Exclusive: Conversation with Rodney Mullen

Freestyle Philosophy

Rodney Mullen is sort of like Yoda. If Yoda wore a puffy and a beanie and invented a good number of the tricks that modern skateboarding is built upon.

In the 1980s, Mullen was a member of the Bones Brigade skate team. While teammate Tony Hawk was launching ever higher out of the halfpipe, Mullen was staying much closer to the ground, defining freestyle skating and laying the foundation for the sport’s evolution.

More recently, the professional skater and business owner has been giving talks at places like MIT and for the TED public speaking series, applying the insights gained throughout a life skating to innovation, creativity, technology and just about everything else.

As part of Foo Foo Fest, Mullen was invited to Pensacola by David Fries, of the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, and Caitlin Rhea, of First City Art Center, for 3D Printsacola. The skater kicked off the exhibit — leading into 3D Printsacola events throughout the week — which seeks to weave elements of art, technology and skateboarding.

During the event, Mullen participated in a Q&A with attendees. At one point a young woman who identified herself as an artist, rather than a skateboarder, asked a tough one: “what do you consider success?”

“I’ll ask you, what do you consider success?” Mullen turned the question around on her.

“Self-fulfillment,” she replied, her tone falling somewhere between a question and a statement.

“I think that’s profound,” Mullen told her.

Following his talk, Mullen hung around the First City Art Center for hours, talking one-on-one with folks until no one was left in line to talk to. Each person wanted to speak with him for their own reasons. To get him to sign their skateboard. To thank him for inventing the ollie. And he listened to each person, really listened, intently, and then reciprocated in kind, seeming just as jazzed as his fans.

At the end of the long evening, Mullen sat down in First City’s Gallery 1060 for a few more questions. The conversation that transpired pertained to skateboarding, which is to say everything …

INWEEKLY: I had a bunch of pre-planned questions, but I think I’m just gonna ditch’em.

RODNEY MULLEN: Yeah, sometimes that’s easier. Whatever works best for you.

INWEEKLY: Okay — which, also means I’m definitely going to forget at least half the stuff I was going to ask you, but —

MULLEN: Well, then we can back and forth.

INWEEKLY: Cool. So, you talked to, like, everybody out there. What do you — they seem to really connect with you and you seem to really connect with them. What do you get out of that? They get a lot. What do you get?

MULLEN: Thank you. That’s such a good question. It’s insightful, in the sense that — I think anyone who finds themselves, I guess you could call that a public eye, and I think some people start with the intent of wanting to be in the public eye, because they have some inner craving. For me, I never had that. All I was doing was rolling around. And eventually you find yourself in it. And that’s an adjustment.

I was a super shy kid and, in fact, my dad wanted me to stop skateboarding because he thought it made me collapse within myself, because I was so focused back in those days, back in the winning contest days. It put me over time into situations just like that where I was shy, I didn’t know how to engage with people. And it was coming all at once and it’s a little bit of an unnatural setting, of course, because they’re firing all these questions at you. That’s not the way things generally work.

And I think it just inevitably unfolded to where I thought, ‘You know what? This is the biggest gift in the world.’ I think mostly we as adults, or anyone, more than anything, you talk to rich people, or even famous people don’t get this, that what matters more than anything is relationships, the way you interact with other people.

And the biggest gift of all is to have all of these people come so open-eyed to you, and just wanting to know you, extending themselves in some way, shape or form. And as that started to dawn upon me, more as a teenager and later, that’s when it hit me what a gift this is, that people want to come and know you and give that, reach to you, that’s a strange kind of connectiveness. And so make the most of it while you can.

Now, I’m naturally very introverted, very introverted, I’m a hermit at home. I more or less disappear, my friends know me that way. I never reach out. People reach out to me, ‘Hey, you wanna do this?’ I struggle to do that. It’s not because I don’t love them, but struggle to leave that. So I find myself, after I do these things, I plummet, I get super, like, heavy hearted and I just get super heavy. I don’t understand why that exchange is, like why that cycle is, it just is. But the fact is, I go right back to it, because what a joy to have that connectedness with people.

