“My biggest fear is that when I die the person I am meets the person I could have become.”
Won’t that quote (above) make you think twice about living every minute to the fullest!?
Well, today's guest is a truly extraordinary human and DEFINITELY living to the fullest! And if you’ve got kids of your own or an adventurous spirit you’re going to absolutely love this one.
Bruce Kirkby grew up in Toronto as an engineering physicist by trade, but going through the motions each day left him feeling like there was so much more to life than what he was experiencing.
Despite almost failing English in high school, Bruce became a wilderness writer and adventure photographer, and today he’s visited more than 80 countries and is renowned for connecting wild places with contemporary issues. Some of his most notable accomplishments, of which there are many, include the first modern crossing of Arabia’s Empty Quarter by camel, a descent of Ethiopia’s Blue Nile Gorge by raft, a sea kayak traverse of Borneo’s northern coast, and a coast-to-coast Icelandic trek.
Bruce is the author of three bestselling books, winner of multiple National Magazine Awards, and has been featured in The New York Times. His television show Big Crazy Family Adventure was released by the Travel Channel in 2015 and followed Bruce’s journey with his wife and two young children from their home in Canada to India with one condition – they weren’t able to use an airplane the entire time. That adventure in particular has some truly incredible moments.
In this interview, we’re going to dive into Bruce’s craziest experiences, of which there are many. We’ll also look at:
- The moment where he realized the traditional path wasn’t for him
- When he was taken hostage at gunpoint in Ethiopia
- What it was like traveling with his young family to Mt Everest and the Great Wall of China
- Lessons from living in a Buddhist Monastery in Tibet
- How to escape the modern grind and start enjoying life, and
- What Bruce thinks the best way to parent is in 2020 and beyond.
He’s got an incredible energy, some amazing stories, and I know you’re going to love this episode. Let’s get into it!
What was an average day for Bruce Kirkby growing up?
I grew up in the suburban wastelands of Toronto at the end of the subway line, so I felt like I was kind of removed from the action. I was a bit of a geek – good at maths and science. I was pretty active too, and loved to ride my bike and explore. Now, I've spent my whole life doing wilderness travel but, even at that age, I remember the joy in poking around construction sites once the workers had left. At the time though, I did not see myself as anything other than a math and science nerd.
In high school, I failed English. It's kind of weird that I ended up writing books and being a columnist for newspapers! But I thought I'd always go into math and science. By the time I got to university, I wanted to be like Michael J. Fox in Family Ties. I'm like, "I'll get an MBA and I'll just study engineering." I thought it would be this killer duo.
When I graduated, I was off to chase the money, until I started guiding rafts and everything else.
You’re an engineering physicist by trade. When did you get the sense that there was much more to your life than that traditional route you were on?
Eng phys is beautiful because you learn why the sky is blue, how electricity works, and all kind of practical things, but it only prepares you for academia and research. I knew already that wasn't for me, so I got a job in a little consulting firm and I loved the excitement. It was six people at the start, and I left four months later was 45 people, so it was growing quickly. It was in IT consulting, and I was in Ottawa, the capital of Canada.
As that was happening, my housemate had rented a cheap house in Ottawa and was starting a bungee jumping company as part of a rafting outfit on the river. I went to a meeting and the head of the rafting company said, "Why don't you guide rafts for us?" And I did. There was just such clarity for me that those two days of the weekend were so much more… not just joyful, but meaningful. They mattered to me more than the other five days of the week, even with the 99.8% cut in pay. I decided that's where I was going to go.
Too many people, especially in fields like investment banking, are living to work?
We put a lot of demands in western culture, and that's not wrong. I'm still a full Type-A guy, and it happened to be that my interests and my joys evolved. People often ask what my strength or superpower was that led me through this. For whatever reason, I had real comfort with uncertainty.
