so good at it. And, I am extremely haired out at the sheer size and ferocity of these waves. They are well overhead and throwing out hard. Unlike the Brazilians, I am not having a good time. In fact, I probably shouldn’t be out here. But I am. And, I am determined to get a wave. So, I paddle even further out towards the furthest breaking point of the reef. I am figuring that I will grab a big wave as it rolls in and be up and riding before any of the Brazilians can even start to paddle for it. I will then scream bloody murder at them if they start to drop in on me.

I am paddling hard and finally I arrive in the spot I’ve chosen. I sit up on my board and survey the scene. I am thinking about the fact that I am on the very edge of the open Indian Ocean and the reef drops off very sharply right here. Out of the deep green water, sharks cross my mind. But then, as if God is validating my tactics, a huge wave starts to stand up. It is definitely a clean up wave and I am determined to catch it. My heart is pounding. I turn and I am paddling with all my strength. To my joy Matt is watching from about fifty yards away. I pull hard for the wave and I can see him hollering “GO! GO! GOOOOO!” at the top of his lungs and with real enthusiasm.

All of a sudden the wave is picking me up. For a moment I am weightless. But, to my great chagrin, I am not zooming down the face of the wave. I am not even close to catching this demon from the deep. All of a sudden I am flying. I am free falling. I am about 14 feet above the shallow water covering the reef, in mid-air, looking down at my board, which is below me and slowly spinning in midair, deep in the opening wave. I manage to somersault on the way down and I land hard on the reef smack dab on my butt as the entire weight of the wave comes down on top of me (resulting in a black and purple bruise that will extend from the bottom of my ass to the middle of my back). Then, I am trapped in the wave like a rolling tire. I go up and over again, landing on my side (I will have the scars on my lats and my ribs), up and over again landing on my back (more scars) and then I am rolling up onto dry reef. Of course, I am now in real scary territory and struggling to get my board untangled from the reef as the set waves start to stand up on their way to pulverize me. I feel my stomach to see if any coral is protruding, fearing I will find an entire hand of coral sticking out. No, nothing is sticking out. Taking stock of my situation I realize that paddling back out is the only option. So, I throw myself into the beautiful light green waters that are exploding on the reef and I am filled with adrenaline and paddling like absolute hell.

It takes me about 45 minutes to get out again. I am bleeding all over, and I am in serious pain. Finally, back out in the line up, I paddle towards Matt, feeling victorious for being alive. Matt, white as a ghost and obviously worried is paddling toward me with strong deliberate strokes. As the distance closes he is yelling at me in ill-concealed rage. “What the F%^& were you THINKING!?! That was the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen! You could’ve KILLED yourself! I can’t BELIEVE you just did that!”

I am totally surprised, since he had urged me on so enthusiastically,

“But Matt,” I am saying, “You were the one yelling ‘GO! GO! GOOOOO!'”


“NO, YOU IDIOT!” He is screaming shrilly, “I wasn’t yelling GO! I was yelling NOOOOOOOOOOO!”

There’s a great storytelling point in this story. At his TED talk in 2012 Andrew Stanton (Toy Story, WALL-E, etc.) begins his speech with a joke (very naughty for those of you who would be offende!) that’s a lot like this story and his point is that surprise is what will make the audience respond. As he says, Storytelling is Joke telling. The human brain craves surprise! The expectation is set when I see Matt cheering me on and then it is radically broken when Matt tells me what he was ACTUALLY saying. This is a great example of a key to great story telling that can be applied to any and all communication to make it more effective: surprise us and you’ll delight us!

Here is some footage of Grajagan going off, it’s a lot better known these days. Tigers still eat people and a famous photographer was killed by a sea snake there. I’m glad I was ignorant.

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