A Side Conversation with Author, Life Coach, and World Record Breaker Steph Jagger
By Editor Brett Rawson
I’ve never gone skeet shooting, but I recently interviewed Steph Jagger, and that’s more or less what we did: I’d fling questions and ideas into the air, and watch as she’d take careful aim, and with wisdom and levity, shatter each one. In part, it’s in her nature (an ex-marketing guru who now doubles as a life coach and author, Jagger’s heart is as wild as her eye is sharp), but it’s also in her approach to nature: to face her potential, she had to let go of the things holding her back. And when she did, she just so happened to break a Guinness World Record for the most vertical feet skied in a single year: 4,161,823 feet, to be exact.
She chronicles the story of this snow-journey 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, Jagger’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, Big Great 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.”
So 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.
The Seventh Wave: 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 wrote that 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 and 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. So this is a big thing we go through in the program. The first week, they write down their three-month goals. What do you want to get out of this? This has been a tool I’ve used for five years. We then have a big conversation and circle back to those goals to see if they’ve changed. And every single time, they do. For example, the goals that they start with are like move to the Pacific Northwest, decide if I want to stay with my boyfriend, or save five thousand dollars. But at the end of these first calls, the three-month goals shifted to redefine my relationship with abundance, discover my purpose as it relates to creativity, you know? These much bigger things. And those get me excited.
The biggest thing we’re seeing — and this depends a little bit on age — is surrounding purpose and direction. We often see things like shifting from a fear-based motivation to a curiosity- or love- or intuition-based motivation. And that’s what I’m in it for. You can figure out how to save five thousand bucks, you don’t need me for that.
TSW: Do we have goal-setting “wrong” in the sense that we have it backwards?
SJ: 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. So 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.
One of the perfect examples of this was going into the book deal for me. I didn’t know anything about the publishing industry; I don’t have an MFA; I took grade 11 English and that was it, you know? I had no idea the people I was going to be meeting with, I didn’t know if they were heavy hitters or not — I just had zero clue. Typically, I would go into a nervous, sweaty mess. I don’t know enough, I’m not enough, I’m going to have to prove that I’m likable, or a good enough writer. And I probably would have peacocked quite a bit or leaned into my agent more, but then I said, I’m just not going to do it that way. I’m going to go in holding all of my naiveté with transparency and go in with a sense of joy and curiosity and wonder, and also a sense of knowing what I did and what I’m capable of. And the results that came out of that — well, first of all, how I showed up in those meetings was so different than how I showed up in the past. And I truly believe that was one of the components that led me to doing different things in a meeting and then getting a book deal.
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.
TSW: That hits deep. I find this relationship interesting: between doing something and becoming undone. I noticed in your book, and not just because of the title Unbound, that there’s a lot of un-ness: being unbound or unmoored, going into the unknown or unchartered territories. I admit to having a weird fixation with circling unwords, which I did to your book, but my question is: Do we know we’re becoming undone, or, pun intended, is it unconscious? Can you be both the patient and surgeon?
SJ: That’s a great observation. I didn’t set out on this particular journey to do that. The journeys that I go on now, I do. I’m like, OK, 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 really landed on the title Unbound, I love the double use of it: the internal aspect of who was I bound to become, you know, all the expectations and how do I shift away from that; but the other one that was such a big deal for me was concepts of bindings, because I spent a year basically with my feet locked into a particular place, bound to a particular place in order to become undone, so we were really looking at bindings and what you’re actually tied to, and is that going to help you accomplish this internal journey or hold you back? So there was a lot around that.
It was a title we came up with early on, but then parked it. I totally forgot about it, but I was chatting with a friend one night and we were brainstorming a whole bunch of names. Randomly, one of them again was Unbound. I was like, I like that, completely forgetting it had been on the list. I emailed my editor that night and said, What do you think about Unbound? And literally at the same time, she said, “I just circled around to Unbound,” and I said, OK listen, that’s it.
TSW: It seems like a lot of serendipity has gone on in the journey of this book.
SJ: It was also through the whole book-writing and with getting my agent.
TSW: How so?