When I quit engineering, I didn't need to know what was going to happen one year later, or five years, or 30 years. But it led me to find the things that mattered to me, which is remote landscapes and threatened indigenous and traditional cultures around the world. So I still brought that full intensity, that full Type-A work ethic, into what I do. I just realized pretty quickly that working in a downtown setting wasn't for me.
Some of the adventures that you've been on are absolutely incredible in your travel to 80+ countries. Let's start with the Arabian desert where you did the first modern crossing of Arabia's empty quarter by camel. For those who don't know much about that region, the climate, the geography and anything else, how brutal was that experience?
Well, so many expeditions are difficult but fun. The empty quarter was the quarter of the world. The Bedouin thought it was uninhabited. They thought there was this huge sand desert in the middle of the peninsula that was empty. So only really three people had crossed it before us and in modern times no one. Wilfred Thesiger was the last fellow in 1938 who had been through that region. So we went back in 1999 and bought 12 camels.
It got hot. I remember our thermometer broke. It was 52.1 Celsius (126 Fahrenheit), so for a Canadian, we call it a toque. I like to have a hat on and my warm boots. Because you can escape the cold, but you cannot escape the heat.
There was no way out. It was hot, but none of it seemed like deprivation. I remember we really tried to go as traditionally as possible. I'd heard about other people who had made attempts and brought plastic water jugs that had just cracked in the heat. Instead, we had sheepskins. You basically take a sheep, cut the head off, empty it out and turn it inside out, and hang it by the legs from the saddle, one on each side. Man, the water that came out was green, and there's like these floating hairs and pieces of other stuff.
You talked about it being brutal. That does sound brutal, but for me, the joys were learning about the Arabic culture and learning about the Bedouin. That feeling of working over a period of time towards our destination… when we saw the blue waters of the Arabian Gulf and rode into Abu Dhabi, it just felt incredible.
It must have been an amazing feeling. What about the Blue Nile Gorge in Ethiopia and Sudan? They’re two countries that are known recently for unfortunately some violent conflicts. Tell us about that experience?
That was a good year in 1999 because right after crossing the Arabian Peninsula, I went down the Blue Nile with the National Geographic team. The Blue Nile is the bigger tributary of the Nile. The White Nile is longer and it's famous for its origins in the mountains. The Blue Nile supplies about 70% of the water to hit the Aswan Dam, and Ethiopia had been through a period since the early '70s called the reign of terror where no expeditions had been in there.
Blashford-Snell in '68 had led an attempt to go down part of the Blue Nile. One of his men was eaten by a crocodile. A lot of stuff went down, so this was the opening of Ethiopia. It was still kind of controlled by the deputized outlaws and brigands in those highlands.
The Blue Nile Gorge is huge. It is three times the size of the Grand Canyon. We traveled about 500 miles on those big, big volume rapids. The white water wasn't crazy difficult, but at the bottom of every rapid there were 20 to 30 crocodiles. I mean, to the crocs, the rafts look like bloated cow carcasses. And you're probably familiar with how aggressive crocodiles are in the Nile.
As an Australian, I'm very familiar with crocodiles!
Exactly! The Salties in Australia. These were Nile crocodiles. On the first day, one of our interpreters and guides picked up all these little rocks and I was like, "What are those?" He's like, "Oh, they're croc rocks." And he put them beside himself on his seat. When a crocodile showed up, he threw it at the croc, and the croc disappeared.
The white water wasn't crazy difficult, but at the bottom of every rapid there were 20 to 30 crocodiles.
I thought, "Wow, that's amazing." Then I realized it was relatively easy to scare these crocs away, until we got to the big ones.
They always say that you can estimate the size of a crocodile: the distance between its eyes in inches is roughly equivalent to the length in feet. So some of these early ones had a whole lot of inches between the eyes, because that's what you see coming at you. We had a monster come at us – we hit it with oars and paddles, even the croc rocks, and they did nothing. The head was the size of an engine block of an F-150!
