Why We Should All Have A Passion | SLMan
Mat Arney
Last month, SLMan spoke to Matt Rudd about how men could be happier. He said finding a passion in life can really help. This month, we’ve spoken to James Otter, who found his passion making wooden surfboards and has now written a book about the power of making in general. James told us how he got here and why he believes making things with your hands might be the best passion of all…

Making is simply about using your hands to physically change something else in the world. It’s not about being an artist – they tend to think about form first – it’s about something more functional. It’s about the process; it’s about making a mark and creating emotional connections with things.

My original passion is surfing. It’s like making because you’re never going to master it – you’ll never be perfect at it. It’s a passion for me because it’s something that gives me those moments of awe and wonder. I also get that with making surfboards, but there are differences too.

There are three big reasons for getting into making. The first one is an often overlooked one: it’s fun. It can be incredibly fun. Second, when you really get into making something, you can find yourself in a sort of meditative state. Nothing else matters and that can give you a really deep calmness. Third, making connects you to people. When you make something, it’s you and the object with which you can interact with people. There’s nothing to hide behind and that leads to some great, honest conversations.

That meditative state is like nothing else. It’s hard to pin down, but making and physically interacting with the world brings about for me a sense of mental and emotional calm. You’re completely absorbed in what you’re doing. What you’re doing is right in front of you, so there’s no room for any of the other thoughts that can bombard throughout the rest of the day.

When you make something, there are no shortcuts. We lead online lives and we have a need for instant gratification. When you make something, there’s no quicker or easier way to do – you’ve probably noticed this, even if you’ve just had to do some gardening at home. You simply have to go through the steps in the process. Giving yourself up to that is something not enough people do. If you can do that, you can enjoy the process for what it is – the journey, if you want – and you won’t be rushing to the end.

I believe anyone can be a maker. We are all instinctively and intrinsically linked to our hands, which means making is universal. However deskbound you might consider yourself normally, making is accessible. More often than not, it’s confidence that stops us – and having the time and space to explore. That’s why we run courses in surfboard making. They’re for people who want to explore things and to give them the confidence to go for it.

If you want to get into making, think about what you are already passionate about. I was into surfing, which led me into making surfboards. If you’re a cyclist, maybe you just start spending a bit more time maintaining your bike. You work out how the components fit together then, at some point, you might think about building your frame. If you’re already passionate about something, you’ll find your drive to do something around it immediately goes up a number of notches.  

The pandemic’s taught us we need to make space and time to do what makes us happy.

Our workshops make the biggest impression on people who don’t think of themselves as makers. We all grew up with some kind of creative expression – it might just have been building Lego – but that gets drained out of a lot of people as they strive for academic excellence in the education system. They lose touch with what they are capable of and reconnecting them to that – and helping them find that confidence – is the real strength of our workshops.

I remember a guy who came on a course seven or eight years ago. He confessed afterwards in an email that he’d been struggling with his mental health for four or five years, but he found woodwork and working with his hands was a centering process – it gave him something to focus on and lean into. He said he was building a couple of tree houses in his garden and wouldn't have gone down that route if he hadn’t explored the idea of making a surfboard. He had reconnected back into this world and it had a pretty powerful effect. The courses aren’t about people becoming surfboard makers. They’re about just flicking a little switch to say, look, you can do something.

Another guy told me he’d never increased his confidence so much in one week. He also said he never thought a surfboard would ever be the thing that did it for him! He has that surfboard in his office now – actually he might have recently taken it home – but it’s with him as a reminder of the experience of just having a go at something. Of course, the point is it doesn’t have to be a surfboard. He could have made something completely different.

My passion has become my work, which is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, I don’t feel like I’ve worked since I started making surfboards ten years ago, even though there have been some long, hard hours trying to get the business going. On the other hand, I’ve still had to learn to switch off from it – and that’s been a real challenge. We all feel a pressure to be achieving something or getting something done, but that’s often self-imposed, which means it can be tricky to shake off. It’s taken me years to learn to come home for the weekend and not want to go back to the workshop.

The key to switching off is good time management. I keep weekends clear to be with my wife and son. If we go to the beach, I’m not obsessed about having to go surfing (which is obviously intrinsically linked with what I do). Just being outside, on the coast, is important for me and I can get that experience without actually jumping in the ocean. Mondays to Fridays – work days – are when I keep some time free to go in the sea now. 

The pandemic’s taught us we need to make space and time to do what makes us happy. I think a lot of people have found that reconnecting with the physical, natural world now takes precedence over materialistic goals – they are spending more time in gardens, growing their own veg and that sort of thing. Using your hands to make something can also connect you to that world and bring you into that more meditative state I mentioned earlier, which feels important right now.

My book is just a key that allows you to unlock a door to progress. It’s part of the Do series, which is all about inspiring people to get out there and, well, do! So that they feel like they’re doing something – achieving something. You can read a lot of self-help books and they won’t give you the tools to actually step forward and do something for yourself. These books really try to inspire you to go and do the thing you’re reading about. From running surfboard making courses that are based around my book, I’ve seen the impact they can have.
 
Do Make: The Power of Your Own Two Hands by James Otter is published by Do Books. 

Read our interview with Matt Rudd here

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