Your first book was actually a book of poems called “Coaching the Spirit: poems of transformation” (2011) that you completed with Ann Betz, a coactive coach who you collaborated with after first meeting at a conference. This book shared your impressions on a wide variety of subjects, described in simplest terms (“Invitation,” “Questioning,” etc.). How did this project come into being?
Basically we started talking on Facebook, not knowing each other yet, and exchanged some poems. We found that we had maybe not similar style, but similar place in our souls where we come from. Partly, maybe, this was because we belong to the same coaching school, so that this could have happened. Partly it was like, woah, two people from the other side of the ocean suddenly having very similar ideas, just writing about it slightly differently.
So we decided to meet at a conference, and then we met again and decided to pool our resources together, and we also decided, which was incredible at some point, that we would write the poems together.
This completely changed the paradigm for us, because normally it’s a little bit egoistic – this is my poem! This is it! And it’s a very difficult to let go of your idea and let other people meddle with your poem. But we started with deciding that she’d write a line, I’d write a line, and we’d put them together, and we wrote quite a few pieces in the book together at the same moment, sometimes very quickly, sometimes a bit longer, and we were like, “Wow! We did it together! We are so connected in our lines that we can do it.”
This is part of our coactive school. Coactive means collaborating on a deep level with another person. So two people become like one, and they speak the same language and they speak one message. This coactive project was done in two weeks, in terms of the writing, and then it took another three months to put the book together. But it was incredible. I’d like to repeat that at some point.
In “Expedition to the Peaks of Your Dreams,” you make reference to several fascinating books, including Felice Benuzzi’s “No Picnic on Mount Kenya” (1952), and Colette Richard’s “Climbing Blind” (1967). What were some of the most amazing stories that you’ve read that inspired your own writing? I think you had one other book that you mentioned in “Expedition”…
First of all, I remember in my master’s thesis, which was about mountain climbing in national parks, I had to read a lot of books about mountaineering, and why mountaineering was so compatible to the use of national parks, because this was what I was looking at – the use of national parks. And what I found was that National Parks of Canada had this idea that the parks’ most important task is to help people go there and be educated and reflect. So, educational reflection, besides just saving nature, is the goal of national parks for humans in Canada, and I believe in other places.
So I read a lot of books that described how climbers experience mountains, and there was one book, “Mountain Experience” (Richard G. Mitchell, 1983) that described how different climbers experienced mountains. And of course I read tons of mountain poetry, I wrote mountain poetry, and I read tons of Polish books about mountain climbing. There are many, many really memorable books.
I was always interested in adventure in strange, different places, but my first books that really enticed me after that were the caving books. I wanted to become a caver…
…in America, we called them spelunkers, I’m not sure of the etymology…
I call them cavers. Speleology, it’s also called. Anyways, I was really excited about going in there and exploring. In fact I did some, but I never became a professional caver. I became a mountaineer. It seemed to me that up there you can see so much more. You can dream so much more.
Yeah, you are limited in a cave as to what you can see.
I’m attracted by light. I enjoyed those caves, but it’s just more curiosity. It’s not my Tao. Climbing is my Tao, my practice in my daily training that helps me to be better on all the levels.
I can also say what gives me joy on each of the levels. On the physical level, climbing is like making you a man, you know, physical strength. Because, you have to be strong. So you have to climb and you have to do it, and it makes you stronger. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” said Nietzsche.
On the emotional level, I would say there is a total release from all your troubles when you climb. You just forget, because you have to pay close attention…
You have to focus on the task at hand…
At the same time, you get this nature-flow into you. On the mental level, there is a total focus, which is so important in today’s distracted world, and for a person like me who has something a little like ADD… so many things can distract me that it’s difficult to do one thing at a time. So climbing helps you and makes you present on the mental level.
On the spiritual level, for sure, there is some connection with the universe and God (some people call me “Wilderness Priest” when I put on these 21-day long courses). Plus, thanks to this you connect to your own spirit, to what’s most important to you, to what is the real you and your own identity. And I think, inside that deep identity, not the shallow personality – I’m not talking about this – this exploratory nature, someone who…
—who’s curious about the world?
Curious, but also wanting to save the world. That’s why I studied environmental science, how to save the world and the environment, because I really believe there is a big danger. Taking people out there is a way of getting people to see nature, to appreciate its beauty, and when they get back home, to think more about the environment.
But taking them out there is also more helping them to see inside themselves on a deeper level and starting to heal themselves from the inside. When we are in the business of the day, the business of the business, we just are not connected. That’s one of the biggest problems of the modern world, we are not connected.
So, when you are in nature, in quiet after some physical exercise then you start being connected to yourself, others too, and you discover what’s inside you, you discover the real you, and you can make completely different decisions about your life, which is what we did on these courses.
I just got an invitation now to work with Canadian war veterans next summer with Outward Bound, and to help them to help themselves and to go back to who they are beyond the trauma of the war.
To overcome PTSD?