Where were you even sleeping at that point!? In Australia at least, crocodiles are known for traveling a long distance on land too.
I was sleeping beside the slowest runner on our team! We were on the banks, but definitely we were aware at all times of what was going on.
Did you have any challenges from a government and military perspective at the time?
We had all types of stuff going. In fact, a friend of mine ran the river the next year and he met a herdsman who said, "Oh, I shot at a couple rafts that came down the river last year, but I missed them." Thank goodness!
We got taken hostage at one point. And when I say hostage, I mean basically three kids. The oldest was 18. The other two looked 13, with AK-47s. Fingers on the triggers. They wanted to walk us in the jungle and take us to their leader. And that's a pretty intense moment when we're going through three layers of interpretation from English to Amharic.
Eventually, with some bribery, we walked out of that. People often talk about the scariest and most uncertain times on these expeditions. People with guns scare me more than anything because most other things have a certain level of predictability to them. You know, you can understand a bear's behavior, a crocodile's behavior and whatnot.
People with guns scare me more than anything because most other things have a certain level of predictability to them.
We met some tribes in the lowlands who had zero contact before us. A lot of my writing and a lot of my thinking is about preserving the incredible knowledge that is held within these vessels of indigenous cultures. So I really had some mixed feelings about that. But the interactions… they would ask how we got on our tight white shirts and then we'd say, "That's our skin!" And then they'd be like, "You guys are disgusting. You're see-through. It's horrible!"
What did you use to bribe them with? Did you have any cash on you or did they want something that was more valuable than perhaps a piece of paper with a number on it?
Do you ever go anywhere without some Ben Franklin's in your wallet!? The American hundred-dollar bill is a universal lubricant. We had several of those and I think it's recognized everywhere. I mean, we had lots of other things that we would trade and give away, but I don't think there's anywhere in the world that $100 doesn't speak pretty loudly.
I know you went to Mount Everest as part of Big Crazy Family Adventure, but what were your experiences with Everest like before that?
I went there in 1997, which was one year after the big Into Thin Air tragedy. I went there with a Canadian team and my role was to set up the communications to run radios on the mountain and send satellite stuff back to sponsors.
It was pretty shocking for me. I mean, the Himalaya are beautiful. I love that land and landscape, and the Sherpa people in particular. But it was the start of, and this is going to sound harsh for me to say, but the ego-driven side of Everest – people really going there in a very goal-oriented way without perhaps the respect and understanding of the mountains or perhaps the mentorship they probably should have gone through.
Just paying big money so they could tick the Everest box?
Absolutely. I saw husbands and wives break up with each other over trying to get to this summit. I understand the allure of the summit and I'm a driven guy, but I have to admit overall I was a little disillusioned.
I had a chance to go back to Everest a few years later or go to the Arabian Desert and ride the camels on the empty quarter. I knew immediately which I was going to do largely because I was interested in being away from those crowds and that insanity. I mean, there were showers in base camp and huge satellite receivers and it's only gotten worse. That was '97. Some people don’t mind that, but it wasn't for me.
Crowds certainly dampen your enthusiasm for wilderness adventures. Outside of the Galapagos Islands, Yosemite is the most spectacular place I’ve ever been to. But there were just so many people there that I just can't imagine how amazing it would have been hundreds of years, prior to the crowds.
Totally. And the funny thing in Yosemite and the Galapagos is you can get away from it a little bit. I mean Yosemite, if you're halfway up The Chief or something, you're on your own generally. The other routes can get a little bit busy.
Particularly hard for me was the focus so intently on the summit at Everest that people lost sight of the beauty, they lost sight of the culture, and the land and the history.
A large part of my work is that I think we need to stay connected with wild places and want to get people out to the Canadian parks. We talked about Banff and Glacier and all these places. It can be hard. Particularly hard for me was the focus so intently on the summit at Everest that people lost sight of the beauty, they lost sight of the culture, and the land and the history. They're going to walk all over each other just to get to the top of this pile of rocks.
