Among the many events from your life you shared in “Expedition to the Peaks of Your Dreams,” your latest book, you wrote about what inspired you to pursue mountain climbing. Could you describe a little bit about what was that?
It’s not an easy question to answer. There is something in your genes, I think, something in your soul that wants to do something beyond what is considered “normal life.” Climbing, or SCUBA diving, or even my chess playing is beyond. So, you have some ambitious individuals who want to do something beyond, and part of that could be to escape from existing conditions, like the escape from the POW camp I described in Chapter 2, as a break from some sort of oppression, whether it is Communism, whether it’s a difficult family situation, or just…
…or a prisoner of war…
.. yeah, in whatever situation you are, you often become sort of a prisoner of it. If you have some greater ambition, then you want to escape it. That’s one thing.
But you seemed to write that what inspired you to pursue the tall peaks of the world was in your story of not being able to go to the Bieszczady Mountains with your family when you were a child, and that this denial triggered your interest in climbing, or is that not a fair description?
You could not say that I came to the mountains because of that. The interest, I think, comes from the books I’ve read, and that’s why I wrote another book so that I could inspire some other people. Of course there were some videos and movies, but mostly it was the books that inspired me, because when you read the books you can actually, inside your head, create that beautiful picture of whatever it is, and it’s much more inspiring than the picture given to you in a movie. There is something about books where you create inside your head, inside your imagination, this incredible, beautiful wealth of imagery, while in the movies, it is what it is, and it’s much more difficult to interpret it your own way.
There’s almost a limit on the imagination based on what you see in movies…
Movies are much more limited for your imagination. Plus, it might be much more difficult to imagine yourself there in a way that is connected to the real you. So, that’s why I still think that books are much better for your imagination than movies. This is also why I wrote this book.
But out of all these possibilities I had, I chose climbing. It was in some ways the most enticing. I also tried other things. I played chess in a league. I haven’t described it yet in my writing, but I SCUBA dived quite a bit, so after trying a few things, playing team sports and so on, everything kind of helped me to choose climbing in some way. As soon as I tried it, I knew it was it.
So I had some source of energy and some sort of reasons to reach beyond the current situation, which was a bit oppressive. I needed to choose something that would actually help me. I could have gone to the arts. I even went a little bit into writing – I did write in those days.
However, my writing became more important after about five years of not writing. I had this excruciating back pain and I thought I was going to die. I thought this was the end and I wanted to describe for people how it is to go through such pain, to give them some hope and some support if they are in pain. So I started to write about it when my pain was at its highest. That woke up the artist, the writer inside me, and then I started writing a lot, during and then after the back pain.
Writing is therapy when you can’t move. When you cannot do anything, writing is still possible.
So is there a process by which you find the ways to match your experiences to the lessons you impart?
Okay, so here it is, it goes like this. I have different experiences, and as I’m going through them or if I’m remembering them, the ideas come up. So when I’m writing, I’m remembering some experience and I start writing about it, and then some conclusions show up. In my coaching, actually, this process is called experiential learning.
It’s the famous Kolb cycle, from the early 1980s – it starts when you create an experience for participants, or are just having an experience, whatever it is, whatever happens. Once you have an experience, let’s say you climbed a peak, or let’s say you washed the dishes at this moment and you are really at one with what you are doing, or you are in business or something, it’s all an experience. An experiential education provides all sorts of experiences – outdoor, artistic, management simulations, and coaching experiences – so you have an experience.
Second is you go back and you look at this experience, sometimes even repeating it in your mind, or in the mind of the participants. Then you draw some general conclusions, what happened… it really is for reflective people. And most people are able to be reflective after you help them a little bit. Unfortunately in this day and age, many people are not reflective at the beginning. They are not aware of what is happening with them, so we are trying to make them more aware. Actually, this sort of exercise is in the book.
So, you go through the experience, and then you look at this experience, and then you draw some conclusions. Then you take these conclusions to your life.
For example, one of the famous experiential education exercises is: “Stand on one leg, close your eyes, feel, put it down. Stand on the other leg, close your eyes, feel… stand on two legs, close your eyes, and feel.” That’s all. You can do this even on the phone.
Then you ask the person, “So what did you feel, how was it for you?”, and so on. And then, “What is the conclusion?” The conclusion could be, “It feels so much better to stand on both legs.”
“So how can you use this conclusion in your life?”
“Oh, in my life, I’m standing very much on my right leg, which is my work. But my left leg, my personal life, is not so good. I need balance.”
