Surfers of UC San Diego: Brian Pickett ’98

Brian Pickett ’98
▪ College: Muir
▪ Major: Economics
▪ Hometown: Los Angeles, CA
▪ Currently Lives: La Jolla, Ca
▪ Career: Founder and CEO – North Peak

When did you first learn how to surf?

I taught myself when I was 16, which is probably why I was an alternate on the surf team. If I had only started when I was younger… I think that’s the secret to success with surfing. But I taught myself after being around the ocean for a long time, and then I continued at UC San Diego. It is a great place for a surfer. For my first three years in college, I just surfed and went to classes. By my fourth year, I progressed to where I tried out for the team and was accepted.

What inspired you to join the surf team?

I had made some friends who were on the surf team, so joining was a way to really focus my interest and get better at it. The team gave me structure and was a good way of seeing my progress, along with good camaraderie. The surf team has an impressive reputation, and to be accepted onto the team was a great feeling. It was an honor to be surrounded by good surfers.

surfer on a wave
Brian Pickett surfing. Photo: Mark Johnson

What is your experience surfing at Black’s Beach?

Black’s has been a strong magnet in my life. During my first year down here, I lived in Tanaya Hall, which is close to the beach. I was able to go to Black’s frequently. Around spring of that freshman year, Black’s taught me a lesson: do not underestimate it. I paddled for a smaller wave, and when I turned around, there was a set coming out of the canyon, as they say. I thought that I could paddle and get under it. It was coming in fast but abruptly stopped and turned on itself. The wave unloaded right in front of me, catching me completely off guard and taking me. I thought I was drowning. After that, I didn’t go back to Black’s for a year. I went elsewhere, to other surf spots. I was enjoying myself, but the lesson I learned about the water has stayed with me to this day.

It’s funny because it probably happened for 20 seconds, where the water was in control—and then it wasn’t. If I was just sitting on a couch somewhere, it’s such a short moment in time. But there’s just so much power in the ocean and in nature. That feeling of being out of control is a great life lesson. The power of nature and the power of how things work is representative in Black’s itself.

What is your career?

I help nonprofits—managing their donors, volunteers, and programs using technology, called CRM’s, Constituent Relationship Management tools. I have a management science degree, which taught me about complex organizational issues, and when I found CRM software, I saw it as the embodiment of all I learned in management science. They’re taking the best practices and creating a system that allows the organization to operate effectively.

I wanted a career focused on things I care about, so I basically just picked working with nonprofits as my vehicle. In the last 17 years, I’ve worked with nonprofits in technology, software companies, and consulting firms. When I got to a point where I really knew how to do this well, I developed a network and it became possible to do this on my own and inform my own vision for what I wanted this company to do in this space.

So I started a company named North Peak, which is one of the three breaks at Black’s—the place where I’ve learned so much. It just embodies so much of life for me.

What have you learned from Black’s?

One lesson that I’ve learned is the power of systems. Like the way that ocean swells worked, the way that the conditions line up. I know it’s always different, but it’s always explainable. Those swells came from somewhere, and there’s a reason they came at a certain angle at a certain time with a certain height, like a system where things are running. It’s very much how technology and organizations themselves work.

People are very dynamic—have different skill sets, different strengths, and weaknesses. But if you’re looking for an outcome, then you have to put together the right conditions for that outcome. It’s similar to the way surfing is so condition-dependent. It helps me understand how things work, and then I can coach people on how to create the outcome that they want by getting those conditions right.

And what did you learn from your time on the team?

Probably the biggest thing that I learned is that being on the surf team is not just about being a good surfer. You have to understand the competition and how it works if you’re really going to succeed. Our captain was a great surfer and loved competing, so when I saw him surf, I’d observe him. He had a balance of applying his skill and athleticism to the current moment. It’s a calculated approach and requires you to be aware of your surroundings. You need to know what’s happening and what you need right now to get to the next round.

You don’t have to be the absolute best every time, but you need to do what is called for in the moment to move on. Figuring out what to do now to get to that next step is like a core function for succeeding in life.


How is surf culture a part of UC San Diego?

When I got to UCSD, the surf team had a great reputation. They competed in national championships multiple times, and some members moved on to be professional surfers. They were on covers of magazines, like Allen Johnson, who is a tremendous surfer. Many of the folks that you see at Black’s Beach today, the best ones out there are alumni of the surf team. They’re holding it down in their forties and fifties and are really respected members of the lineup at Black’s. You’ll see it all the way down to the best young surfers in their twenties, many who are currently on the surf team.

Because UCSD had a real track record of good surfers, I was happy to be associated with them and respected them. I still see them all the time. I don’t see anyone from my team, but I see folks from other years. We’ve seen each other for so many years out there and have a shared passion. Surfing took us to the same school and the surf team, and it’s still here after all these years.

What is your favorite surf move?

I’m only good at getting barreled now. I’ll get barreled and do a layback snap, and that’s about it. I couldn’t even tell you if I can do either of those anymore as I get older. I’m a regular foot, so at Black’s I’m backside, mostly. The lefts at Black’s are just amazing, and I’ve learned to love backside. People wonder, why do you like lefts so much? And it’s because I like Black’s.

What would you say to someone thinking about joining the surf team?

I think it’s a great way to learn and have a different angle on something you love. It’s a good way of focusing your energy, studying the competition, and practicing how to do well at something. Doing something you love while you’re learning about how to succeed and compete is a great combination.


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