Yeah, that “I’ll be happy if” mentality. Like my Everest journey will only be a success if I make it to the peak.
Totally. I think people thought it was going to change their life. Consistency and habits change your life. Standing on top of a pile of rocks doesn't change anything.
In 2015 your TV show, Big Crazy Family Adventure, was released by the Travel Channel and our good friend, Wes Dening. It followed the Kirkby family as you traveled from Canada to India, more than 13,000 miles by every mode of transportation without taking any airplanes.
You were on cargo ships, donkeys, canoes, rickshaws – you name it. You traveled with your wife and two children, aged seven and three at the time. How did you prepare for that journey?
That was a big trip. We were going because we wanted to basically live in a Tibetan, Himalayan Buddhist monastery and get away from this crazy amount of distraction and business we were feeling in our lives. I'd been talking to our good buddy Wes over the years about TV shows and ideas for adventure. I called him and said, "Wes, I'm just going to be out of the loop for the next six months because I'm taking my kids to live in Ladakh."
And there's this pause on the phone. He's like, "Hold on, mate. That might be it! The ultimate family relocation."
I went back to Wes and said, "I was thinking about Ewan McGregor and Long Way Round, like just one embedded photographer. Maybe we film it ourselves just really up close and personal and gritty."
There's another pause on the line and Wes said, "Mate, the Travel Channel has a different vision. We got 16 on the crew and budget for eight helicopters."
I'm like, "I better go talk to my wife, man!"
Things escalated quickly! I can imagine your wife would have been thrilled that your family adventure had quickly turned into a global television show with eight helicopters!
It did escalate quickly! There was a lot of great stuff about the trip and people cannot believe that it wasn't intrusive having the TV crew around. Obviously, there are stressful times. You're wearing a mic, your camera is around you for 100 days almost. That said, it was like Teflon to my boys – it just bounced off their backs.
There's a lot of upsides. The one beautiful thing is we have a nine-hour home documentary about our trip that was produced by a crack team in Los Angeles. The boys watch it all the time! I don't go back and watch myself too much. Once the crew left us, we had this incredible experience in the monastery.
There's another pause on the line and Wes said, "Mate, the Travel Channel has a different vision. We got 16 on the crew and budget for eight helicopters."
But it was really neat and we did a lot of things we wouldn't have done with them. But in terms of preparing, we'd already taken the kids out a lot. We have a thing similar to Yosemite in Canada, with some granite spires. At three months of age, we had Bodi in there. We climbed up to high camps with them. At eight months, we'd had him down in Patagonia. We've done a 70-day horse trip in the Republic of Georgia with both boys. Taj was eight months old at the time.
With the boys, one of the particular challenges was that Wes is like, "We're not going to help. You got to do it all on your own." So we had to pack into two duffel bags, everything we would need for a 100-day journey across the North Pacific over the Himalaya, down in the jungles and heat of Nepal. There were a lot of environments that we were going through. Our plan was I would carry those two duffels – one on my back and one in my arms. Christine would have the two boys in her hands, and we could navigate anything: train stations, guest houses, busy roads in Beijing.
Essentially that's how it worked, so we went light. It's easy to think, "Oh, the kids need a lot of shirts. We'll wash them in the sink at night and dry them and they'll be ready for the morning." We had maybe two or three shirts each, and some first aid and some good hiking boots and that was about it.
How did you prep for the first aid side? When you've got two young kids in the mix and different languages and medical facilities that mightn’t be as good as what you're used to. How did you prepare from that perspective?
Our assumption was we couldn't get medical help. Once we were at the monastery, we were at least two days drive away – in the best conditions – from a hospital. Or, if the road was closed, that would be 14 days of walking. It was a long way.
Luckily, I have friends who are doctors. And as a guide, you have lots of wilderness and first aid training. We took pretty robust medical kits. I took sutures. I've had these sutures forever and I'd watched a Sherpa get 79 stitches in his face at Everest when he fell off a bridge, and that had been two decades earlier.