SJ: I didn’t know any agents, how to get one, I knew nothing. So I pitched the book to eight agents, five of whom were completely cold, and three who were slightly warmish. I met Chris Gilllebeau at a book signing and he said his agent was in the audience, so I slightly stalked him. So the three that were kinda warm like that, they were basically semi-stalkings. They got back to me within probably 24 – 48 hours of sending my proposal, which based on what I’ve been told is rare. I had someone who had a minor connection and she said, “If you don’t hear anything within six weeks, let me know and I’ll give her a nudge.”
Everyone in my little writing tribe had said this is way too early to pitch, you need more time, you don’t know what you’re doing. And I just said, No. I just felt it so strongly. I could envision someone at their desk hitting their head against the wall, working on a project they weren’t totally lit up about. The first woman to reply said, “Before I dive into the nitty gritty, Steph, I just want to say I’ve been sitting at my desk hitting my head against the wall with a project I just can’t get into and this came across my desk and it just seems perfect,” and I just said to her, “Send me the paperwork. I don’t need to know anything else.” So there was a definite kismet to everything.
TSW: But you also have to leave the doors open, right?
SJ: I mean, I’m not a surfer, but you’ve gotta paddle. 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 both.
TSW: Right, knowing when to paddle.
SJ: Knowing when to paddle, and knowing when the wave is simply going to do the work for you. It’s a co-creation.
TSW: And isn’t that a big theme in Unbound: patience and letting go?
SJ: Yeah, surrender. It’s a huge theme in the book. Still is for me in life, and in writing. Oh my God, totally in writing.
TSW: When I first started running, I used to think a lot about “how to start.” But the more I ran, the more I learned about stopping: how to stop without injury, how to actually recover, what it means to rest, when to walk during a run, and so on. Sometimes, it was a painful lesson. It relates to the themes above, but also, to knowing when, and accepting that, sometimes you just need to stay put. You might just be in the middle of a white out, which is how Unbound ends.
SJ: This is interesting that you’re bringing this up and it’s making me a little proud. 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 is so different. If you start from a place of calling and curiosity, and let your intuition bring you in, well then, it’s going to be guided. Unless your ego kind of rears its head part way through the process and then that’s like, OK, pull the reigns back and stop.
I’m hearing more and more now, “Keep going, keep going, keep going,” because I think the way I start things now is so different than in the past. 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. And I had a meeting with the PR firm — we talked about these killer huge ideas and we were signing on for more and more and it was getting bigger and bigger — and I walked away from that meeting and went, Stop. I actually kind of sat and talked to the book. What is it you need? And it was like don’t do this because it’s going to be a distraction from me, from the book, from whatever. Fear and ego were trying to take control of the situation because I didn’t know the HarperCollins’ PR and Marketing team and what they were going to do. I assumed I had more knowledge. Fear told me I had more knowledge. What a joke. Good one, Fear. So that’s one instance in the last handful of years where I said, “Steph, you’ve got to stop.”
I can feel now when I’m really pushing something instead of feeling like I’m surfing the energy of it. It doesn’t feel good to me anymore, that push. It’s also changed the way I ski now. I ski for way more cruisey enjoyment than for “let’s charge.” But that might be because I’m not as in shape as I was when I was doing that then. Ha!
TSW: Or because you’ve skied more feet in a single year than anyone does in a lifetime. But I’m curious about this concept: talking and listening to oneself. There’s a lot of it in the book in italicized bits, but there’s also a scene where you are with two friends — Alix and Whitney — in Bali. In that scene, you talk about the need to connect with oneself by disconnecting with others. Does it always need to be one or the other?
SJ: 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, because 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 happened: 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 flow of state? So 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. So 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.
I don’t give my nieces and nephews gifts at Christmas or birthdays, instead a little bit of money that goes into a fund that they’re to use when they’re 18 or older to use for travel of some kind. I think travel is just as important as a part of our education system.
TSW: Maybe that’s it: at some point, whether you’re the extroverted type or not, we should experience that deep solitude, or meditation, at least once in our life.
SJ: I think that’s what 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 in my mind is being with oneself.
Speaking of voices, the other thing I learned about, and this came more in the writing process, is muse: the voices that come through that are not the fear-based voices but also are not exactly our voices, if you know what I mean. I can physically describe a minimum of four people, quote unquote — I don’t know if they ever existed or if they’re made up in my head, I have no idea — that became, for a period of time, additional voices in my head that informed the work. So that’s been another interesting learning: there’s my voice that exists, but when I dive into the world of creativity, there are other voices that show up.
