In the latest edition of the AFP Conversations podcast, skateboarding legend Tony Hawk joined Jim Kaitz, president and CEO of AFP, to discuss his long, illustrious career. Considered the greatest in his sport and also an accomplished entrepreneur and philanthropist, Hawk will appear at AFP 2021 as a keynote speaker. In this interview, he provided a preview of his upcoming session, explaining how perseverance and authenticity kept him going throughout his career.
Jim Kaitz: So here's my first question. I know you've been asked this a million times, but I think it's really important, especially today in these crazy times. How do you define the skateboarder mindset and how has it shaped you as a person throughout your life and your career?
Tony Hawk: I think that, first and foremost, it takes determination to be a skater because you have got to keep trying and not give up. And little by little you can find measured improvements. But sometimes it may not happen quick enough, especially with the instant gratification mindset that people have today where they need to have results right now. And skating takes a lot of dedication, a lot of practice, perseverance, and creativity. I think that you've got to be creative if you want to stand out. And skating is as much of an artform as it is a sport. So, your creativity is what's going to define you, your style, your moves—the way that you take a trick and expand upon it, your variations of it. And I think that's what it is, and it's hard to see from the outside. From the outside, well, a lot of times it just looks like a bunch of kids having fun.
Jim Kaitz: So did it come naturally to you? I mean, this determination. And literally, I'm the biggest klutz in the world. So I'll tell you, I'm the last guy that could get on a skateboard. So when I watch you do these things, obviously it's incredible. But you're literally falling down, you're falling on cement, you're scraping your knees, you're breaking things. What is it that you think brought that determination to Tony Hawk?
Tony Hawk: So I was just doing it leisurely with my friends, but I think that I had determination early on as a kid. I mean my mom, well to put it mildly, she said I was determined instead of saying I was difficult or I was a nightmare, which is probably more of the terminology she would use with friends. But I had to do things my way. I had something to accomplish and I was going to do it at all costs.
And at some point I found skating, and I think what happened with skating was that I realized I wasn't necessarily afraid to get hurt along the way in the name of progression. And that is something that a lot of times is the line of demarcation for people that try to skate. They say, ‘Oh, I tried to skate once. I broke my wrist, I never did it again.’ Or at some point they got really hurt trying to do it and said, I had to figure out something else to do. I was lucky in that I didn't have severe injuries. I mean I had some pretty serious ones, but nothing that kept me out for a long time. But I was pretty young, so I was lucky that I didn't think I was choosing a career path when I was 12 years old.
Jim Kaitz: So I think having this discussion with you today is to me in many ways really meaningful. And given what's going on in the world, everyone is feeling the pressure today. But what advice would you give people who are understandably worried about their careers, their jobs? What would the lessons from a skateboarding mentality be? How would you relate to those people? Clearly it's a health crisis, but a lot of the things you talk about—determination, pushing yourself, resilience, risk-taking, never giving up—how do you see that maybe relating to today what we're all going through?
Tony Hawk: I think that the key to it is perseverance, and being in it for the long run. For lack of a better cliché, seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. And little by little, I know it's hard to measure but we are getting there gradually. It's not what people thought it would be in the beginning. And then for sure, the same thing happens in skating. Kids get into skating, they see people flying around on TV, and it's like 'I'm going to go do that.' And they immediately realize that is not what they're going to do their first day or week or month of skating. But they are going to figure out little by little ways to get there.
And I think that in our current situation, the best we can do is figure out little by little how to stay productive. I know it sounds harsh, but maybe there is a different career that you had in mind, and maybe there's a way to study up on it now or even to start to follow that path. I mean that's a bit extreme, but there are these moments where you realize what your priorities are and what your dreams are. But it's hard, especially when you're feeling idle. And the same thing happens in skating, if you get hurt and you're out for a period of time, it's really hard to see past that. But we as skaters know that that's part of the game.