One of the novice monks at the monastery had a rock hit him that opened up a gash, and I put four stitches into his forehead. We actually use those sutures we took and that was a pretty intense moment. I write about it in the book a bit and the bond between me and him, the trust that's required to sew someone's forehead together, it was unreal really. It was a pretty special moment. And the boys still talk about Jigmet probably more than any other of the novices. But we had everything. I had the most buffed-out first aid kits, because you're taking kids, right? You need to be ready for anything. We had three or four EpiPens just in case.
What did that journey teach you about yourself and your family?
I hinted earlier that the genesis of this was the idea of distraction. I was a bit slow adopting to these smartphones. I probably got my first iPhone a few months prior to that trip. I think just like a tractor beam, I got sucked in really quickly. Just staring at streams of Kafka coming across Twitter and Facebook. I had these two beautiful boys and I knew that I want to be paying attention to them, and I started realizing I'm wasting my time on other stuff. I tried to change it.
We're a lot more fluent now with our understanding of distraction and how these devices work. But both Christina and I wanted to go to the Himalaya with our kids, to live in a Buddhist monastery, and this just seemed like the time.
So when you ask what it taught us, it reinforced to me that time away from distractions with your family forms this incredible bond. No matter what happens when you're home, the gutters need the leaves pulled out of them and that something is broken down, the car needs more gas. There's always something to do. But when it's just the four of you in the same tent every night for six months, something really special happens and I've been exposed to that before. This was the longest big trip we've done at that time.
Time away from distractions with your family forms this incredible bond.
And there were other things that I came home with in terms of Buddhism and things I learned from those ancient cultures. What we've kept doing is going on big trips every summer and it's almost like it just resets that plaster that holds us together.
We just spent 21 days in canoes on the Columbia River and that first night we all crawled into the tent and we have our little positions, we lie, and the kids on the outside, me here. Everything has got to be right because my kids are sticklers for a routine. It just felt we're back! Here we are and by the time we got off the river, we were a well-oiled and well-connected family.
I love that. When our daughter was born 17 months ago, our big focus for her was making she was used to travel, noise, and people. Me being from Australia and my wife being from California, we knew there was going to be a lot of travel on our horizon. When she was two weeks old, we’d taken a six-hour drive to Shaver Lake. At six weeks old, she flew to Hawaii with us. At seven months old, we flew to Australia.
From everything I’ve learned in my 37 years on this planet is that getting kids as adaptable as possible is so powerful. Obviously there are elements of routine that are important, and there are unforeseen challenges that can emerge for any parent. But raising her to be constantly out of her comfort zone has been, and continues to be, a big focus for us as parents.
Totally. There's a lot I can say about kids and travel, but kids need love and their parents. If you're providing those, you're everything. I figured that out really quickly. The other amazing thing with children is what a window into the culture they are as you travel. You go to Buenos Aires or Southeast Asia and you're a 20-year-old backpacker and the locals look at you like, "Don't you have to work? What are you doing!?"
You show up with a baby and it's like everyone has that struggle, right? It's a universal part of all our journey in life. They're like, "You can't sit in the sun. You can't wait for the bus here. You need to come to my house!”
When we took Bodi away for the first time, and I'd been traveling non-stop for 20 years, it changed everything. People will also say, "But they aren't going to remember it. He's only 18 months old." But everything we know about early childhood education is those first years, the bonds are the most critical.
Kids need love and their parents. If you're providing those, you're everything.
So I've often posed a question to people. What's more impactful – taking your daughter or son as a 20-year-old or as an 18-month-old to board a ferry and go across Lake Tanganyika in Africa? Who's to say that the fact that they can't remember it doesn't have a bigger cascading effect on their life? We’ve taken our children out right from the start.
On any of your adventures, along or with your children, where you felt that perhaps you had bitten off more than you can chew?
