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TEDxUSC

Rodney Mullen: Pop an ollie and innovate!

Filmed:

The last thing Rodney Mullen, the godfather of street skating, wanted were competitive victories. In this exuberant talk he shares his love of the open skateboarding community and how the unique environments it plays in drive the creation of new tricks -- fostering prolific ingenuity purely for passion's sake. (Filmed at TEDxUSC.)

- Skater
Rodney Mullen is a legendary skateboarder who transformed the art of street skating. Full bio

(Music)
00:16
(Skateboard sounds) (Music)
00:36
(Applause)
01:21
So, that's what I've done with my life. (Laughter)
01:28
(Applause)
01:32
Thank you. (Applause)
01:34
As a kid, I grew up on a farm in Florida,
01:41
and I did what most little kids do.
01:43
I played a little baseball, did a few other things like that,
01:45
but I always had the sense of being an outsider,
01:49
and it wasn't until I saw pictures in the magazines
01:51
that a couple other guys skate, I thought,
01:54
"Wow, that's for me," you know?
01:56
Because there was no coach standing directly over you,
01:58
and these guys, they were just being themselves.
02:00
There was no opponent directly across from you.
02:02
And I loved that sense, so I started skating
02:05
when I was about 10 years old, in 1977,
02:08
and when I did, I picked it up pretty quickly.
02:12
In fact, here's some footage from about 1984.
02:14
It wasn't until '79 I won my first amateur championship,
02:18
and then, by '81, I was 14, and I won
02:24
my first world championship,
02:27
which was amazing to me,
02:29
and in a very real sense, that was the first real victory I had.
02:32
Oh, watch this.
02:35
This is a casper slide, where the board's upside down.
02:36
Mental note on that one. (Laughs)
02:38
And this one here? An ollie.
02:41
So, as she mentioned, that is overstated for sure,
02:46
but that's why they called me the godfather
02:50
of modern street skating.
02:52
Here's some images of that.
02:54
Now, I was about halfway through my pro career in,
03:01
I would say, the mid-'80s.
03:05
Freestyle itself, we developed all these flat ground tricks
03:08
as you saw, but there was evolving
03:10
a new kind of skateboarding, where guys were taking it
03:13
to the streets, and they were using that ollie,
03:16
like I showed you? They were using it to get up onto stuff
03:20
like bleachers and handrails and over stairwells
03:22
and all kinds of cool stuff.
03:25
So it was evolving upwards.
03:27
In fact, when someone tells you they're a skater today,
03:30
they pretty much mean a street skater,
03:32
because freestyle, it took about five years for it to die,
03:34
and at that stage, I'd been a "champion" champion
03:37
for 11 years, which, phew!
03:40
And suddenly it was over for me. That's it.
03:45
It was gone. They took my pro model off the shelf,
03:48
which was essentially pronouncing you dead publicly.
03:51
That's how you make your money, you know?
03:54
You have a signature board and wheels and shoes
03:55
and clothes. I had all that stuff, and it's gone.
03:59
The crazy thing was, there was a really
04:03
liberating sense about it, because I no longer had to protect
04:04
my record as a champion. "Champion," again.
04:09
Champion sounds so goofy, but it's what it was, right?
04:11
And I got to -- What drew me to skateboarding, the freedom
04:14
was now restored, where I could just create things,
04:18
because that's where the joy was for me, always,
04:20
was creating new stuff.
04:23
The other thing that I had was a deep well of tricks
04:25
to draw from that were rooted in these flat ground tricks.
04:28
Stuff the normal guys were doing was very much different.
04:31
So, as humbling and rotten as it was —
04:34
And believe me, it was rotten. I would go to skate spots,
04:36
and I was already, like, "famous guy," right?
04:40
And everyone thought I was good. But in this new terrain,
04:42
I was horrible. So people would go, "Oh, he's all --
04:45
Oh, what happened to Mullen?" (Laughter) (Laughs)
04:48
So, humbling as it was, I began again.
04:53
Here are some tricks that I started to bring
04:55
to that new terrain. (Skateboard noises)
04:58
And again, there's this undergirding layer of influence of freestyle
05:00
that made me — Oh, that one?
05:04
That's, like, the hardest thing I've ever done.
05:06
Okay, look at that. It's a darkslide.
05:09
See how it's sliding on the backside?
05:11
Those are super-fun. (Laughter) And, actually, not that hard.
05:15
You know, at the very root of that, see, caspers,
05:18
see how you throw it? (Skateboard noises)
05:20
Simple as that, right? No biggie. (Laughter)
05:23
And your front foot, the way it grabs it, is --
05:25
I'd seen someone slide on the back of the board like that,
05:29
and I was like, "How can I get it over?"
05:32
Because that had not yet been done. And then it dawned
05:34
on me, and here's part of what I'm saying.
05:36
I had an infrastructure. I had this deep layer, where
05:38
it was like, oh my gosh, it's just your foot.