So, when I see people, they want to know — half the time people don’t even know where to start, or they might have a lot of things to say, but by the time they get to you they kind of lock up and you can see that and so I do my best to kind of pull it out, to disarm, you know? And that in itself, that dawning on what’s been happening, that in itself, that’s a kind of joy for me. If that makes sense?

INWEEKLY: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Did it take you a while to realize that, to kind of grow into accepting —


INWEEKLY: — that you could do that?

MULLEN: Yes. That’s what I’ve just described, all that transition. I mean, that took 10 years or so. And now I’Ve been doing that a long time, because I’ve certainly been doing this, some form of this, since I was about 15 or 16. And so now I just, yeah, I love it. Because in a strange way you might think that — or I would say, one might think that it’s such an unnatural interaction. And, indeed, we see this.

Like, stars, or people with fame, it’s easy to make fun of them, to say, ‘They don’t even know how to interact with people.’ Because often I think it’s demonstrable that these very well known people are relatively friendless people. That’s the nature of their interactions. It’s not even right and balanced to begin with. And it shows in all kinds of drug abuse and stuff like that. They’re dying of loneliness and yet they’re surrounded by people, because the nature of the interactions is offset to begin with. Does that make sense?

INWEEKLY: Yeah, yeah. They’ve kind of manufactured a gilded cage for themselves.

MULLEN: Truly, that’s right. And so in some ways it’s such an unnatural setting. If you were to treat it accordingly then you can easily have a terrible experience, where you’re not connecting with them and you think you are. And then that, I think, leads to also a weird sense of hopelessness. You know? And we see that. In this case, when you weirdly find yourself having the depth of these conversations that some have, it’s because you’re able to pull it out of people, to nurture that.

And so for as weirdly foreign as it is, it creates almost a type of intimacy. People will say things to you that they won’t tell their best friends. Strange. And so I treat it accordingly. That’s valuable, that’s precious. What a gift this is.

INWEEKLY: That’s a beautiful way of looking at it.

MULLEN: Thank you.

INWEEKLY: Events like this, what do they mean to you, where, um — Caitlin was talking about it when I was talking to her about this prior to the event, you know, the intersection of various things, like art and technology and skateboarding, in this sense. Do you like to fuse those various elements?

MULLEN: Yes, and let’s just — you know, right now we’re kind of pretending that what I say matters, so I, let’s step back. One of the guys that I admire most, I think he was one of the guys to speak at Steve Jobs death, or I think that that happened, meaning that he’s well-revered within the spirit of technology, science and innovation. And his name is John Seely Brown. JSB. He was the lead scientist, and also I think he ran Xerox Park in Palo Alto Research Center, where all kinds of what makes personal computing allowable, they created that stuff. So, for whatever reason, through a long series of events, I end up over the years, even presenting with him a couple of weeks ago at Stanford, where we connect, and he, in one of his talks to USC — USC leans upon him to help guide the direction of their curriculum, so that they’re more relative in the next decades.

So, he’s that level of person. He’s clearly a mathematical genius, a wizard that way, and with that kind of — What do you call it? Acumenity? Acumen? — just gift, he was New York’s youngest registered bookie. Which to me is hilarious. Because, what do you do with that super gift? Well, I can add in an instant, I can, you know, do these calculations in an instant. So, what do I do with that? I’m a bookie.

And he later, after all this running, you know, being chief scientist, he talks about that in itself gave him something that he couldn’t get anywhere else, that’s most valuable. It allowed him to develop an ability to read people. Being a bookie, you have to be able to read people. And he took that into science, that sort of reading between the lines of what people wanted, but they can’t articulate or won’t articulate. He took that perspective and he told stories of how that was almost a painful process of figuring out: ‘Wait, this is the most important ingredient of being bookie, now it’s one of the most important ingredients of being a scientist?’

And then he went on to talk about, look, there’s some places, like, I think, USC for example, [that] perhaps will never be able to beat a Stanford or an MIT when it comes to engineering. But, because USC is at the heart of Hollywood and creatively — storytelling — they have the opportunity to become even better because the nature of advancement and innovation will eventually rely not just on engineering or straight scientific prowess, but the ability to integrate that with design and art and storytelling.