But hey, maybe that’s a sign that I’ll turn into the person on the corner of the street who looks a little off talking to someone somewhere. Maybe I already am that person!
TSW: I love the distinction between solitude and loneliness. I wonder if the condition people don’t like is a combination of the two: being “alonely.” In that, they are by themselves and they are uncomfortable with that. New York can be an absolute test at times. You can be surrounded by people and absolutely alone at the same time.
SJ: I think that’s another interesting observation: when you’re around all of those 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.
TSW: That reminds me of a line from your book. It was in response to something an unnamed character said to you. You wrote, “Her truth didn’t fit inside the palm of my hand.” I thought this was a big moment for you in the book: you didn’t have to be “in resistance” to this person, because you recognized that her truth was not your reality.
SJ: You know, 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?
TSW: Which relates to what you were saying earlier about the order of do, have, and be. Who can you be to have both of those things?
SJ: 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.” So 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 — 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. You know? Again, that’s made up — sort of — but that’s what we’re looking at: can we take the competition out of two competing truths?
TSW: For me, that has echoes of looking at past, current, and future selves. When who we’ve been rears its head, and who we might want to become is ahead of us looking back and saying, “Are you still coming?” do we follow?
SJ: I’m pretty sure it was Danny Shapiro, I heard her in an interview somewhere saying what she thought 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 that 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, that is going to be 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.” I chuckled to myself. 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?”
That’s one thing I think is dangerous that I see people do: 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. It’s crazy in my mind.
So I think we have to pause every five years and reexamine, or less. I mean, for me, it’s almost six months. The things I thought were rolling, the waves I thought I was riding six months ago — and maybe this goes back to the concept of stop — is this constant reexamination of what is the story that is unfolding because 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.
TSW: This reminds me of Joan Didion’s essay, “On Keeping a Notebook,” and being kind to our rough edges, or 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.
SJ: You know, I went through that: attempting to kind of get rid of what I’ll call the petulant child, this entitled whiney kid in me that was rearing its head. And I remember doing this little ceremony, off you go, and bye bye. And man, 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 to have with — and again I am making this up — say Aunt Jane before publishing a memoir that includes life stories about her. So I like to listen to those things.
TSW: It’s also interesting the role that other people play. For instance, you finding Chris and Chris finding you, and the roles you guys played in that independent journey. Even though we don’t ever know his journey fully, we know you’re playing a significant role in that at the same time he is being a co-star to yours.
SJ: 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, OK, boom 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.
TSW: 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?
SJ: I love this. I think we, especially women, have this messed up. As you’re saying this, I’d have to look back at the root of the words. But a mission to me, outside of military mission, well, 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 beautiful 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 — but everyone in general — if we are putting our work into the world, whether that work be having children, whether that work be a book, or whatever the work is, question ourselves: do I have the courage and audacity to be that person? If we’re doing that because we think it’s going to give us something, and by something I mean permission, validation, worthiness, or a feeling that I am enough in the world, then we’re fucked. We’re fucked. Because our egos are going to balloon if it goes well and crash if it goes poorly.
I think that’s the biggest piece of work that I see in so many women needing to do. We 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.
I’ll have to look back at the roots to the word mission and permission, but I never thought about it in that way. 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.
TSW: And that’s what makes it interesting.
SJ: And that may well be the definition of a mission. I feel called to spread this message in the world and I will surrender, I will take responsibility and do the work, but it has nothing to do with me.
TSW: I know this was an interview, but should I pay you for this? I feel coached.
SJ: [Laughs]. This was perfect. It was a great start to my day. I’m going to get another cup of coffee and set the world ablaze.
Steph Jagger splits her time between Southern California and British Columbia where she dreams big dreams, writes her heart out, and runs an executive and life coaching practice. She holds a CEC (Certified Executive Coach) degree from Royal Roads University and she believes courageous living doesn’t happen with one toe dangling in, but that we jump in, fully submerge, and sit in the juice. Think pickle, not cucumber. Her first book, Unbound: A Story of Snow and Self-Discovery, was published by HarperCollins in January 2017. You can find more at www.stephjagger.com or on Instagram @stephjagger.