The Surfboard

By Dan Kieran

The CEO of Unbound spends a week in Cornwall building a wooden surfboard to try and work out how to evolve within his company.

The evening kindled at the end of a long, speechless day. I had settled into myself as the miles fell on leaving London. Seven hours to ponder the week ahead. The car was now connected to me. We urged each other along. Humming together.

He lived in Cornwall on the North coast by the sea. I had a map drawn from memory after a gin-soaked evening of garrulous optimism in the depths of Wales. “I live there because the first time I saw the landscape it spoke to me. It’s real. That idea you spoke about. It’s real.”

We’d met at the Do Lectures on the edge of Cardigan Bay. A weekend of talks and workshops attended by people at an inflection point in their lives. I was invited to give a talk about an idea that had ‘had’ me. It led indirectly to the founding of the business I now run. When I finished speaking he and I queued for dinner and then sat next to each other to eat. We hit it off the way you do with strangers only rarely. He was a master of my own land who drew on the same well as me.

It was almost a year later to the day. The middle of June. Rain came down so heavily the windscreen wipers made little difference as I skirted the New Forest, turning the A27 into a river as I squinted my way. The flickering break lights kaleidoscoped by the water battering my windscreen. The torrent soon became too thick to see the woodland a thousand years before William the Conqueror had declared his hunting domain. The line of cars became a spent dribble as I headed West. The rain helped somehow. The car felt safe. Cosy.

I saw the sign for West Compton, waved to a friend I didn’t have time to stop and see, and then passed Long Bredy where the land would unfurl away from sight towards the sea. I’d stopped in Long and Little Bredy many years before without realising the church we parked outside was full of graves marked with the names of my distant family. I had sensed a connection to that place then. I could make out the landscape murmuring to me. I juddered up a steep short hill. Shifted down a gear and drifted over the top.

It was the day after my forty-first birthday. I was coming to terms with who I had become, which was not someone I ever expected to be. For the first time in a long time I was looking back. The previous decade had been a process of continuous change. After the financial crash of 2008 I lost my livelihood overnight as a writer and, with no qualifications or University degree, had to go back to working daily contracts for minimum wage. On my lunch hour while clearing out the rat-infested basement of an accountants in Bognor Regis I had an idea for what had, over the next eight years, grown into a multi-million-pound, global publishing company. But my marriage had collapsed in the process. Taking me away from my two beloved children and I was now engaged with another baby on the way. I caught my eye in the car rear-view mirror. How had a description like that ever come to describe me?

I realised as I sped along how much I needed some time away. I was struggling to deliver on all the things required of me. To be a good father, fiancé, friend, CEO, employer and employee. Even ex-husband if that was possible. I wasn’t sure the ability to be all these things was within me. There had been times of pressure in my life before but it had always come and gone. Now, pausing to reflect, it felt as though I had never stopped.

Staring as the treadmill of tarmac peeled away I began thinking about the things I could have done and who I could have been. Like any attempt to live an honest life mine had been messy, but in my bones I knew I was living the right one. I didn’t believe the sadness or blind turns I’d experienced meant I’d gone wrong. Each episode was just the path I’d taken to gain a different perspective on who I would become.

I was in a dark place though. Gravitating towards the kinds of books people read when trying to work out what gives life meaning. I read them slightly desperately, devouring them among harassed commuters, but soon realised all espoused the same, slightly unrealistic, philosophy.

You had to remove yourself from the distractions of normal life completely. You had to go on a journey inside your own mind. Through meditation. Or fasting. Shunning work. But I had long term responsibilities I couldn’t just up and leave. Reading these books after starting a family and having signed up to long term financial obligations became just another cause of anxiety. I worried whether the fact I was mid-life, surrounded by people I loved and with a decent job, meant self-knowledge, a life of meaning, was beyond me. And work weighed heavily. I was about to embark on a phase of stress I knew would stretch me more than I wanted it too. I thought it might break me.

Cornwall arrived hours later on a sign as I swept passed Exeter but the North coast I was heading for was still hours away. Darkness in June takes a while to settle, as though the night can’t quite make up its mind to come. A few pondering hours later the road climbed, became my horizon and turned into cloud before falling as the unseen land funnelled towards the sea. The beach I arrived at was desolate. A few lonely gulls drifting across the vast expanse of sand. Grey houses people yearn to escape from clutched to the cliffs next to empty cottages with glass extensions borrowed by strangers searching for Summer sun. I opened the car door, pushing it with my right foot against the wind. The surf pounded. It fizzed.

I looked at the drawing I had transferred from his description of the landscape that had spoken to him into my notebook so many months ago, and fought East up a hill on foot until I convinced myself the picture - albeit from a different angle - matched the scenefrank beneath me. I was out of breath and bent my body over, pushing my hands down on my knees to draw in air and recover, and felt pleased I had made it. It was the right place. I stood up and stretched my back, pushing my shoulders behind my body. At the top of the hill to my right I could see a crack of a path leading through what I imagined was green. Turning into a slow declining road that fell gently North to my left to the sea. His house was in the distance somewhere and this was the view he lived to see. The view that had connected him through the idea to me. There was a car park at the bottom of the road with a small hut and a payment machine. I looked at it from the West. The declivity of the road and the cliffs ahead hid the endless sea. If you dared to venture far enough through the gap it would seem as though the beach of the world had been hiding behind it. Waves curled through the apparently flat water below like fabric with an evolving seam. A mix of geography, power and dream. Something even a non-surfer like me could see.

An hour later I had found my campsite and unpacked myself into a canvas bell tent with a double bed and duvet, a table to eat on and a rug next to a chest of pans, glasses, mugs and candles because there was no electricity. I’d left my phone at home as a statement of intent. I wrote thoughts in my notebook until the light dwindled behind a quilt of cloud and then read the flames while imagining the sea. My kettle steamed on the brazier and soon I was warming inside from drenched mint leaves. I planned to have no alcohol that week and plenty of sleep. There was a phone booth by the road in case of emergencies and a post box if my notebook got the better of me. I wrote down the phone number on a postcard in my back pocket to send to my love the next morning so she could reach me. I turned to the mattress and candles in the tent.

If you are on a journey to find out who you are you’ll find clues reflected in the people you meet. My mind had evolved so slowly I was unaware of the changes but I knew it was happening tectonically. Looking back my life had experienced dramatic shifts, both professionally and personally, but at the time it didn’t seem so. Not especially. I had spent most of my life following something instead of leading. Despite now being beyond 40 I still felt essentially the same as at fifteen. The only exception a strange kind of gaunt experience garnered from experiencing love, loss and tragedy.

I was adjusting to middle age. From the outside my life choices had always appeared erratic. Maybe even mercurial. Especially a few years before, but they made elemental sense to me. The reflection I cast in the people around me, I’d decided, was my most effective ‘real time’ way of glimpsing me. He was the first time I hadn’t discovered one of these mirrors retrospectively.

But something had shifted inside me. I had hit a wall inside my own mind. Reaching the edge of what I thought I was capable of being. In my life. The business. Everything. It was an emergency. I had to prove to myself somehow that the preconceptions I had accepted my entire life did not have to be defining.

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