05:41
It's just the way you throw your board over.
05:44
Just let the ledge do that, and it's easy,
05:46
and the next thing you know, there's 20 more tricks
05:48
based out of the variations.
05:50
So that's the kind of thing that, here, check this out,
05:52
here's another way, and I won't overdo this.
05:54
A little indulgent, I understand.
05:56
There's something called a primo slide.
05:59
(Skateboard noises)
06:01
It is the funnest trick ever to do.
06:03
(Skateboard noises)
06:06
It's like skinboarding.
06:09
And this one, look how it slides sideways, every which way?
06:12
Okay, so when you're skating, and you take a fall,
06:14
the board slips that way or that way. It's kind of predictable.
06:17
This? It goes every which way. It's like a cartoon, the falls,
06:20
and that's what I love the most about it.
06:23
It's so much fun to do. In fact, when I started doing them,
06:26
I remember, because I got hurt. I had to get a knee surgery,
06:29
right? So there were a couple of days where, actually
06:32
a couple of weeks, where I couldn't skate at all.
06:35
It would give out on me. And I would watch the guys,
06:37
I'd go to this warehouse where a lot of the guys
06:39
were skating, my friends, and I was like,
06:41
"Man I gotta do something new. I want to do something new.
06:43
I want to start fresh. I want to start fresh."
06:45
And so the night before my surgery, I'd watched,
06:47
and I was like, "How am I going to do this?"
06:49
So I ran up, and I jumped on my board,
06:50
and I cavemanned, and I flipped it down,
06:53
and I remember thinking, I landed so light-footed, thinking,
06:55
if my knee gives, they'll just have more work to do in the morning.
06:58
(Laughs) (Laughter)
07:01
And so, when it was the crazy thing.
07:03
I don't know how many of you guys have had surgery,
07:05
but -- (Laughter) -- you are so helpless, right?
07:07
You're on this gurney and you're watching the ceiling go by,
07:11
every time it's always that, and right when they're putting
07:13
the mask on you before you go to sleep,
07:15
all I was thinking is, "Man, when I wake up and I get better,
07:18
the first thing I'm going to do is film that trick." (Laughter)
07:22
And indeed I did. It was the very first thing I filmed,
07:25
which was awesome.
07:27
Now, let me -- I told you a little bit about the evolution
07:29
of the tricks. Consider that content, in a sense.
07:32
What we do as street skaters is,
07:35
you have these tricks. Say I'm working on darkslides,
07:38
or a primo, that you guys know this stuff now. (Laughter) (Laughs)
07:41
What you do is you cruise around the same streets that
07:45
you've seen a hundred times, but suddenly, because you
07:47
already have something in this fixed domain of this target,
07:50
it's like, what will match this trick?
07:54
How can I expand, how can the context, how can
07:58
the environment change the very nature of what I do?
08:00
So you drive and drive and drive, and, actually I gotta admit,
08:03
just because I was struggling with this because I'm here,
08:07
but I'll just say it, is, I cannot tell you, not only to be here
08:10
in front of you, but what a privilege it is to be at USC campus,
08:13
because I have been escorted off of this campus so many times. (Laughter)
08:17
(Applause)
08:21
So let me give you another example of how
08:26
context shapes content.
08:29
This is a place not that far from here.
08:32
It's a rotten neighborhood. Your first consideration is,
08:34
am I gonna get beat up? You go out and -- See this wall?
08:36
It's fairly mellow, and it's beckoning to do bank tricks, right?
08:39
But there's this other aspect of it for wheelies,
08:46
so check this out. There's a few tricks, again,
08:48
how environment changes the nature of your tricks.
08:52
Freestyle oriented, manual down -- wheelie down.
08:55
Watch, this one? Oh, I love this. It's like surfing, this one,
08:58
the way you catch it.
09:01
This one, a little sketchy going backwards,
09:02
and watch the back foot, watch the back foot.
09:06
Oop. (Laughs) Mental note right there. Again, we'll get back to that.
09:09
Here. Back foot, back foot. Okay, up there?
09:15
That was called a 360 flip. Notice how the board flipped
09:18
and spun this way, both axes.
09:21
And another example of how the context changed,
09:25
and the creative process for me and for most skaters,
09:29
is, you go, you get out of the car, you check for security,
09:33
you check for stuff. (Laughter)
09:37
It's funny, you get to know their rhythms, you know,
09:39
the guys that cruise around, and
09:41
skateboarding is such a humbling thing, man.
09:43
No matter how good you are, right, you still gotta deal with —
09:46
So you hit this wall, and when I hit it, the first thing you do is
09:49
you fall forward, and I'm like, all right, all right.
09:52
As you adjust,
09:55
you punch it up, and then when I would do that,
09:59
it was throwing my shoulder this way, which
10:01
as I was doing it, I was like, "Oh wow, that's begging
10:04
for a 360 flip," because that's how you load up for a 360 flip.