I remember waking up to a gun fight once and it was intense. I was in Ethiopia and some mule thieves had come. I remember the first thought. I was like, "If someone was going to shoot into the tent, should I crawl up like a ball? How am I going to miss these incoming bullets?"
I think the most out there I felt with the kids was on the container ship. We were crossing the North Pacific Ocean on this massive cargo ship. They were just these little boys and this is an industrial setting with wrenches the size of horse legs hanging off the walls! We hit a storm and the ship was heaving side to side, and the captain came to our bedroom and said, "Just sleep perpendicular across the bunks so you don't roll out in the middle of the night."
I'm like, "Oh, god. What does he know that we don't!?" So it was beyond our control at that point, right? We were really at the safety of someone else's hands. So that was a bit intense. But I felt pretty good with the boys.
At one time Taj, my younger son, had what appeared to be an altitude reaction and we were just starting to acclimatize him. We talked to lots of pediatric physicians and we took him down and kept measuring his oxygen saturation in his blood and brought him up a few days later and he was totally fine. In fact, we got our boys almost to 17,600 feet. Pushing 6,000 meters on the passes as we went in and out of Zanskar and they were just absolutely unfazed.
As a dad, what's the biggest fear you have for your children as they get older?
Oh, boy. Well, I mean these days there's a lot of fear. The world seems pretty dynamic I'd say, not knowing what the future will look like. I want my boys to have the courage and freedom to pursue what matters to them in life. I think that's a journey that we all go through. And I don't want to paint with too broad of brush, but within western society, sometimes, we may get deep into life and look back and think, "Why have we made the choices that we've made? Why have we done the things we've done?"
I want my boys to have the courage and freedom to pursue what matters to them in life.
So I don't want them to get to that place. One thing I try to instill in them is just the precious nature of every day. We don't know what's coming. Of course, as a parent, you look at this beautiful child to love something you have to risk loss. Something could happen to your children and what a horrible thing for parents to consider. But that doesn't mean we don't have kids. So I want them to be aware that every day is so precious.
My fear would be nothing catastrophic. It would just be them not taking full advantage of this opportunity of being alive.
That’s such a good point. One of my favorite quotes actually is, "When I die, my biggest fear is that the person I am meets the person I could have become."
Well, of the countries you've traveled to with a young family, and with all your experiences, what environment or what country in particular do you think would be good to raise a young family in 2020 and beyond?
I love that you asked that. There's a bunch of things that come to mind, but so many other countries really worship the child like the child, and the elders are god and king. So when we took Bodi to Buenos Aires, the very first day we were walking down the road and construction workers were coming up to us and saying, "Goo goo ga ga," like pinching his cheeks saying, "Cachete," which means the cheeks. Businessmen would stop on the road. We were going out for coffee. It was 8:00 AM in the morning and they want to hold our child.
Can you imagine walking around downtown LA, Vancouver, or Toronto, and businessmen or construction workers or high school students asking to hold your baby!? No. So again, does the child know that? I think they do because we brought Bodi back and you'd be in a Starbucks and he'd start trying to get people's attention like making these little gurgling sounds and people be like, "Oh my god."
When you get on a plane holding a baby, everyone looks like the devil has just got on the plane, right? They do not sit in my row or within one row on either side. Man, I got on to a plane down in El Calafate with Bodi and there was this lady. She was an old kind of rancher from the pampas. It might have been her first flight. She was sitting in the exit row, which was row 12. We were in row 56 on that plane. She saw me and my wife walked by. She stopped us. She could speak no English, so she had the kid beside her translate for us and say, "You can't go to the back of the plane. You need this seat. Give me your ticket. I'm going to the back." This was an 80-year-old lady.
So all of that to say the amazing thing in other countries and the thing that I'm trying to bring home is that respect and love of the child, the respect and the love of the elder, that sense of community because it truly takes a village to raise a child.
