What we cover: "Everything is perspective." -- Jennifer Heil
A few months ago, my friend Susanne Biro, Guest Titan Episode #6, put together a dinner party of six people who didn’t necessarily know one another, but who she all thought would hit it off. And guess what? It worked! Jennifer Heil was one of the people seated at the table, and I instantly fell in love with her. She’s a three-time Olympian – both a gold medalist and a silver medalist – and she’s wise and humble and approachable. I obviously pounced on her and begged her to be a Guest Titan. Better still, turns out, she lives not far from me at all – so getting her here was all the easier. She walks us through the chronology of her time getting to Salt Lake in 2002, Italy in 2006, then Vancouver, in 2010 and the life lessons she picked up along the way.
This is a conversation about focus, about commitment to the process, about the power of visualization, about getting back up when you’re going through times in your life when the way you feel emotionally and psychologically might instead dictate you’d rather curl up on the couch. It’s about having the tools to know that if you want something bad enough, it’s up to you figure out how to make it happen. It’s about being grateful in the moment, and experiencing joy in the moment. It’s about pushing yourself beyond what you ever thought was possible for yourself -- Jenn is truly one of the most driven, accessible, inspiring, intelligent, big thinking people I’ve ever spoken with.
To this day, she is the only skier to have completed the Skiing Grand Slam, winning every title in her sport. Yes, she’s a gold and silver medalist. But she’s also a four-time world champion, she’s had 58 World Cup podium finishes, and she’s won five overall World Cup Championships. She knows what greatness is – and she gives us a candid, behind the scenes look at the psychology behind what that takes.
What we cover: A few years ago, a friend of mine made me a mixed CD. One of the songs was Snow Patrol’s “Just Say Yes”, and it resonated the most for me on that playlist.
“Just say yes. Just say there’s nothing holding you back.”
We are so conditioned, as planners, and as a Type A list-makers, and as do-ers with goals and full daytimers, to say “no” when something we hadn’t necessarily seen coming is presented to us. If it is going to require exertion we hadn’t planned on having to exert, or thinking we hadn’t planned on having to think, or making plans we hadn’t planned on having to plan, we say “no”. We come up with reasons why it won’t work or why we can’t.
I’m not talking about having the ability to avoid biting off more than we can chew. When you say no to things that do not serve you, when you say no to that which depletes you, that is a whole other story. That is to be commended.
I am talking about having an ear that is so finely tuned it can tell when the sound you hear is opportunity knocking, and the time to answer the knock with a “yes!” and not a “no” is now. Because sometimes that happens – sometimes something so big, so exciting, so ginormous lands in our laps, only we’re too caught up in the weeds to notice the potential for the blossoms. We say: Oh, how can I possibly squeeze that in?! How can I possibly go along with that?! How can I possibly, with all I have going on right now, make room for that?!
Our job, however, as they say, is not to ask “how?” our job is to say “yes”.
Like Snow Patrol. Just say yes, just say there’s nothing holding you back.
So, when a dear friend of mine, called me on the weekend and spontaneously let me know of an opportunity that had presented itself, my first reaction – on a visceral, gut level – was to think “no, this isn’t the right time for me.”
That opportunity? Well, due to the last minute cancelation of a fellow participant, one spot had become available for one person to join a group of approximately 20 entrepreneurs and thought leaders for a week of big thinking and unforgettable life experiences on Sir Richard Branson’s private estate, Necker Island. Did I want the spot, she asked me? If I did, she would put my name forward to the decision makers, but I needed to act fast.
When I talked about it with Chad, and we quickly identified the logistics of what we’d need to solve for me to take off to an exclusive and remote locale in the British Virgin Islands, Chad said something that changed it all for me. Knowing that I’d love to do a trip of this nature “someday”, he said: “Jo, you’re not getting any younger.”
Now – I know for a fact he didn’t mean it in a derogatory way. Neither of us begrudges or bemoans the aging process, it’s a privilege denied to many. But he meant it in a way to remind me that time is finite. Maria Beyon Ray says: “Begin doing what you want to do now. We are not living in an eternity. We have only this moment. Sparkling like a star in our hand. And melting like a snowflake.”
So, in just a few weeks, I’ll be boarding a plane to Dallas, and from there, one to San Juan, and from there one to Tortola, and from there, a small boat will zip me through the Caribbean Sea to Sir Richard Branson’s Necker Island, where for one week, I will be surrounded by a group of the most formidable do’ers and dreamers: The change makers and rule breakers and forward thinkers – those people who know what the German poet Goethe said is all too true: “Anything you believe or think you can, do it. Boldness has genius, magic and power in it.”
So, this weekend, one a weekend equated with rebirth for so many, Easter Weekend, no less. I made like Snow Patrol, and I just said yes. Because there’s nothing holding me back.
In that moment, everything for me changed. I went from being the kind of person who felt completely free to try anything and do anything, to the kind of person who first needed to consider how long I might be in an enclosed space without the ability to take my exit at a time of my own choosing. Because what happened on the roller coaster turned out not to be a one-off. Rather it would be the first in a long-line of what I can only call panic attacks, because I’ve never figured out what else to call them.
What I have endured all these years, isn’t claustrophobia, per say. If I am in a small space and know I can come and go as I please, there’s no anxiety. If I’m in the same small space and someone else is left to decide when I can leave – it’s a significantly different outcome. I have an irrational fear of being “stuck”.
