An Interview with Author & world-record Breaker Steph Jagger
November 19, 2019
Interviewed by Bretty Rawson, TSW Director of Programs
An ex-marketing expert who now doubles as a life coach and author, Steph Jagger has a heart that is as wild as her eye is sharp. In part, it’s in her nature, but it’s also in her approach to nature: once confronted with her potential, she had to let go of the things holding her back. And when she did, she broke the Guinness Book of World Record for the most vertical feet skied in a single year: 4,161,823 feet, to be exact.
Steph chronicles the story of this journey from desk to summit in her debut memoir Unbound: A Story of Snow and Self-Discovery (HarperCollins). But as much as Unbound is a book about the vertical feat, it’s also a blueprint to finding one’s own way amidst the chaos and pressures of culture, expectation, and careers. Through tales of endless pain and depthless love, Steph’s voice is one you won’t mind hanging around your head. In fact, many seek Steph out for her voice: she runs the program, The Great Big Journey, which offers one-on-one life-coaching that helps individuals excavate, and embrace, their wild and rough edges. The mantra of the program? Discover, declare, and deliver. Or, as she puts it, “Know thyself, choose thyself, make shit happen.”
For an early-morning hour, we talked about bindings and being unbound, how time in Big Nature releases us from the roles we’re expected to play, and why being fearless isn’t such a great idea.
Bretty Rawson: I want to begin at the end of Unbound: the moment you set the world record for most elevation skied in a single year. Instead of reaching a finish line, you found a new starting line. Can you talk about this a little?
Steph Jagger: I have thought for a long time that we have goal setting totally wrong. So many people are really good at declaring what it is that they want, heading out there and delivering on it in some way. But very typically, we have not spent time on the discovery part, which I think happens before, and which is the whole mantra of The Great Big Journey program: discover, declare, deliver. Know thyself, choose thyself, make shit happen. People are really good at choosing themselves and making shit happen, for the most part, but the knowing thyself is missing in so many ways, and was completely missing for me when I was younger.
Bretty: So do we have goal-setting “wrong,” in the sense that we have it backwards?
Steph: There’s a real kind of belief in society that goes something like this: do, have, be. If I do this thing, I will then have this next thing, and when and only when I have this next thing am I allowed to be whatever. If I do a thousand sit-ups, I will have washboard abs, and only when I have washboard abs can I be attractive or feel as though I am a sensual person in the world. You can see this with careers — all across the board — and it’s such bullshit because it prolongs all of our state of being and who we are, and makes it contingent on very arbitrary, or very ego-based, things.
People are often, and I was, very disappointed. I would get to finish lines and I would have something — the very thing I wanted to have — but I would also have this empty feeling. What I thought was attached to the finish line, feeling-wise, was not. I think this leads to a culture, particularly with women, of “not enough.” This isn’t enough, I didn’t do enough, I don’t deserve this. So I like to switch it. I like to have the being at the very beginning, so it becomes: be, do, have. So if I am happy, if I can be in a state of feeling competent, successful, joyful or in gratitude, then that is going to lead me to doing dramatically different things in my day, and when I do those dramatically different things, the results that I have at the end of it are going to blow my mind. I am not even going to be able to write them down on paper beforehand.
It’s that discovery part: are you listening to your own intuition, have you been curious about this? Are you doing this because your ego is being served in some way? Is that what you want? That part I think is missing a lot from our traditional goal setting, and I wish that would shift. And there’s a lot in the program that we do to attempt that.
Bretty: I noticed in your book, and not just because of the title Unbound, that there’s a lot of un-words: unbound, unmoored, unknown, unchartered. Do we know we’re becoming undone, or is it more unconscious?
Steph: That’s a great observation. I didn’t set out on this particular journey to do become undone. The journeys that I go on now, I do. This is a journey I’m going into, and, keeping in theme with things, I’m going to have to unravel, especially with the writing and coaching. That is not the original intention that I went on the ski journey to do. It was much more ego-based than that. Of course, when you’re in a real state of lack of awareness in life, that’s how the universe has to call you. It has to bait your ego in some way, otherwise you’re not going to say yes. So, it turned into something much different and taught me to look for those.