Jim Kaitz: One of the things that I think a lot of us forget when times are great, and it's something I know that you talk a lot about, is constant, continuous learning, upskilling—getting better at what you do. I watched over and over from 1999 when you were doing the 900, and you would not give up. And I think most people look at athletes like yourself and decide, well, they just love what they do so there's that determination. Yet in our careers, a lot of us don't practice those same things. So how do you get people to relate to what you do as a skateboarder to maybe them thinking about their own skills and upskilling. Because a lot of people don't have that same type of mindset that you did.
Tony Hawk: Well, all I can say is that I absolutely loved what I was doing and I was willing to do it for absolutely no compensation. And the lesson I learned from that is, if you follow your dreams, if you really follow your passion in life, whether it be what you're doing or maybe the next progression of what you're doing, and you go at it with an attitude that, 'Hey, I really want to learn this.' Not because I want to be rich or famous, but because I enjoy this process. That's going to bring you happiness, and I think that's the mark of success. I mean it's a bit lofty, but that's the truth. I skated for years for very little to no money, and I don't think of those times as a struggle. I was just thankful I still got to skate.
Jim Kaitz: That's probably a pretty good way to focus on that. So going back to earlier in your career, you certainly dominated the sport in your twenties, but there was a lot of peer pressure. And again, reading and watching you and listening to you, there were a lot of people that were coming after you. And what was it like dealing with that pressure of it? You would think, well, you were champion, so there wasn't any pressure. But I know you felt a lot of pressure and were criticized. How did you get through that period?
Tony Hawk: I did actually take a pause in competing through those years because I was doing really well. I was competing regularly, almost full-time. And there came a point where people just thought that if I didn't win, say if I had performed my best and I got second place, someone else was better obviously that day, that I had lost. That was the attitude. It was either Tony wins, or he lost and he's losing it and he's falling away. And that pressure got to be insurmountable for me and I had to just stop altogether for a while. It was probably the course of six months or so where it I wasn't enjoying it. It was too draining. It was too much pressure.
And then I stepped back and I just started skating on my own, just trying different techniques, exploring tricks that I would never really do because they weren't consistent because you had to be consistent in competition. And at some point I went back to competing with an attitude of, ‘I don't really care if I win or lose, I'm going to go all out.’ So in those years after that I basically did the absolute best things I could do or didn't even place. And that was very liberating. It's hard to explain and it seems like that would be defeating. But it was very liberating in that sense.
Jim Kaitz: It sounds like that Tony Hawk determination. You were just going to keep at it.
Tony Hawk: Yeah, I was going to keep at it, and I just had to come at it with a different perspective.
Jim Kaitz: So the topic of your presentation at the AFP conference is, Authenticity Above All Else. So how does Tony Hawk define authenticity?
Tony Hawk: Staying true to your values, staying true to your core, your history. And staying true to either your industry, culture, artform or sport. Whatever it is that you feel like you represent then you have to do it with integrity and you have to do it with authenticity. Don't try to reformat what forms your life. In your formative years, don't try to rewrite history or why you're doing it or what it's all about. I did a lot of different promotions and endorsements through the years but my biggest concern was to keep the integrity and the authenticity of the skating involved.
Jim Kaitz: So how did you do that in terms of business? I mean you're basically a conglomerate now between the video games and your skating clothing line and the skateboards. How did you manage that? I suspect there was a lot of pressure on you over the times to endorse some things maybe you necessarily didn't want to endorse. How did you make those decisions about, okay, here's the economic side, and here's the Tony Hawk brand authenticity side?
Tony Hawk: I learned from my mistakes. I made plenty of questionable decisions in my early years, especially in the eighties when people just want to throw money at you. But you don't realize that you're also giving them complete control of your name or likeness. And I made some mistakes in terms of companies I aligned with, products that had my name on it. And so basically, I got a second chance at all of it as this last era of popularity came in, and I demanded that anything with my name on it had to go by me for final approval. And I had to fight for that. It was hard. I mean, especially in the early days when a big company like McDonald's or Frito-Lay is telling you, no, this is what we do, this is our marketing strategy. And I'm telling them, well, that doesn't represent skating well. And I stood my ground.