IN A STORAGE room on the top floor of one of the Smithsonian’s fortresslike buildings, a legendary athlete is playing with artificial hearts. Forty-eight-year-old Rodney “Mutt” Mullen, who revolutionized skateboarding as a teen, first twists apart the plastic ventricles of a Jarvik-7 that once beat inside the chest of an Arizona man. He then moves on to inspect a 64-year-old heart pump composed of Erector Set parts, a gadget that a Yale medical student cobbled together for less than 25 bucks.
“Oh man, oh man, Erector Sets made me who I am!” Mullen tells the Smithsonian curators who invited him to Washington, DC, to explore their collections. “When I was a kid I had a double-decker bed, and I had this whole idea of using pulleys to get everything up to me on the top. And so the way I had it, I had strings going all over the place, controlling the light switches and everything through a command center, and I did all that with Erector Sets. My parents, they would leave me dinner on a tray so I wouldn’t have to stop building.”
Mullen becomes even more effusive as his VIP tour continues. Objects such as a Civil War surgical kit and a vintage pacemaker inspire him to riff on topics ranging from the information-sharing practices of Native American tribes to the algorithms that astronomers use to locate quasars. His digressions lapse into incoherence at times—blank stares abound, for example, when he utters the phrase “the ones and zeros of the synaptic idiom” while describing how skateboarders learn their acrobatic tricks. But the curators are mostly dazzled by Mullen’s intellectual dexterity, an unexpected trait in a man who has smashed face-first into concrete countless times.
“I wish you were here more often,” one curator later tells Mullen while giving him a hug. “You make us think differently. You help us make all these connections we need to make.”
Mullen takes the compliment in stride. In fact, he has grown accustomed to hearing this type of praise, for his nerdy musings are in high demand these days. More than 30 years after he invented most of the gravity-defying maneuvers that still form skateboarding’s basic vocabulary, Mullen is enjoying a strange sort of second act. He has become a sought-after speaker on the Silicon Valley conference circuit, making the rounds at PopTech, Foo Camp, TEDx, and myriad other events where technology bigwigs gather to feast on ideas. “When I’m looking for something to blow people’s minds, who better than a skateboarder who talks about neuroscience and memory and stuff like that?” says Roger Magoulas, research director for O’Reilly Media, who has enlisted Mullen to keynote conferences from the Bay Area to Barcelona. As his speaking career has flourished, Mullen also has landed an array of choice consulting gigs: advising the head of a USC research lab that develops virtual reality systems, shooting a short film about creativity for Adobe, collaborating with the Smithsonian to launch a project about skateboarding, history, and innovation. His life is often a blur of product demos and boardroom meetings, punctuated by selfie requests from engineers who grew up playing his character in the Nintendo 64 version of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2.
Given that he’s best known for performing stunts atop a rolling slab of wood, Mullen’s sudden rise to prominence as a thought leader may seem a bit puzzling. Even Mullen himself can scarcely believe that he, a middle-aged man who still gets chased out of parking lots for ignoring NO SKATEBOARDING signs, now mingles with tech barons who hang on his every word. “I’m genuinely honored to meet them and be here,” he says, “because I don’t deserve to be.”
Though part of his appeal is his polymathism—with interests ranging from quantum mechanics to Russian novels—Mullen does have a core message for Silicon Valley that is as compelling as it is odd: that the tech industry has much to learn by studying the culture and habits of skateboarders. It’s a personal thesis to Mullen, a series of lessons and metaphors that he developed as a way to get through some of the darkest moments of his own life. But now he’s found that his ideas and message resonate with others too.
ON THE DAYS he’s home in Southern California, Mullen adheres to a peculiar practice regimen. He skates only in the dead of night, typically starting around 1 am. And he insists on skating in private, usually in the cluttered warehouse of the shoe company that sponsors him. There, in deserted aisles lined with towers of cardboard boxes, he hones all manner of flips and grinds while listening to Swedish death metal.