“So what are you going to do about this?”
“Okay, I will take care of this part of my life.”
So you see how it goes. The experience is a direct or indirect metaphor for your life, or work, or whatever it is you are working on.
And the experience has to be directly connected with what you are going to do or what you need, and so on. You just pay more attention to the experience to see the goals within the experience.
That’s why my company is called Adventure For Thought, it comes from Food For Thought, and adventure is a better food for thought than food. Adventure is an experience. Of course eating food is also an experience, but adventure includes eating the food… but there is much more to it.
I’m doing everything for Adventure For Thought to help people to have experiences that will actually wake them up, open them up, increase their power, strength, courage, and wisdom. Also, I would say from that comes an adventurous attitude, and this book, subtitled, “Become the Alpinist of Your Life,” could be translated differently, “Become the Adventurer of Your Life,” or “Experiencer of Your Life,” which means, in Kolb’s cycle, have the experience, expose yourself to different experiences, and reflect on that experience, see how it was, draw conclusions from these experiences and implement it in your life.
So here, what I propose is not exactly… well, it’s an adventurous attitude, but it’s also an alpinist’s attitude to life. This is what I’m saying, basically. I’m trying to help you become the alpinist of your life, which means having an attitude and mindset that actually helps you climb the peaks in your life, not just mountain peaks.
The two most important peaks in everyone’s life are the peaks inside yourself – all the problems you have in yourself or the barriers inside you or the blocks you have, and the second sort of peak which is quite important are the peaks between you and other people. There are these peaks that create situations where we cannot cooperate, or we cannot love each other, or we cannot work together. It’s because of these metaphorical peaks, and they are all sorts of mental and emotional attitudes and packages.
So I am trying to help people let go of this baggage, climb these peaks, and have a better life.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, you went to Canada, basically in search of a chance to climb the formidable Canadian Rockies.
I want to correct you here. If I was a rich person not living in a Communist country, maybe I would have done that. But I was living beyond the Iron Curtain, and first of all, I wanted to escape that. So that was part of the reason for going to Canada. It was not so easy to get out of Poland, either, in those days.
I think the biggest trigger was for my immigration – because I went to Canada to immigrate, not to climb the Rockies – was the grayness of the Communist times and the impossibility of doing much there, of having initiative and wanting to do some interesting things, and having a life.
There was greater opportunity there…
It was not even about greater opportunity, it was just gaining the basic freedom to live, and without that, I could not do anything else. Those times were really gray and the comparison of those times to the book “1984” by George Orwell actually is quite good.
So I had three goals in going to Canada. The first was to see the world, to expose myself to whatever there was to see, and learn from it. The other one was to learn English, much better than I did. And the third was to go forward with my career and make some money and so on. But really, the strongest reason for wanting to leave was because the conditions here were unbearable, not just for me, but also for many other people. During those years some 2-3 million Poles emigrated. A lot of young people left because they could not make their life here in Poland good enough.
I understand. In your book, though, I recall that you wrote about one experience that I can personally envision, having also traveled through the part of Canada you moved to, of being atop a peak from which you could view hundreds of other peaks. Once you’ve made it over the barrier to the top, you could see them. You attached the feeling of joy to reaching the summit of such a peak, and perhaps any of the hundreds of others you could see. One of the questions you ask readers in this part of the book is what gives you authentic joy in life. I would ask you the same question – what do you find gives you authentic joy in your life?
What gives me joy is, in climbing, I always answer a thousand different things on all sorts of physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual levels. So it’s very difficult to say.
What gives me joy in life is even bigger than that. There are more than a thousand things. But for sure, you can conclude from “The Alpinist of Life” that challenge gives me joy, and for sure you can conclude from the book that some sort of presence of just being in nature gives me incredible joy, and that helping others gives me incredible joy when I’m a coach or taking people to the mountains.
So, in terms of my values, love and freedom, first of all, nature, adventure… well, I’m not listing everything. Helping others is near the top. I was looking at my values as a coach, and in the end, my biggest value is life. So, life gives me joy. But if life is only lived half-fully or quarter-fully, like in the case of most people, because they are blocked in all sorts of ways… because they are blocked from the outside by oppressive systems, or they are blocked on the inside because they’ve internalized this oppression – they internalize toughness or closedness or having to be stiff and fighting for their lives – they’re not living their life fully at all. Maybe 10 percent, it depends on the person, of course.