Last week, when Chad and I were in Mexico, we made the decision to experience what is called a Temazcal; a beautiful and ancient spiritual ceremony conducted by a shaman in a sweat lodge type environment. A Temazcal is meant as a purification process: Purify the body, purify the mind, purify the soul. The Temazcal is essentially a cave – it’s like a circular dome – and hot volcanic rocks are placed in the centre with participants seated around the rocks. Leading up to the ceremony, in my mind, I was sort of prepared for a 90-minute sauna, perched above the ocean, on a backdrop of native Mexican drumming. When we arrived, I casually mentioned to the shaman that I certainly meant no disrespect but I might need to come and go a few times throughout the ceremony, if I were to experience any panic.
This woman, who exuded all the calm and wisdom of the ages, gently and lovingly and firmly explained to me that what we were about to experience was a very intricately designed healing ritual. It was important for me to feel and acknowledge the negative emotions, not to run from them. When I run, I give those feelings permission to return. In short, in many ways, she was inviting me to stare my panic down. I trusted her – nothing about this setting was physically unsafe. The Temazcal was expertly constructed, this wasn’t just some makeshift structure sort of thrown together at a whim – for all intents and purposes, it was a miniature church -- and the heat itself would not be unbearable. The only obstacle I might face would be the darkness of my own mind.
And sure enough, there it was. As soon as the doors closed – that awful wave of dread. The thought of sitting there for 90-minutes in the pitch black, unable to leave was too much. In the quiet, before the ceremony even began, I said: “I’m so sorry, I can’t do this. I have to leave.” And while I most assuredly could have, I wasn’t being held against my will, and there were no locks on the doors, she instead invited me to stay: “Breathe through what you’re feeling. Inhale and exhale. Focus on your breath. And remember,” she said: “Fuerza! Fuerza! Fuerza!” Strength, strength, strength.
Every once in a while, the perspective shift hits when we least expect it to and when we most need it to by a trigger we just didn’t see coming. For me it was “Fuerza! Fuerza! Fuerza!” Suddenly I was in a staring contest with this monster that I had allowed to follow me for the last 18 years, and I knew I was going to win.
Strength, strength, strength…
Breathe in, breathe out. Breathe in, breathe out.
Joseph Campbell said: “The cave we fear to enter is the one that holds the treasure.” And here I was, not in a figurative cave, but in a literal one, experiencing a miraculous shift from the height of anxiety to the height of euphoria.
What we cover: “Surf the cosmic wave.” – Nancy Johnston
Not long ago, I had an email from a good friend in London, Jennifer Cameron, letting me know that her good friend, Nancy Johnston, would be coming to Vancouver for Vancouver Fashion Week. And that not only did she have an incredible story – one that would shape her as someone who can rise time and again in the face of adversity – but that she is the creator of a brand that is literally knocking the fashion world on its socks. (Mixed metaphor?)
Before we get into the awe-inspiring brand, Tengri, we get into what makes Nancy – Nancy. With a past straight out of an Oscar winning movie, she is the personification of self-made. Her family fled Vietnam in the mid-1970s, taking up in a Malaysian Refugee Camp for a full year just before she was born in Los Angeles when the family first arrived in the United States.
Her life in LA wasn’t easy – she and her siblings didn’t have toys, violence was right outside the front door, high school stabbings weren’t unusual. And in her early years, when her parents couldn’t secure childcare but still had to earn a living, Nancy was brought to the sweatshop where her mom was employed and she too was put to work on the factory line. But as she tells it, even at the age of 4, she was excited to be there – to earn her own money. This is a woman who gets the notion of owning her perspective. It’s this perspective, this taking life by the horns, this propensity for not looking back but for instead just focusing on moving forward, on being a do-er, that has bode her well. And, after initially pursuing an education in pre-med, landing instead in pharmacy, then ultimately in social work and in the charitable sector, and making her home in London with her British husband, she acknowledged a long-time pull to the vast and desolate terrain of Mongolia. She arrived as a traveller, and soon, the idea for Tengri was born.
So, what is Tengri?
Well, you’re going to love the concept. While staying with a nomadic yak herding family in Mongolia, she saw firsthand their struggles. She understood that combed yak fibre was a commodity that was simply not being utilized in the way it could be. She knew she had to do something so that these combings, these fibres, typically considered “waste” could be deemed of value in the fashion and luxury goods supply chain.
So she got to work and created a brand. Launched in 2014, Tengri is a London-based globally-conscious company that creates sustainable luxury knitwear and yarns from the Mongolian yak fibres. It’s as soft as cashmere, it’s breathable and hypoallergenic. Yet it just wasn’t being used to the degree it could've been.
Today, Nancy and her team work directly with more than 4,500 nomadic herder families in Mongolia, and with the best designers back in the UK, and the result is a 100% transparent supply-chain process.
Tengri has been listed as one of the Top 100 businesses in the Sustainai100 guide. Tengri fashion pieces are now carried in Selfridges. The brand has a presence on Saville Row, which is pretty much as big as it gets. And Nancy herself was listed as one of 20 Women in Luxury to watch as well, as presented with the Asian Women of Achievement Award in the category of entrepreneur.
When I ask her which of her pinch me moments feels most surreal – having a window in Selfridges? Designing luxury bedding for The Savoy Hotel? – no, it’s none of that. It’s seeing the lives of these 4,500 yak herding families in Mongolian improve dramatically.
That’s the kind of person Nancy is. She’s self-made, and she’s bringing thousands of others along on her rise. And she’s not even 40-years-old.