And using Steve Jobs, for example, what Apple had done with it, addressing a culture, creating a vibe, creating a look and, of course, the best of technology so that integration of all of them was going to be the best direction. Well, that’s what this in a sense, places like this and a mind like David’s, for example, bringing it together, they seem to already embrace that.

Here it is a science community, but it’s bringing together art, it’s bringing together culture, music, the raw nature of skateboarding, which is about, you know, hacking the environment, using it in ways never intended and creating something in the process, sharing it and creating community around that, which in itself is one that thrives on individuation through what they do. You don’t just do it like another sport, to do it like the next guy, you do it to do something completely different than the next guy. And that garners a mutual respect, that’s how the community works, it’s open source in that sense.

Well, all of that lends itself toward innovation and the problem solving, the blending together of art and science, like that’s the most important fusion there can be, that’s the future. So, this is, I think, what a perfect environment.

INWEEKLY: Yeah, it was neat. So, speaking of doing something different, when you started skating — well, first off, why did you get into skating? I know that’s a really general question, but—

MULLEN: Thank you. It’s a great question. You know, when I first — what did I know, I was like 9-years-old, 10-years-old. Well, 9 or 10-year-olds know, surprisingly, a lot about themselves. I still remember vividly people talking to you like you’re a kid and you’re like — you know what I mean?

INWEEKLY: You feel like you’re a complete person.

MULLEN: Yeah. And in many ways of course you’re a kid, we know that, but in other ways don’t underestimate what they’re thinking. And I’m still pretty much in tune with that. Even when I see kids out there, it’s like don’t underestimate what they’re thinking, what they’re seeing.

So, as a little kid, in one sense what do I know? But, the flip side is, yeah, I was reasonably athletic — I mean, I’m not a big guy, but that’s before really people hit their growing spurts — so, in the scheme of things, you’re pretty athletic, you can do most things, and I remember, ‘eh, none of it really appeals to me.’ I mean, I can do it, [but] I don’t wanna be told what to do by a coach and I don’t want to spend all my time perfecting some golf swing or a pitch or having someone tell me exactly where my elbow needs to go in order to — you know, I don’t want that, I don’t want that. I’m not really anti-social, although I’ve certainly been accused of that and maybe there’s a degree of that, but I love people, but sometimes I can’t fit in crowds very well.

And so skateboarding, when I saw the fist skaters doing what they were doing — they’re all sharing the same movements, but they’re doing it differently. They weren’t competing against each other, but they were always, of course, it’s in everybody, maybe guys more than girls, I don’t know, but they all want to be better than each other, yet on their own terms. They’re not seeking for the other person to fall. Everyone’s yelling for each other. When I first saw that I thought, like, that’s what I want to do. Because that’s not what I’m experiencing in the baseball diamond or on a tennis court or in karate or in any of the stuff I was doing.

INWEEKLY: One person’s success does’t depend on another’s failure.

MULLEN: That’s right, it’s zero sum. And even the whole team thing, how am I rooting — I don’t know, if I fail I want it all on me. Does that make sense? I don’t want people praising me because I’m wearing the right color, you know? So, that’s what drew me to skateboarding, unquestionably. I saw that crystal clear when I was a kid.

And the more I got better at it, the more I really embraced how creative it was. Because, again, I guess I was coming in at a blank-canvas time, so I’m credited with making up a bunch of tricks. I guess I did. But even today, with the way everything’s made up, the way people do it, it still leaves so much opportunity for distinction. So, that open field of creativity, that’s what drew me to it. The little engineering problem solving, the way I’d tune up my boards, I’m always kinda sciency, engineering type of kid, I really am, always was. And that appealed to me.

I saw that component of skateboarding as problem solving. There’s physics, it’s an intuitive form of that. I love to tumble those — it’s a puzzle, every trick is a puzzle. And yet the expression and movement of it — although, my style, I wouldn’t say I’m some artist, but sure everyone gets a sense of that flow and feel and there is that art. All that connected with me. And I feel it’s completely devoid of that in the other sports that I saw. I don’t see that. Maybe if I talked to some pro baseball player he would tell me different and, you know, he would have a right to, but for the life of me it can’t compare to what skateboarding is.

INWEEKLY: Did you see what you were doing back then, back in the 80s, as wildly different, a different direction than the mainstream of skateboarding?