The sinewy and shaggy-haired Mullen, who resembles a slightly less weathered version of Iggy Pop, refuses to let anyone watch these late-night sessions because he doesn’t want to spoil his mystique. Skating aficionados would be shocked to see how frequently he falls while practicing: When he was at his athletic zenith as a member of the Bones Brigade, the most celebrated team in skateboarding history, Mullen was known for never making mistakes in public. “Rodney was this absolute perfectionist, to the point where if he even stepped off his board it was a monumental occasion,” says Tony Hawk, the world’s most recognizable skater. Mullen’s first pro board featured a graphic of a robotic dog—a tribute mashup of his nickname, Mutt, and his style of flawless skating.
Mullen inherited his meticulousness from his parents, who were both brainy overachievers. His mother was an accomplished pianist who graduated from high school at the age of 14 and later earned a physics degree; his father was a dentist and property developer who built self-propelled vacuums for fun. Though his family was prosperous, Mullen has bitter memories of his upbringing on a farm in Gainesville, Florida. He lived in constant fear of upsetting his father, a surly and domineering man who brooked no dissent from his three children. When Mullen first became interested in skating, his dad refused to let him have a board—he didn’t want his son to waste his talents on such a dangerous, marginal sport. But he finally relented in late 1976, and Mullen responded by devoting upwards of six hours a day to skating alone in an un-air-conditioned barn, which became a sweltering refuge from his father’s temper and stern admonishments.
Since that barn had a flat concrete surface, Mullen gravitated toward a now-defunct skateboarding discipline known as freestyle, a close relative of ballroom dancing—twirls and fancy footwork were freestyle’s bread and butter. The skaters who soared off ramps generally scoffed at freestylers as timid and dull. But when Mullen started to compete in professional contests in the early 1980s, even the most judgmental skaters were enraptured by his tricks, which reflected the mathematical bent of his mind.
“Everyone else looked at a skateboard and said, ‘OK, so you ride on the deck,’” says Stacy Peralta, the skater and filmmaker who managed the Bones Brigade team. “Rodney looked at it and saw a three-dimensional object. You didn’t necessarily need to ride on the deck—you could turn it upside down and skate on it, you could skate on the edge of it.” Mullen won contest after contest—34 of the 35 that he entered during his Hall of Fame career—by nailing tricks that made his board seem like a cross between a pogo stick and a soccer ball, rather than a rigid plank.
Mullen’s most important breakthrough occurred in late 1981, when he figured out how to make his board go airborne by jamming down his back foot at just the right moment—a trick that came to be known as the flatground ollie, now the most fundamental maneuver in all of modern skating. The following year he devised three more essential tricks: the kickflip, the heelflip, and the impossible. “When a kid learns to play the piano, he has to learn to play Chopin’s Études,” Peralta says. “Rodney created the equivalent of those Études for the sport of skateboarding.”
Though his peers were awed by Mullen’s talent, they also considered him something of a weirdo. Mullen was pathologically shy and prone to both anorexia and panic attacks; he once became so overwhelmed with anxiety while on tour that he ran away from the Bones Brigade van during a rest stop in rural Maryland. He was also too hyperintelligent to enjoy typical teen pursuits: While his teammates spent their downtime looking for girls and playing pranks, Mullen preferred to practice differential equations. He would eventually go on to study biomedical engineering at the University of Florida, though his hectic skating schedule prevented him from earning his degree.
When freestyle died out in the early 1990s, Mullen made the transition to street skating, in which tricks incorporate elements of the man-made environment such as steps, curbs, and handrails—often to the chagrin of property owners, who tend to view skateboarders as human vermin. At the same time, he became a partner in World Industries, a board manufacturer for whom he designed and patented a skateboard truck meant “to eliminate undesired ride characteristics such as hanger-jiggle and wheel bite.” When a private equity firm acquired World in 1998, Mullen became a multimillionaire; he took great satisfaction in relaying this news to his father, who Mullen says had long disparaged his son for selling “overpriced pieces of wood to unsuspecting little kids.”
But that business triumph was followed by a grave misfortune. In 2003, a lifetime’s worth of violent collisions with the ground finally caught up with Mullen’s body: his right hip fused to his femur, a condition that made it difficult for him to walk, let alone skate. He sank into a deep depression, intensified by the fact that his marriage to a former World Industries saleswoman was beginning to fail. “I was so afraid of ‘This is my life, who am I without a skateboard?’” he recalls. “Do I even know that guy? Because that’s been me since I was a kid.” Loath for other skaters to see him in such dire shape, Mullen retreated from public life and bunkered down in his house.