As a coach, I see many persons not living their full life – they’re squashed by their own problems. So I want to give people back themselves, their real selves, and let them be not squashed by the problems, by not sitting in a ditch, in a valley and just looking at their problems, but looking at the possibility of a thousand different peaks that they could climb in their lives, whatever it is.
After they climb those peaks, they acquire again the confidence to do even more, and they gain again the confidence that life could be lived fully and beautifully and joyfully in all sorts of situations. I help them to turn the pain and suffering into the truth, first, and then into the possibilities. If there is pain and suffering, with them or with others, they could do something about it, and immediately they have a purpose. When they have a purpose, it becomes awesome what they are doing because they have this purpose from deep down inside themselves.
This is a little bit along the ideas of Victor Frankl and his book (“Man’s Search for Meaning” 1947). He said that even in the worst conditions you can actually draw joy by doing something that is against what you don’t like, or what you suffer.
So, a challenge becomes joy, as you said before…
And then, overcoming your problem becomes a challenge – that is turning something bitter into something really sweet. So, every day I have to remind myself that I am still alive, and that I should not complain about this or that problem, that this is a challenge. Recently, I had some people who were kind of difficult for me in my Executive MBA studies, and it was obviously a challenge. I just have to treat them relatively decently, I just have to show them something else, and I realized in that challenge that it was actually to have a simpler, clearer message. This was actually about me going back to the basics, because sometimes people don’t understand me when I’m very high up there.
It was about introducing myself, because I used to not introduce myself too much because I didn’t think people wanted to know, and it seemed a kind of egoistic. But people need to know who I am, and if I declared who I am – basically I am saying I am the person who will help you get your power back – then they were interested, and it was good.
So, what I think this book also has become, and this is very important, is a redefining of myself. Writing this book was the best training course I could have taken for myself, because I really analyzed myself, my thoughts, my difficulties, how I overcame it, what I can do in the future – it was really a very beautiful process of learning from myself, but also for others at the same time.
Is there a lesson for writers in that, that they might learn something from themselves if they put their words on paper?
My style is to write a lot about myself, and also about my experiences and also a lot of happenings with other people in these experiences. I find it extremely potent, because it’s me, my thoughts, and I really know what it is. If I was writing about others, well, it would not be so powerful, though I do write about some others. But I just don’t know, I don’t see, I haven’t been in their bones, I don’t know what they were going through.
I think everyone’s life is so rich, I think you should pay attention to what is happening to you. You can actually develop yourself, and then go and write about it for others.
Your life story, which you share in part in this book, provides many fascinating vignettes, which are presented in different chapters. However, they are not in chronological order. Did you have a method in mind when deciding which experience you would share first?
Because I’m planning five books, and I have many other experiences, I have to stop myself from using my best stories and keep them for the other parts, so I don’t give everything at once. This was supposed to be a kind of introduction of me, and an introduction of the “Alpinist of Life” idea, and of course describe a way to reach your dreams. So I gathered mostly the stories which were about reaching dreams in this book.
They just kind of come to me when I let myself to be in this artistic space. If I don’t have anything in my head, they suddenly swell up and come to me like an internal source. Sometimes I think they come from God, or I don’t know from whom. I mean sometimes it’s not me, it’s really from up there, you know? Who knows who else could really fit. Sometimes it’s really surprising to me. On Nov. 1 last year, I wrote about my best friend who died in the mountains. I never planned to have this story in the book, but as soon as it appeared, and it was on the First of November, All Saints Day, I was crying all day. I knew it had to be in the book, and I knew it was a powerful part of it. So I’m really happy that the Universe, or God, sent it to me. Although I know the story myself, it was completely taken from my memory, it was somewhere deep in there. But it was like, wow.
And sometimes I am writing in this book about things I never thought of before, because now I look at them 20-30 years later and they show up differently, you know? As I go back to them, I go, “Wow, I had these thoughts? This happened? This is how it was?” And I’m sure this is how it was. Everything in the book is how it was and how I felt.
But you didn’t put meaning to it?
I could have and forgot. Or I was busy with experiencing and not really having time to feel the meaning as much as I can see now living my life so many different years and having competition with other experiences and other people. Part of it is comparing myself to some incredible people who did it, I mean not really comparing myself but drawing the inspiration from this and part of it is looking around at these other people who didn’t do much in their lives and didn’t leave full lives, and saying, “Okay, this is the Alpinist way.”
So you were revisiting the events of your earlier life through the lens of wisdom?
Yeah. The Alpinist Way became clear only at the end of writing this book.