Yeah, and there are meditation techniques, famous meditation techniques, where you have to get really, really tired so you cannot get crazy, exercise almost until you fall on the floor, or dance. Then you get into this quiet and then you can reach yourself. I really believe these meditation techniques are more effective for modern man than just going and sitting. Those are also good, but for everyone who is under stress, first you have to get completely tired, and then you can actually get into this quiet space zone and connect to yourself.
So, this is what mountains do for some crazy and strange meditations. If you go there, you get tired, really tired, and then you get quiet and you connect to yourself. This is how it is.
Can that happen in an urban environment, with like you going up the staircase to the top floor of a tall building?
It could happen, but it’s much less likely. Outward Bounds also works in the cities, but there it’s much less likely, and it’s much more difficult, and it doesn’t get you that deep. Actually, the poems in the poem book, they were all written in nature, and we were really quiet, and there was nothing distracting.
Okay. Going back to your childhood, in what ways did the books you read as a child inspire the books you read later in life? How do you think that they might have inspired what you later wrote (structure, presentation of life lessons, etc.)?
I think the most important thing is the story, because it reaches the heart. I read some incredible stories, I got excited about these stories, they reached my heart, or my soul, however you call this, and then I was in it. I’m an emotional person, I feel these emotions, so I think what enticed me was these incredible stories, mostly of exploration, of finding, learning about different worlds… that’s why I also traveled quite extensively. But now I am at the stage where I know that, from Outward Bound and all my experiences, all these outward experiences basically serve for you to start having your inner experiences, start digesting and start learning, going deeper with your inner experiences.
And you don’t need any drugs to do that, even. Well, who knows? I haven’t tried them yet. They may help, but I have enough of these stories that I share for myself and with others that I can all the time go deeper with them.
Also it’s easier to make sense of things when you are sober than when you are under the influence…
Yeah. Into your counseling career…
I call it “coaching career,” although I have to say that in the beginning, it could have been called counseling. What I did in Canada was partly mountain guiding, but also counseling youth. Those were the two skill sets. I taught mountain climbing – and safety and water safety, because we also did canoeing and sea kayaking – but mountaineering was the main part, what I did with Outward Bound, or the Canadian Army before – Canadian Army Cadets, actually.
I remember you talking about working with the Canadian Army before… were you ever working with the Canadian Scouts by any chance…
Not Scouts, well, maybe I was a day or two with Scouts…
Well, in any case, considering your coaching career, how did you transition from Outward Bound to the world of executive coaching? Could you describe a bit of your career arc?
In Canada, I was with Outward Bound, which means part coach, part mountain guide, really. Coach, trainer, counselor, all that… sometimes therapist, really… a healer, in many, many ways.
This organization also worked with corporations doing the same. I became a problem manager for corporate teams in Vancouver for some time, and I became personally known with these corporate teams. I thought this was okay, and I also worked with these corporate teams with other companies, one of them called “Sources for Adventure” – an interesting name – and some others.
I realized that they paid quite reasonable money compared to some of the places I had been working, and I thought this was an interesting challenge. I didn’t really understand these people very well at the beginning, what they are doing, but as I was learning about them, I admired more and more.
As I was coming back to Poland, I realized running a foundation by myself in Polish conditions, with not much possibility of getting money or other things, would not be the way. So I didn’t start Outward Bound Poland, yet (we are talking about it again). So I asked what’s my choice if I wanted to support my family for which I needed money (by which time I had two kids). Let’s try business, it will pay so much better. I’ll do it for some time and then I will see. Also it will be a great challenge.
So I turned from kind of what I considered myself a sort of forest scout to a business trainer, basically. My skills were very useful. At these interviews they all wanted to help me, because I have the soft skills of how to work with people, how to connect with people and how to get them to change. Plus, international experience which is very useful, and English, of course, by then. That combination, plus my self-confidence, which I gained from mountain climbing and doing all these incredible things, worked for me very well at the beginning of Poland’s transformation into a capitalist economy.
It wasn’t so easy in the beginning. At first I failed a little bit as a sales executive/sales manager, business development manager for half of Poland for this big company. And I wasn’t able to sell much, so I kind of failed with my first job.
Sales is hard to do…
I also had some difficulties with my first trainings, with some doctors of science, where my methods were completely not understood in this country – that experiential learning is not the way. Lectures are popular, and I never lectured. I created experiences and I let people draw conclusions from that and they wanted this. So the beginning was quite rough, I would say.
But then some of my clients – many of my clients – said, Jacek, you should start your own company. We see that you have something special that you cannot give to us when you are working with these other companies because they have a very different approach. So I said, “Oh my God, I could just do that.”
In the meantime, my wife was one of the leaders in the world training companies from the UK that actually worked with executives in a much more experiential way, but not exactly how I do that because I do things much more spiritually, much more deeply. So then I kind of believed, wow, I can start my own company and just be myself, and I left. Immediately, I started doing very well, I got this recognition from Forbes and so on.
Now I was becoming a professional business trainer, but not really. I’ve never been a business trainer. I’ve always been a leadership trainer – I think I’m much more a leadership coach, which means how do I reach people more, how do I be myself, how do I work with this organization to make it more human? I’m much more effective in this day and time, because the stupidity of an organization is that they don’t pay attention to people and they fail.