MULLEN: Yeah, I did, even then. Okay, this sounds terrible and it actually shows how small I am down deep — but, I came in at a time when it was dominated by surfers. And there was something called Dogtown, and they were the cool guys and they acted a bit gangsterish, you know?


MULLEN: That was what was plastered across the magazines.

INWEEKLY: Very grainy aesthetic.

MULLEN: Yeah, right. And so I grew up among those guys. And even the neighborhoods, there were little banked ramps and they would paint waves on them. And so I grew up, they were cool, I wasn’t of them, but they were fine. Very quickly — that was all of like six months, you know? — and I move out to the farm and then it was just nothing, a garage and then later a barn to skate in. Quite small, right? A three car garage. So I got good at static, I couldn’t roll around so I just go really good at the problem trick stuff.

Couple of years, well, within a year or so, a park opens. And then back to the surfers skating the park. And by that stage I had learned a lot of tricks, I was coming into myself. And I immediately saw what I saw in other sports. Those dudes were putting down the younger generation of guys. I wouldn’t say they were putting me down, I wouldn’t say it was personal, I didn’t take anything personal, but I remember popping out of a little bowl — I was already pretty good, I got sponsored pretty quickly — and I remember hearing some surfer guy that was like — he had all the flowing bleached hair and, you know, the look — and I remember seeing him put down some kid because he didn’t have quote-unquote style.

And I was, what? Twelve at most, like, at most. And this is how terrible I am. I mean, but it’s raw, it’s real, it’s an honest answer. And all I could think of was — quietly because I was too small to say anything to him, he was grown up as far as I was concerned — and I was thinking, ‘You know what? I’m gonna bury you. I will bury you with the tricks that I will create, with what I’ll be able to do. If you’re gonna sit around and hold the rest of us back —.  We’re suppose to —. We’re the outsiders, we’re the — that’s why I fell in love with this, because I felt like a reject. And you’re now creating a club based on some —.

I did not understand it, and I was thinking, I’m going to do everything I can, trick after trick after trick after trick after trick and you will become irrelevant because you would seek to dominate others in what I love. And that, I think, is kind of a non-conformist. I think that sort of punk rock vibe that was quick to soak in, that’s one of the reasons punk rock so connected with my spirit and so many skaters. As mellow as I am, that’s what became, like, woven into the culture during those days.

And I think what created the divide between surfers and skaters and what really gave skateboarding its identity — I remember when I came out west I met Tony Hawk, he was being made fun of, he got spat on, it’s in the documentary, he was spit upon because he didn’t skate a certain way. We became friends pretty quickly and both of us thought the same way. And I think it wasn’t just us, but I think we were representative of that movement, of we are now going to define ourselves in a new separate way, we’re not just surfers with wheels, you know.

Anyway, that’s a lot of what drove me during those early years of making our own, it’s individuation, this is us, by us, this is our community, don’t lord over us with a kind of bigotry based on something that we don’t, we can’t even define. A style derived from somebody else. Strip all of that down, we are now defined in terms of exactly what we can do. And we accept each other accordingly. There is no one to lord over us with their cool-guy status, that’s not allowed, we will break the back of that. And that to me is, I think, foundational to the culture. And it’s still there.

INWEEKLY: You think it’s maintained?

MULLEN: To a large degree. There’s always times of it. Some times are better than others. And there’s always phases and no one gets through unscathed, without being embarrassing. You know, we can all look back on times and be like I’m embarrassed about myself.


MULLEN: And certainly the culture as a whole, you could say the movement — there were certain times in skateboarding that are, any skateboarder in their right mind, that we know that, ‘Oh, that was an era that none of us were very proud of.’ But ultimately, come on, that’s the undulation of just living life. But the basic ethos has remained the same.

INWEEKLY: You talk a lot about — you extrapolate lessons learned skating out into other areas of life. You know, you fail you learn, that kind of stuff, using your environment to dictate the  context of your path or whatever. Have you always thought about it like this ? Like, ever since you’ve been skating have you always extrapolated those lessons learned out into other areas of your life?