10:07
And so this is what I want to emphasize that,
10:11
as you can imagine, all of these tricks are made of
10:13
sub-movements, executive motor functions, more granular
10:18
to the degree to which I can't quite tell you, but one thing
10:21
I do know is, every trick is made of combining two or three
10:23
or four or five movements. And so, as I'm going up,
10:26
these things are floating around, and you have to sort of
10:30
let the cognitive mind, like, rest back, pull it back a little bit,
10:32
and let your intuition go as you feel these things.
10:35
And these sub-movements are just kind of floating around,
10:38
and as the wall hits you, they connect themselves
10:40
to an extent, and that's when the cognitive mind, you think,
10:43
"Oh, 360 flip, I'm going to make that."
10:45
So that's how that works to me, the creative process,
10:47
the process itself of street skating.
10:49
So, next — Oh, mind you. (Laughs) Those are the community.
10:51
These are some of the best skaters in the world.
10:55
These are my friends. Oh my gosh, they're such good people.
10:58
And the beauty of skateboarding is that,
11:01
no one guy is the best. In fact, I know this is rotten to say,
11:04
they're my friends, but a couple of them actually
11:08
don't look that comfortable on their board.
11:11
What makes them great is the degree to which
11:13
they use their skateboarding to individuate themselves.
11:16
Every single one of these guys, you look at them,
11:19
you can see a silhouette of them, and you realize, like,
11:21
"Oh, that's him, that's Haslam, that's Koston,
11:24
there's these guys, these are the guys.
11:26
And skaters, I think they tend to be outsiders
11:29
who seek a sense of belonging,
11:34
but belonging on their own terms,
11:37
and real respect is given by how much we take what
11:40
other guys do, these basic tricks, 360 flips,
11:44
we take that, we make it our own, and then we contribute
11:47
back to the community the inner way
11:51
that edifies the community itself.
11:52
The greater the contribution, the more we express and form
11:55
our individuality, which is so important to a lot of us
11:59
who feel like rejects to begin with.
12:03
The summation of that gives us
12:06
something we could never achieve as an individual.
12:09
I should say this. There's some sort of beautiful symmetry
12:13
that the degree to which we connect to a community
12:16
is in proportion to our individuality, which we are expressing
12:19
by what we do.
12:22
Next. These guys. Very similar community
12:25
that's extremely conducive to innovation.
12:28
Notice a couple of these shots from the Police Department.
12:31
But it is quite similar. I mean, what is it to hack, right?
12:36
It's knowing a technology so well that you can manipulate it
12:38
and steer it to do things it was never intended to do, right?
12:41
And they're not all bad.
12:45
You can be a Linux kernel hacker, make it more stable, right?
12:47
More safe, more secure. You can be an iOS hacker,
12:51
make your iPhone do stuff it wasn't supposed to.
12:54
Not authorized, but not illegal.
12:58
And then you've got some of these guys, right?
13:00
What they do is very similar to our creative process.
13:02
They connect disparate information,
13:04
and they bring it together in a way that
13:08
a security analyst doesn't expect. Right?
13:11
It doesn't make them good people,
13:14
but it's at the heart of engineering, at the heart of
13:16
a creative community, an innovative community,
13:19
and the open source community, the basic ethos of it
13:23
is, take what other people do, make it better,
13:26
give it back so we all rise further.
13:29
Very similar communities, very similar.
13:32
We have our edgier sides, too. It's funny, my dad was right.
13:34
These are my peers.
13:39
But I respect what they do, and they respect what I do,
13:41
because they can do things. It's amazing what they can do.
13:44
In fact, one of them, he was Ernst & Young's
13:46
Entrepreneur of the Year for San Diego County,
13:50
so they're not, you never know who you're dealing with.
13:52
We've all had some degree of fame.
13:57
In fact, I've had so much success that I
13:59
strangely always feel unworthy of.
14:03
I've had a patent, and that was cool, and we started
14:04
a company, and it grew, and it became the biggest, and then
14:06
it went down, and then it became the biggest again,
14:10
which is harder than the first time, and then we sold it,
14:11
and then we sold it again.
14:14
So I've had some success. And in the end,
14:17
when you've had all of these things, what is it that continues to
14:19
drive you? As I mentioned, the knee stuff and these things,
14:22
what is it that will punch you?
14:25
Because it's not just the mind.
14:26
What is it that will punch you and make you do something
14:28
and bring it to another level, and when you've had it all,
14:32
sometimes, guys, they die on the vine with all of that talent,
14:35
and one of the things we've had, all of us, is fame,
14:38