I was going to ask next about your outdoor adventures. How do you make those work? How does that work when you go out to the outdoors to teach people about it?
You mean how do we transfer this into coaching, right? Not just outdoor, because outdoor experiences are on the outside of you, but you are connected to it through the body, and the body takes it inside. In order to create experiences, you use your body. If the body remembers, you’ll remember it.
Then you go deeper. It’s like going from the outside to inside. Outside is exercise, feeling of the body, and what you feel in your mind/heart, and so on, and then you are with it. For sure, I remember the moments in climbing that were very emotional, even today, 40 years later, 35 years later. When there were no emotions, I don’t remember it. It didn’t matter. It’s because we are encoded by our own emotions, both positively, and unfortunately in most cases, negatively.
So with all of these war veterans, or other people who are traumatized, they have their experiences, which they remember in flashes. So, what can you do? You can try to work with this, and there’s one way where during our conversation, people speak their truth. They ventilate it. And if a person remembers it and ventilates it, it’s one of the therapeutic methods to get rid of it…
… to make sense of it and move it on?
Someone needs to listen, and it’s best if the whole powerful group listens, and then this load is lighter. This weight is lighter when you ventilate. So this is one thing, if you ventilate in a special way, it becomes very healing.
The second way is you give them good experiences that are highly memorable and successful, like climbing a peak, or having some other experience where they feel really good, and those experiences they like cover those bad experiences. When you’ve had enough of those good experiences, you start to analyze good experiences, you start to remember those good experiences, and those other ones go out there to the past.
So you do both things: you ventilate the bad and you get the new, and as you make some small steps with the new ones, you start believing, “Yes, I can do that! This is not impossible! I can be happy, I can be satisfied!”
So for overcoming negative stress, would that work?
Well, I’m not saying that would work for everything. That’s a very difficult question.
I think there is one more thing that I give to people which they don’t get from most of the North American/Western guru stuff. They have this theory that you can get anything, you can reach anything, and you deserve it, and so on. And I say, yes, you can reach anything, but I’m not saying you deserve it. I’m not saying you don’t have to work on it. I’m saying that it’s good to have bad experiences in your life because then your happy experiences are a good contrast to it. If you have everything easy, you don’t enjoy it as much as if you had bad times.
I will write about the Gulag Archipelago in the next book. When you have been to the Gulag, or you have been to beyond our Iron Curtain and you have lived in difficult times, then you can be happy with less things. You can have much more happiness, like my father, who is 91, and he is happy because he survived! As he told me today, he definitely doesn’t concentrate on his traumas and bad stuff, he just concentrates on how good it is that this is gone. He’s just enjoying that he’s free, that he can do whatever he can. He doesn’t have to have lots of money, or yachts, or whatever.
This is what Western gurus forgot, because they haven’t experienced it. They don’t have a way of grasping it. In my practice, if you have something bad – great! That’s a great foundation for a future happiness. It’s not something to complain about. Yeah, it was bad, but now is good! What a difference! What a contrast between this and that.
Then, of course, there is from the Eastern side, I take part in the humility, the modesty, which they have that actually is a long-term strategy for having success and being happy, rather than the short-term strategy of, “I will get this new car, and then I will be happy.”
No, if you do something with heavy effort, like write a book, you will be happy that you wrote a book. If someone writes it for you, you are missing the experience. You are never going to be happy because you have this book. It will not matter very much to you. So I did write this book twice, in Polish and then… yes, I did have a translator, but I did correct every little sentence because I didn’t like the translation… and now it feels like it’s completely my book.
It’s definitely well-written. If you were to advise others who want to get into coaching, what would you tell them?
Live your life to the fullest. Don’t try to be a coach before you experience quite a lot of different things, both positive and negative. Once you feel that you can actually contribute from your own calm, your own experience, your own thoughts… develop yourself first. This is my advice; develop yourself in all sorts of ways. That’s all described in the book.
Finishing up with coaching, what were some of the best experiences you took part in over the years as a coach? What were some of the happier contrasts?
One is described in the book, it was that lady who decided to have a child, and actually this happened five times.
Two, I remember social projects, I remember people from four or five continents working for a security company, which means they were previously army – some of them were generals of armies or colonels, or all sorts of stuff, and some younger ones too. They had to create an event for a village down deep in the forest – out of this world – they had to create a fun event for a task, and this was their final task. They had to open up their hearts to all sorts of very different people from them – villagers, you know? Children, old people, and so on. Among them there was an Australian, there was a black person from Nigeria, which in a little Polish village was such a sensation, and they were doing something fun for them – there was an American, there was a Russian. So I was like, “What? This is happening and these guys are actually doing it! And it is something good for the world! They’re doing it! This village will never be the same!”
Then I also remember working with some kindergarten (pre-school) for kids from poor families with some sickness and so on. We were all sitting with them and hugging them and crying, and again it was an international bunch of people. And the kids were like excited, seeing some strange people from Spain, Iran, and Israel.
I like to connect people. I like to connect cultures. I like to get them to love each other. That’s my purpose, to help people love themselves and love each other – that’s my deepest purpose.