The way we landed on the title Unbound, I loved the double use of it: the internal aspect of who was I bound to become, all the expectations and how do I shift away from that; but also the concepts of bindings, because I basically spent a year with my feet locked into a particular place, bound to a particular place in order to become undone. We were looking at bindings, what you’re actually tied to, and is that going to help you accomplish this internal journey or hold you back?
Bretty: How do you know where to start and how to stop?
Steph: I’m not a surfer, but you’ve got to paddle at some point. You have to be strong enough to stand up on the board, but you also have to read the energy of the water and the timing, and it’ll work so long as you surrender to that. It’s a combination of knowing when to paddle, and knowing when the wave is simply going to do the work for you. It’s a co-creation.
There’s been so few times in the past couple of years where I’ve had to consciously say, “Steph, you need to stop. You’re going too fast, your ego is at the helm here, you’re not listening to what’s happening.” I think it’s because of the journey but also because of the work I’ve been doing in the last handful of years. The way that I start now is different. If you start from a place of calling and curiosity, and let your intuition bring you in, it’s going to be guided.
The only time that I’ve had to tell myself to stop was this last summer. I knew the book was going to be coming out in January, and my background is in sales, marketing, and PR. And so I hired a PR firm to build up some social media and they’d come on as additional help as the book came out. And I could just feel myself pushing there a bit and it was a bit ego-based. Like, I came from PR and marketing, I know how this should go. Fear told me I had more knowledge.
Bretty: Speaking of talking and listening to oneself, there’s a lot of italicized bits in the book. There’s also a scene where you are with two friends — Alix and Whitney — in Bali, and you talk about the need to connect with oneself by disconnecting with others. Does it always need to be one or the other?
Steph: For me now, I don’t think it necessarily needs to be one or the other, but I think this is one of the reasons why travel and solo travel have become so important. As a person who enjoys connecting with other people, and likes to talk and is extroverted in that way, to be on my own in the world, there’s two things that happen: one, when you travel solo, you get to drop any of the roles that you traditionally play. You don’t have to be the daughter, you don’t have to be the sister, you don’t have to be the employee. You’re on your own in the world. You get to be whatever version of yourself you want to be or the truest version that you can find in the moment. So that’s one piece of education that was such a critical thing and when I was younger, even before this journey.
The other thing is that when you travel solo, especially for an extended period of time, all the different voices that live in our heads — the voice of fear, the true authentic voice that is trying to communicate with you, the voice of your mother, the voice of the teacher who scolded you all those times, which could all be described as variations of the voice of fear — those go away. What I did was I went on a ten-month meditation, you know? That’s what skiing was. How often can I get into state of flow? When you meditate like that for six hours a day, however many days a week, those voices go away, and it allows the kind of true voice — the voice of oneself — to step forward and you can have those conversations.
I think I needed to disconnect from others in order to find that. I don’t think that’s the case now. I think I can find that voice more readily now at the same time as connecting with others. But as a young person, especially as an extroverted young person, we don’t do that. We don’t create those spaces for us to not only hear our own voice, but to let go of the roles we play.
Bretty: When it comes to solo travel, or say solitude in general, what holds people back?
Steph: I think a lot of people confuse solitude and loneliness. They’re such different states. People worry that if they go on a solo trip, they’re going to be lonely. And they may well be, but that’s a very different state than solitude, which is being with oneself.
When you’re around a lot of people, you’ve got all those voices in your head and all those voices in their heads, and that energy exists around us all the time. I think one of the things that was so helpful for me in being able to hear my own voice was that amount of time I spent in what I’ll call “Big Nature,” because there’s not as many people. You’re not cluttered energetically, with not only the frenetic energy that we carry within, but then the thousands of people we’re bumping into in traffic in California or wherever, so you clear that all out. This even affected my sense of smell. When I came back home, my sense of smell was so acute because I had been in fresh air so much that I could pick up things that I normally would not have.
The other part of Big Nature I love — and by Big Nature I mean big trees, big mountains, big ocean, expansive stuff that goes on for miles and miles — is that it makes you feel so connected and important in that web, but also, you’re tiny. You’re so insignificant. But there’s also this interconnectedness, which for someone who started a trip with a healthy ego looking to make it healthier, that’s an important lesson.
