Much like making eye contact with a stranger or wishing Donald Trump well, cold plunging is one of the most beneficial things I can do for my mental health that I continue to avoid at all costs.
My introduction to MUD\WTR's cold-plunge culture began about a year ago when I agreed to meet two co-workers on Venice Beach for a morning swim. I was living in Santa Cruz at the time, working for mud as an independent contractor, and was visiting our Venice headquarters for the week.
It was a gloomy winter day, and we planned to meet at the Pride lifeguard tower, a rainbow-colored landmark on the border of Venice and Santa Monica. I arrived first, wearing only swim trunks and feeling vulnerable and exposed as I huddled beneath the wooden structure, waiting for the others. A chilly south wind had kicked up, causing my nipples to protrude outward like they were attempting to break free from my chest, scurry home and warm themselves by a crackling fire.
I was waiting for Dersu Rhodes and Shane Heath, two of the people who can fire me. Dersu is MUD\WTR’s VP of brand and the former creative director at VICE. Aside from being blessed with a phonetically pleasing name to say aloud (try it), he also cold plunges—early and often. He developed the habit during the pandemic, when depression was sweeping the nation like a plague of locusts. Shane is the founder and CEO of MUD\WTR. He resembles a starving artist more than a CEO, often wearing an oversized black beanie and paint-splattered hoodie that has yet to tussle with a washing machine.
Shane and Dersu arrived bundled up in gear fit for a Lewis and Clark expedition, stripped down to their skivvies, and set off on a little jog along the beach, with me trailing begrudgingly behind. The cold sand burned my feet and the thought of plunging myself into this metallic soup was about as appealing as getting tased.
Dersu led the pack. Like a lithe dolphin, he dove through the crashing waves, swam just beyond them and began a rhythmic freestyle stroke parallel to the coastline. Shane was close behind. As I dove under the first few waves, an aching feeling crept up the back of my neck and into the base of my skull. My ears burned.
It wasn’t unbearable—it just sucked. Like a woodpecker tapping on my forehead at a shitty techno club.
Then, about fives minutes in, a definitive switch flipped. The conversation inside my head shifted from a pessimistic groan to a Tony Robbins roar:
“LET’S FUCKIN’ DO THISSS!”
All at once, I became my own personal trainer, complete with high-fives and inspirational quotes that normally adorn the bathroom walls of Malibu housewives:
“If you want the rainbow, you gotta put up with the rain."
It was like coming up on a drug, but clearer. There was nothing fuzzy about this newfound sense of optimism. My shitty mood just moments prior now felt like some sad mental affliction—a lack of perspective that was not grounded in the way things actually are.
We swam the distance of three lifeguard towers, then back. (A modest swim, but enough to get the job done.) And when our now rosy, goosebump-covered bodies jogged up the sand, I exclaimed, “I’m moving to LA!”
My home that winter was a 1997 Ford RV named Starflyte. It was mostly parked in Santa Cruz, where I was writing, surfing a lot and attempting to resuscitate a relationship that had long since been rolled into the morgue. I had been vacillating on the move to LA for many years, but suddenly the next chapter in my life felt clear.
Two months later, I upgraded from Starflyte to a 15-by-20-foot mansion in Venice and joined the MUD\WTR team full-time as a copywriter.
The culture of MUD\WTR, generally, and the original product, specifically, are rooted in leaning into hard things. The drink is earthy tasting, and the sediment at the bottom (due to cacao) resembles something a beaver might use to build a home. The company was founded on the idea that a lot of people are addicted to coffee and some of them don’t want to be. It takes resolve to break free from cultural ubiquity and resist the fleeting dopamine hits sold at a Starbucks near you.
Shane has rallied to embed "hard things" into the culture of MUD\WTR, like offering a $500 carrot to any employee who completes 66 days of cold immersion (via shower, plunge or ocean) during the third quarter of 2022. (The current quarter’s challenge is to keep a gratitude journal, which I think is fucking bullshit.) He also hosts a lot of creative sessions at his house. We switch off between the sauna and cold immersion in this contraption called The Cold Plunge, which keeps the water filtered at 40 degrees. Although my note-taking is subpar during these meetings, novel ideas reliably follow the mini-panic attacks, and the brainstorms are highly productive.
“I cold plunge because it makes me feel fucking amazing,” Shane says when I ask him why he's made a habit of this sadistic baptism. “It allows me to develop a relationship with that window of time between a stressor and my response to it.”
Since transitioning from Starflyte Guy to Startup Guy, I can attest that my life has plenty of new stressors, and learning to develop a relationship with that “window” has been the precise skill I’ve been working on since joining the company.
No matter how much restraint MUD\WTR builds into the culture (with every other Friday off and a suite of humane employee benefits), the truth is we’re all workaholics. I go to bed thinking mud thoughts and wake up thinking them too. It’s intoxicating to be part of a big idea and work with a competent team that knows how to get shit done. But this absorption into a singular mission has a way of blowing things out of proportion like a fun-house mirror. A passive-aggressive Slack message or pregnant pause after pitching an idea on Zoom can make you think, “Well, the only logical thing to do now is go crawl into a cave and die.”
“Often, the mind’s response to inputs in the modern world is disproportionate to the actual danger,” says Shane. “A heckle on a TikTok post doesn’t mean you’re getting banished, and stepping into a cold shower isn’t going to give you hypothermia.”
Last year, our team took a trip to Hawaii. Shane placed a horse trough in the yard of the Airbnb amidst the palm trees, tropical ocean breeze and feral chickens pecking around. He filled it with water and many five-pound bags of ice. Participation wasn’t required (I’m pretty sure that would violate labor laws), but a good chunk of the team accepted the cold-plunge challenge while the rest of us cheered on.
“Getting in that cold-ass tub in Hawaii was purely competitive and a point of connection with the men on our team,” reflects Emma Nelson, MUD\WTR’s COO. “It was my way of saying, ‘I'm up for the challenge and I'll meet you where you feel alive.’”
That feeling of “aliveness” is likely due to the release of dopamine following a cold soak. The Dutch athlete Wim Hof popularized cold plunging, showing that cold exposure is a gateway to activating your body's natural healing powers. Hof—whose masculine charisma and natural sense of humor make him an excellent spokesman for cold exposure—can voluntarily regulate his autonomic nervous system, an ability scientists deem superhuman.
Back in LA, Dersu and I have kept up a habit of morning ocean swims. I have learned to wear sweatpants and a jacket as I wait for him by the Pride lifeguard tower. We jog down the beach and do the thing. Sometimes we sit cross-legged in the sand and do a few rounds of breathwork, basking in the post-swim euphoria. And although the habit hasn't produced any superhuman results for me yet, I have noticed the swims getting easier. Like bee stings, my body is becoming less affected. Sometimes I even crave it.
Reliably, I feel a shift in perspective. The voice in my head becomes less bitchy and the mountain of copywriting tasks doesn't feel so daunting. The Slack notifications are a little less urgent and the 60-minute Zoom invitations are a little less annoying. Working at a startup might be stressful, but that window between stimulus and response is slowly opening.
And you know what I always say:
“If you want the rainbow, you gotta put up with the rain.”
Kyle Thiermann is MUD\WTR's head of editorial and the host of The Kyle Thiermann Show podcast.
Read more: Work from Anywhere (But Here)
Read more: The Case for the Four-Day Workweek