Must-Read Book: Let My People Go Surfing by Yvon Chouinard




One of the most important things in communications is knowing why you’re doing what you’re doing. What is your purpose? Really great PR people know their organisations, or clients, purpose and plug into it every day, with every initiative. As Simon Sinek has famously pointed out – oftentimes people buy why you do it, and not what you do. 


When you work in communications, you should be relentlessly searching for mission and purpose. If you and your colleagues are not trying to find this out, what are you doing every day? 


Every organised religion in the world is based on a belief system. In the regular mass, service, or worship, these beliefs are aired and reaffirmed. I am a very lapsed catholic, but in the catholic mass the prayer of belief is called the Apostle’s Creed. It begins with the words ‘I believe’ and in a short few lines explains why everybody is present. I would love this clarity and commitment from every person I work with and every project I work on. 

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For a long time now Yvonn Chouinard, and his company Patagonia have been the corporate world’s go to examples for clarity of purpose and a having a greater commitment to the world. Chouinard is a fascinating character and he outlines his journey to purpose with great clarity in the book. 


About 12 years ago I started teaching communications skills classes. What started out with a plan to help people and organisations to acquire a few new skills, quickly turned into a much more meaningful conversation about their purpose. 


It all started by accident. My family was due to go to Amsterdam for the weekend to visit a musician friend of mine. We had a late change of plans when he called me to say that he’d been booked for gig in Croatia. So instead of going to Holland for the weekend, we went to Leitrim. Life’s a compromise and all that!


We went to a tiny eco-tourism retreat called Ard Nahoo that was recommended to us by friends. It was a fantastic collection of modern wood cabins, a yoga studio and a small reception area – all set in the hills above Dromahair village. 


On the Saturday morning I went down to the reception to ask some question, when I was pleasantly surprised. Behind the counter I noticed a bright red contact card in the shape of a match book. It caught my eye, because I designed it as a marketing tactic for the Irish Media Contacts Directory that I was publishing at the time. When the proprietor

Noleen appeared I asked her where she got it, because I knew she wasn’t a customer of mine.


“A friend of mine gave it to me,” She replied.

“is it useful? I asked.”

“The journalists numbers and emails are useful, but sometimes I’m successful with a press release and I don’t know why, and sometimes I fail terribly and I don’t know why. I’d love to figure out PR and really know what works and what doesn’t,” she replied

“Would a training course work?” I asked.

“Yes I’d love a PR training course,” she replied

And that November the Green Box organisation booked me for the first ever training course I delivered “PR on a Shoestring.”


It set me on a journey to help people and I realised very quickly that I was more interested in helping solve the deeper philosophical questions than teaching someone how to make a Facebook page. It became obvious that people would naturally rush past the deeper question about why they were there to the jobs that they could focus. The most challenging questions were always the simple ones:


Why are you doing this?

What do you what to achieve?

What is your mission?

What do you believe?

What do you really value?

What does success look like?

What dent are you making on the world?


And so to ‘Let my people go surfing’ by Vonn Chouinard. Chouinard was a reluctant business man. He created Patagonia out of a love of climbing and the outdoors. He quickly learned that the old ways of climbing were effecting the environment by degrading the rocks and he set about changing it. He is a free spirit and wanted to enjoy the outdoors and use the business to fund his life, but it became a success almost in spite of him.


The thing I love about this book is that it is a roadmap and a guide to how to put mission and purpose at the heart of what you do. There is a lot of detail in the book, and it can be a little dry as a result. But for those who’s aim is communicate from a clear purpose, it’s a must read. 


The most interesting part for me documents a period in the company history in 1991 when Patagonia was in real trouble. They turned to renowned consultant DR Michael Kami. He challenged the company’s environmental raison d’etre . He challenged them to change. They went on a retreat to Patagonia with the senior management team to sort the problem. They appointed a new board that included ecologist Jerry Mander. He presented the following philosophy to the board which was the corner stone of how the company turned around. It’s worth reading the book for this alone.


“OUR VALUES We begin with the premise that all life on Earth is facing a critical time, during which survivability will be the issue that increasingly dominates public concern. Where survivability is not the issue, the quality of human experience of life may be, as well as the decline in health of the natural world as reflected in the loss of biodiversity, cultural diversity, and the planet’s life support systems. The root causes of this situation include basic values embodied in our economic system, including the values of the corporate world. Primary among the problematic corporate values are the primacy of expansion and short-term profit over such other considerations as quality, sustainability, environmental and human health, and successful communities. 


The fundamental goal of this corporation is to operate in such a manner that we are fully aware of the above conditions, and attempt to reorder the hierarchy of corporate values, while producing products that enhance both human and environmental conditions. 


To help achieve these changes, we will make our operating decisions based on the following list of values. They are not presented in order of importance. All are equally important. They represent an “ecology” of values that must be emphasized in economic activity that can mitigate the environmental and social crisis of our times. All decisions of the company are made in the context of the environmental crisis. We must strive to do no harm. Wherever possible, our acts should serve to decrease the problem. 


Our activities in this area will be under constant evaluation and reassessment as we seek constant improvement. Maximum attention is given to product quality, as defined by durability, minimum use of natural resources (including materials, raw energy, and transport), multi-functionalism, non-obsolescence, and the kind of beauty that emerges from absolute suitability to task. Concern over transitory fashion trends is specifically not a corporate value. 


The board and management recognize that successful communities are part of a sustainable environment. We consider ourselves to be an integral part of communities that also include our employees, the communities in which we live, our suppliers and customers. We recognize our responsibilities to all these relationships and make our decisions with their general benefit in mind. It is our policy to employ people who share the fundamental values of this corporation, while representing cultural and ethnic diversity. Without giving its achievement primacy, we seek to profit on our activities. However, growth and expansion are values not basic to this corporation. 


To help mitigate any negative environmental consequences of our business activity, we impose on ourselves an annual tax of 1 percent of our gross sales, or 10 percent of profits, whichever is greater. All proceeds of this tax are granted to local community and environmental activism. At all levels of operation—board, management, and staff—Patagonia encourages proactive stances that reflect our values. These include activities that influence the larger corporate community to also adjust its values and behavior, and that support, through activism and financially, grassroots and national campaigners who work to solve the current environmental and social crisis. 


In our internal operations, top management will work as a group, and with maximum transparency. This includes an “open book” policy that enables employees easy access to decisions, within normal boundaries of personal privacy and “trade secrecy.” At all levels of corporate activity, we encourage open communications, a collaborative atmosphere, and maximum simplicity, while we simultaneously seek dynamism and innovation.—Y.C.”



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