After Kimi Werner won the U.S. National Spearfishing Championship in 2008, she made a surprising decision: she walked away from the sport where she was a rising star because it didn’t feel right. The Hawaii native wanted to get away from the competition and back to what mattered. Today, she’s an artist, a wanderer, and a freediver who occasionally swims with great white sharks. And yes, she still spearfishes, but only to catch her dinner.
THE RED BULLETIN: “Explore Authentically” is your motto. What does that mean to you?
KIMI WERNER: It means that anything we explore – this world, what we’re doing, ourselves – is important to do authentically. A lot of that comes from the world of social media today. I see a lot of people striving to do things because it’s based on what other people are doing, an image that is in right now, or some trend. There’s a need for approval or acceptance. I think that no matter what you do in life, the most important thing is that you’re being your authentic self. You’re not trying to chase a trend because it’s the new hipster thing to do, but because it comes from a place within.
How do you do that in your own life?
A while ago, I learned that you really need to listen to your natural instincts. I honestly think that for a lot of us, those instincts have grown weak as we live in this modern world with so many conveniences and fast-paced instant things. We don’t need to know where food comes from or to catch our own food. The quickness of the web and social media means that the world has become so fast and so convenient. I think one of the problems is that we lose a lot of our own natural instincts. We don’t have to rely on them.
How did you get back to yours?
For me, it was through hunting. I strengthened mine a lot. When you’re underwater, there are no road signs telling you where to go. You can’t have any conversations. It’s you underwater. Any move you make, any direction you swim in, anything that you try to do really starts to hone in on your natural instincts and direction. Those have gotten stronger on land because of that experience.
I’ve really learned to listen to that inner guidance even if an idea that comes up in my mind isn’t popular or if I know that I won’t meet certain expectations according to society. I’ve learned to muster up the courage to follow up those natural instincts and make the decision I feel I should make. So far, it’s worked out every single time, no matter how I thought it was going to affect me negatively. It’s never led me astray, and it’s only benefited me more. Let go of what you are supposed to do and listen to that inner voice that knows the way but gets ignored a lot.
What was the first time you made a decision you didn’t think would be popular but that you felt you needed to make?
When I decided that I was going to try to become an artist. A lot of times throughout life, I was told that it wasn’t a good decision. I put it off my whole life. I got a cooking degree. I studied culinary arts. I even started teaching art to elementary school children to be involved in it. I realised at one point that every single day I was telling these kids that if they truly believed in themselves and they wanted to be artists, they should. I was a hypocrite because I had never tried myself.
When I finally got the courage to quit my teaching job and pursue art, I remember my head teacher being very concerned. She asked me what else I was going to do. I laughed and told her I was also thinking of taking up spearfishing. When I said that, the look of concern got even more grave. But at that moment, I realised that it felt good to speak the truth. Even if I totally failed, I had suppressed it for so long that I needed to own it and try it.
Within three years of taking up spearfishing and doing art, it started to work out. I really struggled at first, but I started to get really good at spearfishing. The better I got, the more recognition I got, and my name got out there. My art started to sell. In 2008, I won the national championships. That really helped out a lot. That put me in the public eye.
And then you walked away.
I don’t want to say I took a wrong turn, but it felt like that’s what I was supposed to keep doing. I had so much support and recognition that I felt like I didn’t want to let anyone down. I kept chasing these trophies. It wasn’t the same; it wasn’t fun anymore. Before long, any time I’d eat fish for dinner, I couldn’t look at them without thinking of them as points. I realised that I had to walk away from competing and blow up this whole career that I had hoped to achieve. I had everything lined up against all odds.
How did people around you respond when you did quit?
Nobody agreed with that decision. I was called a waste of talent. I went through an identity crisis. Everything in my brain was saying, “why would you do this?” But my inner intuition told me that it didn’t feel right. Diving with my dad when I was younger and going into the ocean to appreciate the beauty of nature felt right. The hard work it took to put food on my plate felt right. Travelling across the world to come home with a trophy but not a full experience of that culture and that place didn’t feel right. I didn’t want to do it like that anymore. If I was going to blow it when everything was going right, I was going to do it for my reasons.
How do you continue to go left when everyone else is going right?
When I started to do the things that I wanted to do and felt right, people recognised that authenticity and courage. It’s hard to do in our own lives, but people gravitate towards those qualities because they can recognise them. When I went on my own path, my following grew. The support grew. The career grew. Even though I thought I was throwing it all away, it was worth it to me. That’s one of my biggest indicators these days: even if you know you’re going to fail and blow it, if it’s still worth doing it, those are the things you need to do.
My friend gave me a little sign that says “what would you do if you knew you could not fail?” My sister jokes that for me it should read “what would you do even if you knew you were going to fail?” That’s how I think you should look at things: Even if this is a complete flop, is it sill worth doing in your life? If the answer is yes, then there’s your answer.