One of our challenges within a busy lifestyle is not to view our children as a burden, but as a gift.
South America would be an incredible place to bring up your child, but I think anywhere where the child is respected and not seen as a burden. I think that's one of our challenges within a busy lifestyle is not to view our children as a burden, but as a gift. The more busy we are, the harder it is to see that gift they are. But they just flourish when they're in that environment.
It says a lot about the character of the human spirit, doesn't it? Across the world, we come from different cultures and backgrounds, we have different political leaders, we follow different sporting teams and have different interests, but at the end of the day we're all human.
Speaking about busy and the world that we're in, a question I wanted to ask you is about the traditional path. For most people, they get to high school and their whole focus is on getting good grades so they can get into the college program they want. And then once they're in college, their whole idea is to get good grades so they can get the job that they want.
Then they finally get that job, they move to a big city. They pay thousands and thousands of dollars a month for a tiny apartment. Then they commute for an hour a day on a bus, train or car – and I feel like sitting in traffic brings out the worst of everyone – myself included! And people are increasingly glued to their phones. Have we lost the sense of what it means to be human and what can we do to start getting away from that daily grind?
You make an excellent point. I remember being in a physics class in grade 11 and the teacher heard one of the students in the class say, "Oh, I can't go to the dance this Friday. I got too much homework." And the teacher stopped the whole class. He's like, "Everyone sit down. Forget the experiment. Sit down."
He's like, "I don't want you to make this mistake. You're going to forsake your fun right now, forsake living the way you're talking about, so you can get into a good university. Then you're going to say, "I'll have fun later once I graduate and get a good job." Then you're going to say, "I'm going to have fun later or live once I get a promotion and then once I retire.' Then you're going to retire and then you're going to die."
This man said this to me at like, I was probably 16 or 17, and that had a very big impact on how I led my life. And I think we have lost that sense. I suspect we're going to see some form of adaptation going on because it's almost reached a cracking point in the insanity of the news cycle right now. So quite a bit of what I wrote about in this new book that's coming out was this idea that development so often goes one way.
We go to an indigenous culture, we bring healthcare and improved education and all types of technology that eases the rigors of life. But it's always a one-way interaction. Nothing comes back. So the Zanskaris, this place I was living, they had all types of skills and abilities, and I'll give an example of one in a second, to help cement the community, to help bring people's attention to the moment. I was like, "We need to bring some of that back." So one thing that Zanskaris had is this idea of the Paspun which is a group of three or four families and every family, in every village, in all of this valley that's deep in the Himalayas is a unique social construct, is a member of a Paspun.
So they share some religious artifacts. They help each other during times of planting and harvest, and they cradle each other through this journey of life like at the times of birth, marriage, sickness, death. They are there for each other. It's a word we have no equivalent for in English, but it was a very powerful concept to how that society operated and as modernity comes into that valley. This will be eroded. I think we'll probably get into some routines and ideas of trying to find peace amongst the chaos.
But community is clearly a part of that. I mean, there's self-care and consistency in our work and time and all that. But I think we're going to find ourselves going a little bit back in time in some of the ways we interact. I guess that the fundamental thing it saved, James, is attention. This whole trip was about attention and our attention is this gift. It's like this hose. It's always on, pouring out. We can pour it into everything. We pour it into our kids, our family. We can pour it into our phone. We can pour it into traffic and frustrations, watching CNN or the news.
So I think the fundamental part is learning to manage our attention and obviously you can do that through mindfulness and different things. You simply do it through awareness of what matters to you and paying attention to it.
It’s a good segue into the next question I was thinking about. You've spent a lot of time in Buddhist monasteries where they talk about one of the tenets of Buddhism being that all life is suffering, and suffering comes when we desire something we do not have. But then in books like Think and Grow Rich, they talk about the starting point of all achievement is desire.
What do you do as part of your daily routine to balance happiness in the present while at the same time focusing on future accomplishments on your own growth?