When doctors declared themselves stymied by his injury, Mullen elected to engage in a painful form of self-treatment: He pummeled his leg with wrenches and knife handles in an attempt to break up the scar tissue that was strangling his bones. The process was so agonizing that Mullen often had to drive out to remote areas so that no one could hear his screams. He kept at it because it yielded results, albeit slowly—Mullen knew that it would take him several years to get back to full health.
Desperate for a mental diversion as he rehabbed, Mullen cast about for a constructive hobby. The one he settled on would change the course of his life: mastering Linux.
Mullen had been dabbling in Linux for a few years, ever since befriending an Australian hacker who had arranged for him to do a skate demo at the SeaWorld near Brisbane. (The hacker, a hardcore skateboarding fan, also developed a friendship with Tony Hawk after swiping his phone number from a database.) Now that he was no longer preoccupied with skating, Mullen focused on the finer points of Debian and openSUSE. He devoured how-to manuals and lurked in Linux user forums, where he came to admire the impish creativity of hackers.
“I was attracted to the excitement of it, the rogue nature of it,” he says. “I got the same highs from the Linux community that I used to get from skating.”
The more he immersed himself in the world of Linux, the more Mullen began to discern parallels between how hackers craft code and how skaters invent tricks. Both enterprises, he concluded, consist of using a painstaking trial-and-error process to sequence tiny chunks of information into coherent wholes. “Something as subtle as eye positioning affects a trick,” Mullen says. “You shift your eyes, you pull your head out of alignment, and that changes the math of the board’s energy, its momentum.” The way he saw it, the process of perfecting tiny trick components such as eye position was analogous to debugging software.
Mullen also noted that both hacker and skate culture are proudly open source, filled with innovations that improve upon the nonproprietary works of generations past. His flatground ollie, for example, had been preceded by the ollie, a trick that a skater named Alan Gelfand had developed for use in empty pools. Mullen made the trick more valuable by modifying it for level surfaces—just like a hacker alters a piece of crude yet clever code to enhance its utility or user-friendliness.
THE FIRST THING that Krisztina “Z” Holly noticed about Rodney Mullen was that he was missing one of his top front teeth.
The encounter took place at a Marina del Rey, California, diner in February 2010, when Holly was the vice provost for innovation at USC. She had agreed to the breakfast meeting at the behest of Randall Hill, executive director of USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT), a lab dedicated to helping the American military establish “cognitive dominance.” (One of the lab’s more famous alums is Palmer Luckey, founder of Oculus VR.) Hill, a former Army intelligence officer, had recently established contact with Mullen as part of his research into human resilience. He had asked Mullen to contemplate what it took to excel as an elite skateboarder; the response he received was surprisingly sophisticated, with elements of philosophy and neuroscience woven throughout. One topic Mullen covered, for example, was how he had trained his brain to enter a semi-hypnotic state prior to contests, so that he wouldn’t dwell on the hundreds of minute variables that can ruin a trick. Hill felt certain that Holly would enjoy a meal with an athlete who was conversant in concepts such as tacit knowledge and executive motor function.
When Holly spotted the gaping hole in Mullen’s grin, which had been caused by a childhood face-meets-pavement mishap, she thought he looked a little goofy but was drawn to him nonetheless. As their friendship grew and she heard Mullen’s spiel about the similarities between skating and hacking, she felt as if she had unearthed an intellectual gem—someone who deserved a place on the “A-list of tomorrow” that she was trying to create for the ideas industry.
“I love to help discover untapped talent like Rodney,” says Holly, an MIT graduate who worked for a time in the Media Lab and who is now the entrepreneur-in-residence at the Los Angeles Mayor’s Office. “A lot of times innovation happens at the intersection of disciplines, so I look out for people who can cross over and make the connections between artists and technologists and athletes.” She had rarely met anyone who could match Mullen’s knack for identifying common ground between widely disparate fields—a prized talent in the tech industry, which is so eager to engineer products that will appeal to more than just geeks.
