I had won 35 out of 36 contests over 11 years. Winning isn't the word: I won it once. The rest of the time you're just defending. You get into this turtle posture. It usurped the joy of what I loved to do, because I was no longer doing it to create and have fun. And when it died from under me, that was one of the most liberating things because I could create.
Rodney had a series of wins, but once he was at the top it didn't feel like winning anymore. He was just defending his position as a champion. And when he became defensive, it was hard to create.
This has an interesting application to tech companies: many of us are trying to be #1 in our industry. We don't realize how hard it is at the top. Everyone has their sights on you. You are the incumbent that everyone wants to beat. And instead of innovating, you spend your time playing defence.
Freestyle skateboarding died in the 1980's when street skating emerged as the dominant style. Everything Rodney had built over his lifetime, all his fame, was gone.
Suddenly it was over for me. They took my pro-model off the shelf: that's like publicly pronouncing that your [career] is dead. The crazy thing was that there was a really liberating sense about it: because I no longer had to protect my record as a champion. What drew me to skateboarding, the freedom, was restored. Now I could just create things.
This couldn't be more true for us in tech! We are continually having to re-invent ourselves. You might spend your whole career focusing on a certain technology (maybe you've even become a pseudo "celebrity") only to wake up one morning to discover you are no longer relevant. I love Mullen's attitude here: instead of just giving up, you reinvent yourself using whatever you can carryover from past experiences.
What I did have was a deep well of tricks that I could draw from that were rooted in [my old skills]. So as humbling and rotten as it was… I began over again. I brought [new] tricks to [street skating] that were undergirded in freestyle. I had an infrastructure [to build on].
One of the most interesting moments occurs when he refers to hacker and open source communities. He then reveals a parallel between them and the skateboard community:
We take what other guys do, and we make it our own, and then we contribute back to the community in a way that edifies the community. The summation of that gives us something that we could never achieve as an individual.
The parallel here is interesting. The tech culture is filled with a strong individualism, and yet we've managed to create vibrant communities where individuals contribute to a greater whole. Rodney closes his talk by stating that contributing to his community has been his life's most meaningful achievement.