Boy, that's a tough one. I'm just going to step back a bit come and answer that. Part of what I've done for the last 20 years has been speaking to corporate audiences. At first, it was just telling stories. I'd go and talk about going across the empty quarter. But slowly, you have agents representing you and they're like, "We need business lessons." So I've tried to really think hard about things that adventures taught me that I bring home and apply to my own life and I've talked about change.
A big thing I talk about is the importance of dealing with uncertainty. It’s a huge gift if we can deal with that. Recently, grit and resilience have been quite large. So what you're talking about is really one of these three core things that I talk about when I'm finding resilience or grit within us in the balance of the here and the future. You're going down this mountain ridge, you've got to look at your feet, you've got to look at the summit. How do you balance those two things?
Really the way I boil that down is this idea of purpose, process, and practice. To me, ‘purpose’ is more than winning. Winning is an outcome and purpose is a cause, not an effect. So to me, purpose is like how we can make the world better. What do friends love in us?
I'm sure Wes doesn't love you because you win, Wes loves you because of the things that make James a cool person. Therein lies the start of us finding purpose – how we're going to leave the world a better place. So that's the long-term view, the desire, because I really think people talk about big goals that they're setting for themselves, but really we need to find the thing.
I was guiding the arctic, which is severely threatened landscape. I was in love with that landscape. And on my first trip a senior Alaskan guide with a big mustache like a squirrel's tail said to me, "You know what we're doing here?"
I was like, "No.” I was tired. It's late at night.
He said, "We're creating ambassadors for the wild."
That gave me a purpose to what I was doing, so that's the long-term view.
Then at your feet is the ‘process’. Those are the daily habits. And the other little piece I have is ‘practice’, which is that we need to get better every day, right? We need to not just play to our strengths, but we need to address our weaknesses.
For those who have spent too much time in the cities and want to take a wilderness adventure so they can start to experience some of the benefits that you've spoken about here, what's the best way that they can go about doing that?
There's all types of opportunities, from day trips to longer ones. One of the things I found early on was the longer the trip – I was going to say the more intense the experience – but the better the chance to actually disengage, and the way I learned that was guiding five-day trips. I was doing a sea kayak run out of Vancouver where I take people for two days on the weekend then the five-day trip over and over and over. And on that five-day trip, on Monday, everything would be new. They'd be getting used to the sea kayak on Tuesday and still be a little uncomfortable. By Wednesday, they were free, and then Thursday they were thinking about the ferry ride home, and Friday was a write-off. So of the five-day trip, they had one day I realized where they were totally free.
Time is so precious, so if they can go a little longer – whether they're sea kayaking or climbing or whatever, it is – even three or four days, it really gives you a chance to enter a new environment. I encourage people to do things that make themselves uncomfortable, just from a philosophical point of view because so much growth comes from that.
Also, guided experiences now are so well regulated and safe. No one should have any concern about taking on something new, whether you’re paddle boarding, sea kayaking or whatever.
Your amazing new book, Blue Sky Kingdom, is getting massive praise all over the world! Tell us about the new book and who it's written for.
I really took my time with this one. It took me six years to write it and to see that some of this early praise come out has been really meaningful. I mean, I do read a lot of Himalayan literature. So guys like Peter Mathias and whatnot have been massively influential to me.
It touches on the Himalaya, but it also touches on family life. My son is on the autism spectrum, so it touches on that. It touches on Buddhism. I really tried to make it accessible to anyone because, really, in a sense it’s a family drama, a family love story playing out in a remote landscape.
Check out the YouTube or podcast version where Bruce does the Win the Day Rocket Round, answering questions about his favorite quote, what advice he’d give her 18-year-old self, his favorite book, and a whole lot more 🚀
Final question, what's one thing you do to win the day?
I wake up every morning, I have a big glass of water with a pinch of Himalayan sea salt, and then I get in my ice bath. And that has changed everything for me.
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