Lena Kemna_surf_work_balance

How to balance surf and work with Lena Kemna

In the latest Stab series “How surfers get paid” we got an insight into the money-making in the professional world of surfing and of big brands. However, there are also many amateur surfers who are pursuing their dream of surfing. There are a few ways to make this happen. You can have a job on the side that pays for life and surfing. Building an audience on social media is also doable, but it’s definitely not easy to make a living out of it. And some might be lucky and get a sponsor that allows them to surf full-time. Despite the fact that these options are out there it is still a pursuit that requires time and consistency. You have to stick with it and believe in your dream. And that is still not the ticket to make it.

We talked to Lena Kemna, a German surfer who moved to Portugal seven years ago to follow her dream of surfing big waves, about balancing surfing and work. 

Credit: Luigi Rapanelli, Lena with her gun

Hey Lena, thanks for taking the time. How were the waves in Portugal this winter? Did you have a ride you’re proud of?

Usually, every winter I surf the best and biggest wave of my life to that point. This winter, I have had a few good waves, but haven’t found that one yet. 

In a recent social media post, you said that you’ve always had a weird feeling about making money with social media. Can you explain why?

Because it’s advertising. Of course, it’s products and brands that I actually use and actually recommend, it is declared as such, and somewhat surprisingly to me, many people seem to appreciate the recommendations, especially for surf gear, but still, it’s advertising.

However, for myself this coming year, I have decided to not feel guilty about it anymore. I think I have been too critical of myself. For example, I just signed two more team rider contracts, and I will stop second-guessing putting a post once in a while with #ad and instead celebrate being a professional free surfer. 

Credit: Luigi Rapanelli, Portrait of Lena

Do you earn money with social media?

I do. I only started social media a few years ago, never with the ambition to make it my job but over the last year, it has also become that. I could not live off it, but it makes my life easier. And I am not only talking about money, but also about respect, knowledge and connections to people, especially with regards to freediving, my second passion. Freediving is a great community on social media. 

Besides all of that, I have a job that is supposedly full-time, so not on the side at all, really. I am a PhD candidate on a full scholarship, have also been a freelance consultant for several years and have been teaching at the university for five years now, in an assistant position. I am also ambitious when it comes to my career which is not surfing. It is something that fulfils me and that I want to pursue further. And it is also something that I share very little about on my Instagram. I keep my two worlds quite separate although this part that is entirely unrelated to the ocean makes up a considerable part of my life. I like the balance, or rather, the contrast. 

What was the first collaboration you did?

I had done a few product collaborations, but one of the first bigger ones was when I reached out to srface and asked them to become an ambassador, which I have now been  for three years. 

Do you show up in a certain way on social media? Do you have a message you want to share?

Besides not showing too much of my private and work life, I don´t filter much. However, the way I decided to use Instagram is to simply ignore the algorithm. Especially when you start working with social media, I believe everyone gets caught up in it a little, in posting times and hashtags. I decided for myself that I find these things irrelevant. 

Another thing that I consciously decided for Instagram is, as overused the word may be, to stay authentic. I am not only a surfer, but also a diver, and a thoughtful, reflective person, and I like to wear male and female clothes. This may all sound trivial, but especially when working with brands, I stay true to my values and my intuition about what feels right. I have already ended partnerships with two larger surf brands because values simply did not align.  

Surfing is an expensive sport when you consider beach accommodations, transportation, and equipment. How can you afford your dream?

By living simply. Most of Europe is facing a cost-of-living crisis, and Portugal is no different. I am German, but I live and work here, so my salary is Portuguese. This is why I feel the increasing prices, especially for rent, caused by Airbnb & co. 
For equipment, I get discounts but still, a lot of my money goes into boards and petrol. 

In the past, I’ve done a lot of shoots, articles or other surf-related work for free, on the justification that it’s fun. I guess you heard that too and did a lot of work for free?

Articles I occasionally do  for free because of my passion for print and publishing. Model shoots I have entirely stopped doing it for free. In the same way that I pay photographers fairly for shooting me, I expect to be treated the same. Especially because here, the Atlantic is cold and I have experienced slight hypothermia on several (bikini) shoots already. It’s great fun modelling if there is some action involved but paid only. 

What does your week look like when you schedule surfing and work?

There is no routine. The surf forecast is different every week, so work gets planned around it, besides a few fixed meetings. Priority three is training or other activities, such as gym, apnea training in the pool, and skate sessions. 

So while there is no routine, there is discipline and organization. Luckily, those two things come naturally to me, however, managing energy levels can be tricky. Even though work and surf are theoretically balancing each other, everyone who has tried to work productively after a long session knows differently. Or likewise, everyone who has tried to face bigger waves after a stressful morning at work knows that it just does not work well, surely not over time. 

So in all honesty, my balance is not a daily routine, but a balance between extremes, between excitement and exhaustion, both in surfing and at work. And I am not saying that it’s particularly healthy, but it’s how I can live by the ocean, with the ocean, and it works for me.

What is your goal for the future for your surf-work balance?

In the future, I would like to work a little less. I am someone who needs stability and financial security to feel at peace, but beyond that, I am fine with little, so I think I can achieve that. At the same time, I get very excited about new ideas and starting new projects, so I also constantly create more work – such as making a film right now – Fifth Tide. But I think that one deserves another article ; )

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