MULLEN: I think that from the very beginning, because nothing was defined for us, there weren’t even freestyle boards, so I would have to take vert boards — even when I rode for Powell in those early days, so that’s like, I was already winning, I’d already won all the amateur stuff before I was on Powell, so much so that they wouldn’t let me enter amateur contests. And I got on Powell in ’80, and then ’81 — so, my point is I was already very defined and still there were not boards specifically designed for what we were doing. That says a lot, I think.

INWEEKLY: And what were you skating on?

MULLEN: I was skating Bones Rodriquez and Alan Gelfand boards that I would cut out, and those boards were huge. So, I was cutting them out, sending them to a furniture shop to have them routed. Little things I would do for finger flips — my point is, because I was able to grow up in an era where we’re still defining making our own equipment, no one could even build anything that fast enough and aggressive enough to keep up with what we were doing.

I think that created a mindset that never left me. And that is skateboarding, that’s all that it was, without even giving it a name, it was mother tongue, you know? And it also matched what drew me to it, I don’t want to be told what to do. And I’m still afflicted with that in a comical way. If someone tells me what to do, I struggle with that. Even as I get older — I can’t even participate, and I struggle with that. I struggle with belonging, I’ve always struggled with that. Which is one of the things, I think, that makes me love the skateboarding all the more, because belonging becomes so much, through what we do and being authentic to who you are, everyone is accepted precisely because they’re freaks. There’s so much of that in the culture and it’s not replicated well in other cultures. Like, I just, I love it.

Now, going back to defining our own paths and all this, when my bones started to kind of fuse together and I was going through a rough time in a lot of ways — I’d sold the company, so I had enough money to get by, I didn’t have to go into 9-to-5, right? And, I was stuck. I was out of school. When I went back to study abstract math stuff, that I love —I didn’t even really want to be an engineer, but I love the math, because of the puzzles — but I couldn’t go back to it, because I’d already run a business and the excitement of everything moving at you, you know? And it’s hard to just do problems in a book after that.

And I sought community, because I was lonely. Because even skateboarding, as much as I love the community, if you’re not doing it, you’re not with everyone. You might have that respect, which is ultimately, that respect means more than anything else. But, if you’re not doing it, you’re not with’em. And so I was crushingly lonely.

And so, a friend, who was cool enough, he wasn’t even a good friend, but he’s like, ‘Hey, have you ever built a computer?’ And I was like, ‘Huh. No.’ I wasn’t even in to computers. But building one? Ok, that’s kind of cool. It’s like Legos, you know what I mean? It snaps into place. And then, ok, an operating system, you can find a couple problem solving things with Windows or whatever, you know. And that’s good, but then it’s boring. And then I found Linux and hacking.

And it’s not like I have the heart to attack everything, but the mischief, that, like, gray area mentality, like how do you break it to make something else? That was just intoxicating. And I fell in love with that culture, and I realized, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s just like skaters, but they’re nerds, but they’re raw, and it’s their own outlaw culture, but they’re really technical and what they do is surprisingly just like skateboarding.’

And, so — I was ranting about that — through weird circuitous events I came into contact with this amazing person from MIT named Z Holly. And she believed in me. And so I was ranting about that, and she goes, ‘You should do a TEDx talk.’ At USC, that was, like, the spearhead, in fact I think she was credited with co-inventing the whole TEDx thing. So, I did the talk, based exactly on that, and then suddenly all these other doors started to open up to me. Really fast.

The Smithsonian, and that led me on this path to, ultimately, MIT. And so, that mentality of — it’s always been there, I’ve always felt it, it wasn’t until later that I —. You know, I think accents teach us a lot. You speak a common language, but if you don’t go out of your domain, you’ll never know that you speak it in a certain way. And then you realize, ‘Oh my gosh, I have an accent. How is that possible? They’re the ones with the accent. No, it’s actually me with the accent.’

So, likewise, that sense of parallax, it gave me an understanding of, like, ‘Oh my gosh, they do just what we do.’ And then now, when I’m in Silicon Valley a lot, I see, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s so many skaters, they thrive upon this.’ And, wow, that’s nuts, what I’ve been doing is actually really important in life and in higher science and in art and in everything else. It’s this weird common thread that skating taught us from the beginning. So, does that answer something?

INWEEKLY: It definitely answers it.