Bretty: That reminds me of a line from your book: “Her truth didn’t fit inside the palm of my hand.” This seemed like a big moment for you, recognizing that someone else’s truth was not your reality.
Steph: I’ve got to credit Cheryl Strayed for this because every time I read her work — specifically, Tiny Beautiful Things — there is that examination of our inherent contradictions.
The perfect example is oftentimes in relationships with parents, especially ones that have been damaging to us. We hate them, but we love them. And both of those feelings are equally true and powerful and exist within us at the same time, which forms these really stunning fault lines in who we are. I loved Tiny Beautiful Things because it really is a deep dive on that. I see that in coaching all the time. I see people saying, “I want this in my life,” but two sentences later, they say, “I want this in my life,” and they’re totally opposite things. It isn’t about saying “choose.” It’s about saying, who’s the person that you need to be to have those two realities exist at once so that you’re not fighting with yourself anymore?
Bretty: Which relates to the order of do, have, and be: who can you be to have both of those things?
Steph: Sometimes, those contradictions we need to examine. They’ll be contradictions like, “I want abundance in my life,” and then, “I’ll do whatever it takes to get x, y, and z.” And that could be interpreted as, “Dear Universe, take whatever you need from me so I can have x, y and z, take abundance even, whatever you need.”
There are some things that need to be examined, rechecked, and rewritten. But there are other ones that exist within us and both of them are going to be true, and that’s one of the things that I think is so beautiful about memoir: I’m exploring how I can have — and I’m making something up here — a desire to have connection and a love of children and a family, but at the same time think, I definitely don’t want to be a mother. Can we take the competition out of two competing truths?
Bretty: What happens when our past and future selves appear simultaneously? Can we tell them apart, and how do we choose who to follow?
Steph: I heard Danny Shapiro in an interview somewhere say that she thought it would be a fascinating experiment for a memoir writer to write the same book every ten years to see how the narrative would change. And how the interpretation of it all would shift.
I love the question about past self, current self, and future self, and asking: the narrative that you’re currently living in, which one is it in and also, where does your loyalty lie? Does it lie to your past self, to where you are now, or to a future you’ve made up rather arbitrarily, or perhaps tapped into in some honest authentic way?
So many of the young women I work with have had a loyalty to a 30-year-old self that they defined when they were 18, thinking, This is going to be my life. And once I hit that 30 and I’ve got this and this and this, that’s it and that’s all I have to be loyal to. I was at a book launch in Seattle and there was a woman who was 30. She said she was so disappointed. She thought that was going to be it. “What do you mean you’re telling me I’m going to have to, like, go on a journey? I made it here. I did everything I was told to do.” There was a couple in this small group and they were probably in their late seventies or eighties, and I turned to them and said, “Shall you answer this?”
So we set these goals for ourselves for life when we’re in our late teens and all the way through our twenties. We say, here’s going to be my career, here’s going to be my love life, my belief in abundance, where I’m going to live forever, et cetera. To allow the 22-year-old in us to set the biggest goals in life and never rethink them, that’s crazy. And I think we have to pause every five years, or six months, and reexamine. The things I thought were rolling, the waves I thought I was riding. Maybe this goes back to the concept of stop, but it is this constant reexamination of, What is the story that is unfolding? If I let a story unfold from the time that I’m 18 onwards, I think I’m going to be screwed. But if I reexamine it, fine-tune it, and really do those internal deep dives regularly, then I think what’s going to unfold has got some magic in it.
Bretty: This reminds me of Joan Didion’s essay, “On Keeping a Notebook,” and letting our past selves come back into the present. But specifically, to not shut them out, because if you do, they’ll resurface when you least expect it.
Steph: I went through that: attempting to get rid of what I’ll call the petulant child, this entitled whiny kid in me that was rearing its head. And I remember doing this little ceremony, off you go, bye bye. Looking back, that was a mistake.