I think the best kind of fame, because you can take it off.
14:42
I've been all around the world,
14:44
and there will be a thousand kids crying out your name,
14:46
and it's such a weird, visceral experience.
14:49
It's like, it's disorienting.
14:51
And you get in a car, and you drive away,
14:53
and 10-minute drive, and you get out,
14:55
and no one gives a rat's who you are. (Laughs)
14:58
And it gives you that clarity of perspective of, man,
15:01
I'm just me, and popularity, what does
15:04
that really mean again? Not much.
15:05
It's peer respect that drives us. That's the one thing that
15:09
makes us do what we do. I've had over a dozen bones,
15:11
these guys, this guy, over, what, eight, 10 concussions,
15:13
to the point where it's comedy, right?
15:17
It is actually comedy. They mess with him.
15:20
Next. And this is something deeper, and this is where I'm —
15:24
I think I was on tour when I, I was reading one of the
15:29
Feynman biographies. It was the red one or the blue one.
15:32
And he made this statement that was so profound to me.
15:35
It was that the Nobel Prize
15:43
was the tombstone on all great work,
15:44
and it resonated because I had won 35 out of 36 contests
15:47
that I'd entered over 11 years, and it made me bananas.
15:51
In fact, winning isn't the word. I won it once.
15:55
The rest of the time, you're just defending,
15:57
and you get into this, like, turtle posture, you know?
15:58
Where you're not doing. It usurped the joy of what I loved
16:02
to do because I was no longer doing it to create and have fun,
16:04
and when it died out from under me, that was one of
16:08
the most liberating things because I could create.
16:10
And look, I understand that I am on the very edge
16:13
of preachy, right here. I'm not here to do that.
16:17
It's just that I'm in front of a very privileged audience.
16:19
If you guys aren't already leaders in your community,
16:22
you probably will be, and if there's anything I can give you
16:25
that will transcend what I've gotten from skateboarding,
16:28
the only things of meaning, I think, and of permanence,
16:31
it's not fame, it's not all these things. What it is
16:34
is that there's an intrinsic value in creating something
16:38
for the sake of creating it, and better than that,
16:40
because, man, I'm 46 years old, or I'll be 46, and how
16:44
pathetic is that I'm still skateboarding, but there is —
16:46
(Laughter) -- there is this beauty in dropping it into
16:49
a community of your own making, and seeing it dispersed,
16:53
and seeing younger, more talented, just different talent,
16:58
take it to levels you can never imagine,
17:00
because that lives on. So thank you for your time.
17:03
(Applause)
17:06
Krisztina Holly: I have a question for you.
17:16
So you've really reinvented yourself in the past from
17:19
freestyle to street, and, I think it was about four years ago
17:25
you officially retired. Is that it? What's next?
17:28
Rodney Mullen: That's a good question.
17:32
KH: Something tells me it's not the end.
17:34
RM: Yeah. I, every time you think you've chased something
17:35
down, it's funny, no matter how good you are,
17:40
and I know guys like this, it feels like you're polishing a turd.
17:41
You know? (Laughter)
17:44
And I thought, the only way I can extend this
17:48
is to change something infrastructural,
17:51
and so that's what I proceeded to do, through a long story,
17:54
one of desperation, so if I do it, rather than talk about it,
17:58
if I do it, you'll be the first to know. KH: All right, we won't ask you any more.
18:02
RM: You'll get a text.
18:04
KH: (Laughs) Right. Thank you. Good job. (Applause)
RM: Thank you. Thank you. (Applause)
18:05
(Applause)
18:08
Translated by Joseph Geni
Reviewed by Morton Bast

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About the speaker:

Rodney Mullen - Skater
Rodney Mullen is a legendary skateboarder who transformed the art of street skating.

Why you should listen

Known as the godfather of street skating, Rodney Mullen is one of the most prolific and influential skateboarders in history. Despite initial objections, his father eventually gave in and purchased Rodney's first skateboard in 1977, when he was ten years old, on the condition that he would always wear his safety pads and stop skating the moment he was injured. That same year he entered his first contest and came in third; then, over the next three years, he would place first in every contest he entered -- nearly thirty in all. In 1980, after winning the Oasis Pro competition in San Diego, Rodney began his professional skating career with the Powell-Peralta Bones Brigade. He would go on to invent tricks, like the flat-ground ollie, Kicklip, Heelflip, and 360 Flip that would completely revolutionize the art of skating. In 2002, Mullen won the Transworld Readers' Choice Award for Skater of the Year and founded the Almost skateboard company. In 2003, he wrote an autobiography titled The Mutt: How to Skateboard and Not Kill Yourself.

More profile about the speaker
Rodney Mullen | Speaker | TED.com