In March 2009 Holly helped organize the inaugural edition of TEDx, a series of ideas conferences loosely affiliated with the TED juggernaut. After getting to know Mullen, she invited him to speak at an upcoming TEDx she would be curating. But Mullen, uncomfortable with the idea of public speaking, demurred. Despite having been a celebrity for years, he had never quite shed the shyness of his youth, when he could only squeak nervously in reply to journalists or fans. (“He talked like a little mouse,” Peralta recalls. “You could barely understand what he was saying most of the time.”) Mullen also feared that a roomful of highly educated geeks would dismiss him as a know-nothing poseur the second he opened his mouth.
But Holly was persistent. She offered to help him shape his somewhat inscrutable ruminations into a lucid 18-minute talk. And she built up his confidence by introducing him to tech luminaries such as John Seely Brown, the wizardlike former director of Xerox PARC, and Tim O’Reilly, founder of O’Reilly Media. Both men encouraged Mullen to trust in his own ideas—particularly O’Reilly, with whom Mullen became fast friends. In early 2012, the two had a lengthy email exchange that gave Mullen a chance to refine his skating-equals-hacking analogy. “What strikes me about hacking is that it’s about lateral thinking, of connecting disparate pieces that seem to have no connection, while avoiding direct routes,” he wrote to O’Reilly. Street skaters do likewise, he continued, by first learning physical tricks and then figuring out how to match them to fixed objects in the urban landscape.
“I love how your mind works and would love to make these connections more visible to others,” O’Reilly replied. He encouraged Mullen to publish his theories in Google’s Think Quarterly and invited him to attend Foo Camp, his company’s exclusive annual conference in Sebastopol, California. Shortly thereafter, he also offered to give Mullen a jar of his famous homemade jam—a sign of respect that Mullen still considers one of his biggest achievements.
Holly’s coaching and O’Reilly’s endorsement gave Mullen all the courage he needed to don a headset microphone. He made his speaking debut in May 2012 at TEDxUSC with a soon-to-be-classic talk entitled “Pop an Ollie and Innovate.” He made his entrance on a skateboard, which he then used as a prop while explaining the minutiae of his trademark tricks. Like a seasoned TED veteran, he segued gracefully from moments of self-deprecation (“How pathetic is it that I’m still skateboarding?”) to keen observations about the collaborative spirit hackers and skaters share (“Take what other people do, make it better, give it back so we all rise further”). His ideas weren’t particularly revelatory—one of the chief takeaways, for example, was that curiosity and joy are essential to innovation, a lesson that has long been a staple of Silicon Valley’s self-help literature. But by using skateboarding anecdotes to illustrate those timeworn concepts, Mullen made them seem fresh, even electric. The talk earned a coveted standing ovation, and Mullen was immediately inundated with requests to repeat his performance elsewhere. Soon enough, his schedule filled up with engagements at snappily named tech conferences: Strata, Glimpses, Velocity.
Mullen knew that a single talk couldn’t sustain a speaking career, so he developed new content that dovetailed with popular ideas-industry themes. Seizing upon Silicon Valley’s vogue for fetishizing failure, for example, Mullen wrote a talk extolling the exceptional grit of skaters. Unlike the relatively pampered folks who create tech products, skaters must endure physical pain each time they fail, which tends to happen dozens of times a day. Mullen argues that the skaters who embrace the transformative nature of that pain are the only ones capable of attaining greatness—a group in which he includes himself, since he long ago learned to profit from the agony of bone-jarring crashes. “I see so many gifted skateboarders—they all want it, they all have vision, but they don’t get there,” Mullen says. “And that’s because they don’t have the one thing I can’t teach them, because it only comes from the process of falling and getting up again and again and again and again. That process changes who you are.”
As Mullen’s reputation as a speaker grew, numerous other opportunities came his way. A curator at the Smithsonian saw Mullen’s TEDxUSC talk on YouTube and convinced her colleagues to invite the skater to visit the institution’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation. A video of that August 2012 visit, during which Mullen expounded on his theories and skated on the roof of the National Museum of American History, has garnered over 323,000 views on YouTube, whereas the typical Lemelson Center clip draws a mere 100 to 200. The Smithsonian subsequently recruited Mullen to help conceive Innoskate, a traveling festival of demos and panel discussions that celebrates “the impact of skate inventions on American culture.”