Instead of saying, I adore you, you got me where I am somehow, I’m not going to let you take the reigns fully, but take a seat in the car here, cause I need you. And in fact, I need you when I want to buck tradition. I need you when I’m hacking a new path somewhere and you’re the one who is being a bit rebellious and entitled — I deserve that — I need you for that. Instead of casting away the old, can we invite a more mature version of it to sit at the table? What does a more mature version of a petulant kid look like? In my case it looks like a rebel in a blue dress who isn’t afraid to use her voice, speak truth to power, challenge norms, et cetera. I need that kid at my side.
This is the same thing I do with fear. I kind of loathe the concept of fearlessness: how do you get rid of your fear? I think it’s actually the opposite: how do you have a relationship with your fear so it can do its job and inform you about actual danger and things that are at stake? I think I learned this as an athlete and as somebody who plays in the mountains: your fear is your best friend because it’s telling you when you’re in too deep. And that stunning dance between fear and adrenaline? Adrenaline, which is the thing that is born of fear that actually allows you to do that stuff, gives you the push of energy to do that stuff.
It’s the same with the saboteur in us, the petulant child, the victim, and all these fear-based things. How do we develop relationships with them where they can inform us? Fear might be informing me of something that is actually really important for me to look at because it might lead me to a conversation with myself, or someone else.
Bretty: I’m curious about the role that other people play in our independent journeys. For you, finding Chris and Chris finding you. Even though we never know his journey fully, we know you’re playing a significant role in his at the same time he is being a co-star to yours.
Steph: That’s what our marriage is: it’s not in sickness and health until death do us part. It is: I have made a commitment to this person that I will help them to hold a vision of their best and highest self in this world, and help them move toward that, and at any point if we feel that one or the other is getting in the way of the best or highest self, then that’s probably the end of things. That doesn’t mean it’s done, but it’s how else can we support each other? How do you continue to help this person and help each other as a couple be of use in the world in the best and highest way we can?
I’ve always loved that about the partnership and the marriage: it’s not you’re bound to me until I die no matter what. It’s you’re bound to me in order to take me to the next level and the next level and the next level. And that’s always been really important to both of us. And I think to be frank, I think he would say this as well, if it weren’t for international borders, I don’t know if we would’ve ever signed legal marriage papers. The whole thing has always felt bigger than a California State contract.
Bretty: I don’t know if the two words appeared next to each other in the book, but the relationship between “missions” and “permission.” What gives us permission to go on these missions?
Steph: I think we, especially women, have this messed up. I’d have to look back at the root of the words, but a mission to me, outside of a military mission, I think of the religious ones — they were called or felt informed by a god of some kind to go into the world and to spread a particular message. Now, putting aside for a moment the mess that a lot of missionaries made when it comes to indigenous people, this is such a way, metaphorically, to think about a mission. The mission I have to write the next book, I want it to be informed by muse, calling, god, creativity, whatever it is you want. I am on a mission here. I am co-creating this. I am in a sacred contract with the Universe to work up some words and spread a message of some kind.
The concept of permission also relates back to the external voices — the voices in our heads but also the real tangible ones in the world — and I just wrote about this for a gal I work with. She asked me, “How did you deal with the fear and the anxiety that comes with putting your voice in the world and publishing and creating?”
I think women especially need to start with an understanding that we have that — we have permission, we have worthiness, we are deserved — that’s ours to begin with. Start from that place and what you put into the world as well as your relationship with it will be drastically different. And that even relates back to what I said before: it comes from somewhere else. That comes from a contract we create when we say we’re going to co-create something in the world, you know? A sacred contract. And if we allow that to lead, that means we can put our work into the world and it can create something, solve something, become something, without our emotional baggage attached to it. I see so many people putting work into the world, seeking and hoping that it will give them something, instead of us giving ourselves to it and allowing it to become whatever it will become.
When I’m on a mission to put stuff out into the world, sure there are fears that come up, but it doesn’t really hold me back because I believe I’m being called to do stuff, and I don’t believe that calling is coming 100% from me and my genius little brain. I think if we’re following those curiosities and intuition, it has everything to do with us because it’s my name on the cover of the book and it’s the trip I took, but it also has nothing to do with me. Nothing.