Brian Keaulana

Wai'anae High School - Class of 1979

Hawaii Waterman: Stunt Coordinator, Actor, Assistant Director

Brian Keaulana believes your failures can be your life’s greatest lessons. Strength, he has found, is gained by having to do things repeatedly without giving up. In fact, his own greatest strength is knowing his weakness, because then he has the knowledge to improve on it. Keaulana recalls his first two surfing competitions as an example of making mistakes. When he speaks, his words produce a fluidity of wisdom and experience that make you lean forward and listen closely. 

“When I was young and I competed in my first surfing contest, everyone was there watching. You know you can do well because of your skill, but you get out there and you feel pressure. You start falling down and wiping out. Then, you get frustrated and give up. I did two competitions and I failed. It wasn’t until the third competition when I went out and said, ‘I’m just going to go out there and have fun.’ I decided that I would just surf. It wasn’t until that mindframe that I started winning, because I was having so much fun. It’s more about understanding why you made the mistake, and if you can have fun, even in your mistakes, you’re only giving yourself room to grow.”

When it comes to his life’s work, Keaulana emphasizes the importance of “getting paid to be you.” From an early age, he focused on creating opportunities and jobs that benefited the lifestyle he wanted in the moment. He has lived his personal dream as a professional surfer, lifeguard, and as an actor and stunt coordinator in film and television. Keaulana’s work and achievements as a waterman are spoken alongside those of Duke Kahanamoku and Eddie Aikau. 

Keaulana grew up on Makaha Beach. His father, legendary waterman and surfer, Richard “Buffalo” Keaulana, would throw him into the current, so that he could learn the intrinsic details of the ocean. It is a method that has helped Keaulana excel in his work and has molded his approach to life.

“The way I am now in the ocean is because I understand the details, risk management, and ocean strategies. It’s really based off my father’s teaching of him throwing us in the current, swimming down current, and understanding the turtles in the ocean. If the environment is calm, and the fish are calm, and the turtles are calm, then everything is good and there are no predators. When things disappear or things move really fast, then you know danger lurks. When you understand the little details in life, you can make things much simpler. As kids, we don’t pay attention to the details, we try to attack everything. We try to take chances rather than make choices, and it is later in life that we learn how to make choices, rather than take chances," says Keaulana.

Keaulana believes that success is found in the attainment and sharing of knowledge. When he reflects on being a student at Wai'anae High School in 1979, he wishes he had taken advantage of subjects like French, Japanese, and Drama. As an adult, traveling the world and working in the film industry, he realized those subjects would have been beneficial, so he has had to educate himself along the way.

“Think about your goals, your future, and your values and make everything around you important and balanced,” he advises. 

Below, Brian Keaulana shares more with us on what he has learned. 

What can young people appreciate about growing up in Hawaii?

The clean water that we have. The blue skies that we have. Even seeing the stars at night. The things we take for granted are all around us. It’s not existing in certain places. That’s the thing, when you’re young, and your bubble is here, you don’t understand paradise. You don’t understand the light until you see the dark. Then, when you find the darkness when you’ve lived in the light the whole time, you truly understand the balance between it all. When I was kid, I always wanted to go and see things. We think we’ve got big sharks, then you go someplace else, and they’ve got bigger sharks. We think we have cold water, there’s colder water out there. We think it’s hot, there’s hotter places out there. We don’t understand until we move away and experience these things. It’s great to experience them, but it’s even greater to come home and appreciate what we have.

Who from history would you like to have a conversation with?

Queen Liliʻuokalani. I think she was one of the smartest women around. She did things for all the right reasons. Understanding how educated she was and the decisions she made, then you really appreciate the wisdom, the culture, and the power that she held at that time, too. It’s heavy, because she was threatened with the lives of her people being shot. It’s heavy to be put in that situation and to think about the best, and realizing that it changed the future of Hawaii, too. As a kid, you don’t really read up on a lot of things. From working in the film industry, like on Pearl Harbor, I really read and educated myself about the whole thing and appreciated what really happened there.

What makes Hawaii remarkable?

We have the greatest teachers of our past who taught sustainability. Now, you see the whole world turning back to farming and agriculture. It’s things that our ancestors imparted to all of us. You don’t realize that as a kid, those simple things of how beneficial they are to all of us right now. I think we have a different value system in Hawaii. We have family-based values. It’s that Hawaii bond that we always have. I think it’s the greatest thing we all share. We’ll share our food, our knowledge, and our skills with one another. It’s not prevalent around the world as much as it is in Hawaii.