Kai Lenny

391: Push Beyond Your Limits: Top Big Wave Surfer on The Art of Challenging the Unknown

What is it like staring down the barrel of a 70-foot wave? How do we challenge ourselves to do bigger and riskier things in life? How do we take the first step towards something that seems unimaginable at first?

One of the best big wave surfers and risk takers on the planet, Kai Lenny has found true freedom in the powerlessness that comes with confronting one of Mother Nature’s most spectacular monsters – the big wave. 

As a multi-disciplinary athlete who surfed his fist wave at four-years-old, Kai has successfully conquered various water-based disciplines, earning him the title of a true waterman. Whether it’s big-wave surfing, kiteboarding, stand-up paddleboarding, windsurfing, or hydrofoiling, Kai’s unmatched skills and unwavering determination have led him to become a trailblazer in each field. Kai’s list of world championship honors include being an eight-time SUP Surfing World Champion, VICE KSP Kiting World Champion, two-time Molokai to Oahu Foil Boarding World Champion and World Record Holder, Molokai to Oahu SUP World Champion, and winning one of the world’s most prestigious big wave surfing events in 2020—the Nazaré Tow Surfing Challenge.

According to Kai: “Once you know how to tap into fear, you can use it to do things you never thought were possible.” 

Most impressive—in a sport that requires a unique kind of risk-taking and preparation—is Kai’s masterful approach to mindset. A perfectionist whose passion is “always getting better at something,” Kai has many incredible insights on staying motivated, adaptable, and innovative all in the face of radical risk and relentless unknowns. 

We first had Kai on the podcast back in 2016 – episode #44 if you want to check it out. It’s an epic conversation, and it was equally as incredible to see how Kai has continued to evolve in the 7 years since that original recording.

This time around, we cover everything from navigating the unknown to performance imagery, breaking through limits, staying calm in chaos, setting a vision, and so much more. Many of us will never surf a 50+ foot wave – but we can all learn from Kai’s approach to mastering his craft, himself, and the way he navigates life.

“I think it’s really important to have, almost, a little bit of cockiness in yourself. You have to be willing to cross that line in the sand. Until you do that, you’re not going to know what your potential is.”

In This Episode:

Challenge yourself

The takeaway from riding big waves is always been challenging yourself to the unknown. When you ride big waves, you constantly are experiencing a new experience every time you hit the water. Even if you return to an existing surf spot, big wave surfing is just so unpredictable and it’s gaining the courage, but the confidence through the experience of doing something in the unknown, something that you haven’t personally been through yet that I feel like biggest growth happens. And that’s been my draw to big waves is it is a fun combination of not only athleticism, but innovation meeting opportunity.

What he’s learned being a parent

People have written books about being parents, but until you are a parent yourself, you don’t know. The kids are almost teaching you and what you need to learn. And so anything that I ever learned from the ocean is directly applied to my kids. And the great thing is with having my kids recently, I’ve become way more calculated, way more methodical. Not only in the water, but also on land and how I prepare for these swells. I’m so much more detail oriented now, and when the big day does come, I can relax and let go. And in some way I’m learning a lot from my kids, just being a parent. And that’s really exciting.

Making mistakes

Most people, I think, experience something called resistance. Which is the fear of actually just taking the first step in doing something. And then resistance being, “I made this mistake once, I’ll never be in that position again.” But in order to get to that next level or that next step, you have to allow yourself to be in a position to make another mistake. And with a more informed decision, maybe with hindsight, you could actually make the right call and it’s growth. So if you’re not making mistakes in my field of stuff, if I’m not falling on a big wave every once in a while, I’m probably not pushing hard enough, but I train so I can handle those falls. And it’s scary at first, but in order to get the best out of me, I have to be able to ride without fear. And in order to ride without fear, you have to experience the unknown.

The elevator metaphor

There’s taking the elevator to the top of the skyscraper, and then there’s taking the stairs. So I train to take the stairs, but I always take the elevator when I’m in those conditions. And that way I can retain my energy and focus on my performance and not focus on the surviving part, because the surviving part I can do. It’s just putting all that into the performance that’ll allow me to ride better. But it’s always in the back. It’s always easily unlockable.

Looking for inspiration

I really have been looking outside of my own community of surfers in a way. I’ve been looking at other places to get inspiration for riding big waves. One of those inspirations is Travis Rice up in Alaska. And recently I went up there with Travis and got to experience in person what it was like to be in the scenarios he is doing. And that would open my mind to what is even more possible than what I was just imagining, because I actually got to see it in person. I got to see the master himself in these mountains. And I got to experience some of that myself too. But a lot of times I don’t really ever feel like, I feel like my potential in big waves is way greater than where I’m at now. I don’t even feel close to what, in my own imagination and my own visualization, I could be 10 times gnarlier and I know it, but there’s kind of a process to it.

Living with purpose

When I feel like I have a real purpose in front of me, any anxiety goes away, fear of death, longevity of life, all this normal human traits to be kind of worried about, just completely disappeared, and I’m living in the moment…if I was ever in a scenario where I thought I was going to drown, it’s easy to give up on yourself, but it’s hard to give up on people that you really love. And so, for me, I wouldn’t be fighting to get up necessarily just to save me, but to be with my kids. Selfishly, I just would want to be with them and hanging out and see their story evolve. And now I’m growing up with them again. It is really a rebirth when you have kids, because you get to experience growing up again from a completely different perspective.


At the current place I’m in with my life, I have so much opportunity to create new waves of riding waves and then challenge myself against these giant waves. It’s almost become, I’m almost creating my own world tour that I’m competing on, and I’m competing against myself. I’m competing against mother nature. You’re never going to defeat mother nature, but you can at times match power with power for a moment. Be in complete harmony with that chaos of a big wave.

Being the best

If I’m at my best, I’m at the best. That’s just my perspective on that… I hold myself, I think, to the highest standard. And I know my imagination runs so deep, because I’ve been working on it my whole life. And a lot of people haven’t tapped into that side of them, because to them the best is being better than the next guy. But in my mind, the potential I know that I could reach, is stuff that no one’s ever done, and it’s unimaginable. It’s all unimaginable until it’s actually done. So if I could be at my best, what I know I could be in my head, then there’s just no conversation.

Does he think he’s crazy?

Not to be provocative with this, but it seems like a joke sort of thing, because to me I feel completely normal. I feel like I know a lot more people that do the same thing that I do that may in fact be unhinged. But for me, I just feel like the only reason why it seems crazy is because what I do is so far removed from how they live their lives. I think if they grew up the way that I grew up and in the conditions that I’ve spent so much time, it’s just the natural progression. There’s nothing that’s reckless about it. It’s very methodically approached and thought out. How do you run a billion-dollar business, for example? You know what I mean? That’s crazy. Someone’s always going to think something’s crazy that they’re not, I would say, really informed on or if they’re not actually doing it themselves because it just seems like such a massive mountain to climb.

Trust in self

My advantage is my undying support for myself. When I was a kid, I always told myself I will never quit. The only time I will let something go is because it’s like, okay, now you’re beating your head against a brick wall. Why not take a step back and realize you can actually just walk around the brick wall? It might take that reset. But quitting just to quit because it’s too hard is never an option. It’s just taking a step back. That’s how baby steps have always been my approach in everything that I do. It all adds up, and now the baby steps look really big to everyone else, but it was always that natural progression. I’ve just been doing a natural progression consistently for a long time. I think more than anything, it’s about consistency rather than putting a huge amount of effort into a short period of time.

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