Mullen seems bewildered that Big Data geeks and CFOs are paying good money to hear his ruminations about flatground ollies. One afternoon in Randall Hill’s posh corner office at ICT, after we had tested out the lab’s latest virtual reality goggles, I asked Mullen whether he was content with his late-in-life career shift. He paused for a moment before gesturing toward a wall of windows that provided a grand view of the sun-kissed research park outside, a universe away from the Florida farm where his father once assured him that skateboarding was a dead end. “Look at where we are,” he said in a near whisper. “Look at us. I’m here with you. That’s crazy to me.”
WHEN MULLEN GAVE one of his failure talks at USC last fall, a large percentage of the audience consisted of students who’d brought along their skateboards in the hopes of securing an autograph. Clustered in the lecture hall’s first and second rows, these young skaters were alternately enthralled and baffled by Mullen’s description of his craft.
“The way that tricks are built is that you chunk them,” Mullen said as he gingerly paced about, clad in a white T-shirt depicting the English singer Morrissey’s head on a skater’s body. “You’re taking these syllabic forms and you’re fitting them together to create this bigger book.” By “syllabic forms,” Mullen meant the fine muscle movements that underpin each phase of a trick—the twitch of a foot, the turn of a shoulder a certain number of degrees. He contends that those movements must be practiced again and again until they become instinctual, at which point they can be strung together into complex series.
When the time came for questions, a freshman piped up to express concern that today’s skaters are less innovative than their forebears. “Profoundly said,” an animated Mullen replied, before going on to declare that his beloved sport has become “sterilized” and filled with “teams of these monsters”
due to the influx of corporate money. The up-and-coming skaters he sees these days are obsessed with taking physical risks, he said, because it’s the daredevils who get airtime on ESPN; few kids view skateboarding as a means of artistic self-expression, as the preadolescent Mullen did when he was isolated in his Gainesville barn.
Three days later, as we sipped green tea on the balcony of the Redondo Beach home he shares with his girlfriend, Mullen expanded on his distaste for how avarice has altered skating. “Don’t frickin’ skate in front of the camera, don’t practice in front of the camera, don’t friggin’ publish it on YouTube every time you get a new trick—it’s not about that,” he said as he gazed at the setting sun through wraparound shades. “If you do it for the sake of loving it, and you don’t care whether you’re seen or not, or paid or not, all that stuff will come. But enjoy the process! If you start doing things for the sake of selling up front, for rewards, then it’s going to catch up to you. The other guys not chasing money are going to outdo you in the end, because real innovation and grit come from loving the process.”
Those sage words could easily apply to the tech industry too. Just as skaters of Mullen’s generation feel nostalgic for the sport’s pre-X Games era, when it was a refuge for misfits and outcasts, there are those in Silicon Valley who fear that their culture has strayed too far from its countercultural roots. “There’s still at the core of the tech industry this image of transgressive rebels setting their own ethical standards,” says J. B. Shank, a University of Minnesota professor who studies the history of Silicon Valley. “But that’s not really the way that world works anymore.” A place where revolutionary companies were started in suburban garages has now been overrun with business majors whose chief aspiration is fabulous wealth. And with them have come the symbols of excess that everyone loves to hate: the fleets of Google buses, the arrogant Uber executives, the entitled Dropbox dudes kicking children off a soccer field.
Concerned that the industry has ossified into something monstrous in the course of its boom, many within tech now have a yen for reminders of its more freewheeling past. “Tech has become so homogeneous, and the culture around it has become pretty stagnant,” says Holly, Mullen’s primary mentor. “Media and products and brands are so easy to create that there’s brand overload and media overload. So what people are craving is authenticity.” And that is a commodity that Mullen can provide like few others, for no one will ever question the significance of his contributions to a sport so steeped in cool. His true value to the tech world, then, may not be as a fount of novel ideas, of which there is already a glut in this era of social-media punditry. Instead, what he provides is much rarer and more precious: a way for Silicon Valley to validate its heroic narrative about itself. Like the lone entrepreneurial geniuses who loom large in tech lore, Mullen is an eccentric visionary who came west to seek his fortune and in doing so transformed an entire culture. Never mind that he did so as a skater rather than as a developer of software or gadgets; by claiming him as one of its own, the tech industry can bask in the sense that it still exudes an atmosphere of daring and constructive mischief. After all, if the most creative skateboarder who ever lived sees fit to spend time at your conferences and applaud your innovative spirit, then perhaps you aren’t doomed to become everything you once reviled.
Silicon Valley’s affection for Mullen may signal that the industry is genuinely intent on getting back in touch with its rebellious soul. Or it could just be an empty exercise in self-congratulation. A story that Mullen tells about a lavish tech party provides a tidy parable about the latter possibility. The bash took place in a newly minted zillionaire’s San Francisco loft, in which the man had built a skate ramp—a testament to his outsider cred. Yet Mullen was puzzled to see that the loft’s owner had placed his expensive wine collection right next to the ramp, where, despite some flimsy shielding, its bottles could easily be destroyed by an errant board. Maybe he was too rich to care. Or, more likely, he only built the ramp for show.
“THERE’S SOMETHING WRONG. Can you take it back to Ozzy?”
Mullen is struggling to perform a difficult trick, a challenge made tougher by the unusual confines in which he’s skating: a tiny geodesic dome encircled with 100 digital cameras that are programmed to shoot in rapid sequence. This contraption is located in the Manhattan studio of Steven Sebring, a photographer and filmmaker who is trying to capture Mullen’s balletic movements from every possible angle. All was going well enough until someone replaced Black Sabbath with Metallica on the sound system. Now Mullen feels out of sync, and his board is squirting out from beneath his feet with frustrating regularity.
Once Ozzy Osbourne’s bansheelike wail returns, Mullen starts to nail the trick again, flipping the board a full revolution as he thrusts his body clockwise. Every time the camera shutters finish clicking, Mullen takes a moment to confer with Dhani Harrison, the only child of the late Beatles guitarist George Harrison, who is crouched inside the dome with a bottle of Stella Artois. The two of them intend to use Sebring’s photos to create an iOS app—a guide to the Mutt’s vast encyclopedia of tricks, which users will be able to analyze in minute detail.
“This is something that we should put on a satellite, launch into space,” says Harrison, an accomplished amateur skater. He likes the idea of an alien civilization stumbling upon the footage of Mullen’s athletic prowess and then deciding that Earth would be an excellent place to visit.
The app project is Mullen’s first foray into commercial software development, a field to which he seems exceptionally well suited given his passion for Linux. But he’s so overwhelmed with professional options right now that its hard to stay focused on any one thing. The Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center wants to make him a fellow, with an eye toward having him star in a video series about his research; venture capitalists are urging him to get involved in funding startups; the “resident futurist” at Seattle’s Intellectual Ventures Lab wants him to devise a program that explores the relationship between hacking and skateboarding. And, of course, there are always new conferences in search of keynotes, as well as invitations to headline corporate luncheons and retreats.
Though he doesn’t yet know what he’ll be doing a year or two hence, Mullen is aware that his moment as a tech darling could be fleeting. Skating taught him some priceless lessons about the fickle nature of fame: He vividly recalls, for example, the grim day in 1990 when he learned that his signature board was being taken off the market due to freestyle’s withering popularity. Mullen was able to bounce back from that humiliation because he possesses singular athletic talent; if his star dims in Silicon Valley as intellectual fads ebb and flow, he may find it tougher to stay relevant.
Not that Mullen is much bothered by the prospect of losing a career that basically fell into his lap. On the cusp of turning 50, he still thinks of himself as a skater and nothing else—finding new ways to manipulate his board, he says, is “the soil of who I am.” And so while he’ll always cringe at the notion of anyone watching him fall while practicing his tricks, he won’t freak out if you see him tumble off the thought-leader carousel. After all, compared with what he’s used to, the landing is sure to be soft.