Hans Christian Andersen instructs his readers: «To travel means to live». And it is true. For somebody traveling can become a kind of a hobby or a rest. However, for anybody else it is a life path leading from country to country, from culture to culture. The well-known Swedish traveler and coach Johan Ernst Nilson told us how he chose the way of explorer and whether this experience was useful in his mentoring activity.
CityLife interviewed Johan Nilsson – a famous Swedish traveler, Ambassador of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and many other public organizations.
Johan, tell a little bit about your childhood. How did it happen that you started traveling? Was it your childish dream? How did your family and friends react to this?
Johan: When I was a very young kid, I was very bad in gymnastics at school, and I did not really know how to play football or anything. Once I started to play the piano and I started to do it with practising and motivation, focusing on how I can do something, starts from zero and go to something. Therefore, I try to explain it to my friends working in the Grand Hotel in Stockholm. I said them: «It’s amazing what you can do with you mindset, you can just create something out of nothing. You cannot do anything you want just because the same mindset, exactly what I want to said. Nobody let say that if you be the worst in a football team you cannot do the physical just because you want to. Listen, I can bike to the Sahara from Stockholm next week if I would like to, but don’t want to». So, we make a bet. The next week I would pack my bicycle, pack a tent and will start in the Grand Hotel in Stockholm. As a result, I will bike 52 days to the Sahara. That’s how I started everything.
So was your first trip (from Sweden to Africa by bicycle) a spontaneous decision? What was it like?
Johan: I threw up the first day and I decided: «Never again I’m going». I call my mom, and she said: «Well, you know, I understand that stuff but you did it today, right? So let’s talk again tomorrow». So I did the next day and call my mum again: «I’m coming home now, I don’t like this». «Yeah, but you did yesterday and you did today, maybe you can do tomorrow? You know what’s funny, if you do only today, for 52 days you get to the Sahara». I realize that taking problem at the time, at the time, at the time, slowly, slowly, slowly, you can make the impossible possible. If I am going to start study to become a doctor, it looks so: «Oh my God, it takes eight years. Yeah, but can I do this exam? Yes. Then I worry about the next later». So slowly-slowly-slowly, it’s just like anything you do if you want to quit smoking, you just stop taking the next cigarette. Everything is based on small steps.
Of course, this trip was a very spontaneous decision and later expeditions took much more time of planning. Nevertheless, I love many things from it. It was good because it was a little bit naive. Sometimes, if you knew how hard it would be, you cannot do it. I think to be a little bit naive is good, especially in science. Sometimes the biggest ideas comes from just a mistake or from trying anything different. This trip was spontaneous, and it was a start. For today I have done 52 expeditions, visited 168 countries, spent 3000 nights in tents (that’s 8,5 years!).
Objectively speaking, your travels are a kind of way out from the comfort zone. A lot of risks, a lot of unusual load, a lot of suspense. How difficult was this exit during the first trips? How did you learn to cope with it?
Johan: The first step is always the hardest. For many people «an expedition» sounds really scary before they make a decision to go. But once you go, you let go some fears inside you and then just follow them and get along. The first step is also the most important to dare to do it. Mistakes has been my greatest knowledge. When I do mistakes the whole time, I learn from it. The one thing I created, I have in my lectures and in my new book, is something that I called «the wall philosophy». I ask the audience, when I do lectures, can I walk to break wall. And they said: «Well, you made of flesh and bones, of course you cannot walk through walls». «So ask me» and somebody asked me: «So, can I walk to break wall?». I answered: «I don’t know how to do it. But just because I don’t know HOW to do it, it doesn’t mean it’s impossible». If I will show an iPhone in the XIII century, they probably burn me alive. If I show electricity in the Stone Age, they could think I am a God. Maybe in 2100 years we will transport ourselves through walls or travel with light. «The wall philosophy» is built on the philosophy of that everything is possible. You watch a film inside your phone, but 25 years ago it was impossible! So what we step ahead 1000 years?
As for you, what is the most important things in preparation for the expedition? What is possible to predict and which things always takes unawares?
Johan: One thing that I did at the early stage – I started to plan everything that could happen during an expedition. One time I was kayaking from Stockholm to Africa in another expedition, and I also make a whole list of things that can happen when I kayak. It took 6 month, 12 hours of kayaking every day. Half of this list had never happened, but another half that I did not even think about happened. So what I realized, it is important to be flexible, to take the problems when they arrived and try to think outside of box. Think «the wall philosophy»! See possibilities instead of problems. Instead of having a paper of all the things can happen – just forget about this paper. You have some points in general, but try to be open minded, prepared for unpredictable, try to learn how to solve problems when they come. I learn how to react and it helps me during my life. I am used to situations, which happen very fast, and you need to deal with them very quickly. That’s hard, but that’s important to train to do.
You use different transports in your expeditions: a kite, a kayak, a ski, a bicycle…. What about yachts? Do you like yachting? Do you have any yachting experience during your trips or just like a kind of activity?
Johan: Yes, I do. For example, for the first time I was sailing over the Atlantic. I had been sailing over Antarctica; I had been doing the whole Northwest Passage for four month from northern part of Greenland. Now I have a kind of collaboration with big yacht companies. They offer their clients two options: a simple rent or a rent of the boat complete with me. Usually this is a large yacht, which takes us on an interesting route. I come on board as an adventure specialist, knowing the history of areas, to tell people about the features of the region and to conduct mini-expeditions. We need to be different to the other markets, so we offer the adventures.
You visited above 160 countries. How different are people and cultures in different parts of the Earth? How do you think, is there something that unites people all over the world?
Johan: When I grew up, people always told me «Everybody run the world». It is the same. I started to travel around the world, and I was very surprised because people are not. People are very different around the world. However, they have the same value. If I will go to China, it has a completely other story of getting to know somebody, asking him to go out, doing a business, doing whatever else. It is very different from if I go to Saudi Arabia or to Monaco, or to Peru. People have different cultures, laws, regulations, religions and you cannot really say that you may treat people the same way. You have to interact with the cultures, philosophies and religions, to understand how they think, how they work. Nevertheless, they have the same value as the human beings.
In your opinion, how far is modern man from nature?
I think we are going to waste. On the one hand, we develop iPhones, we go to space, and we have technological progress. On the other hand, we really forget about nature. We forget about those things, which were evolutionary for us. We are going away from our basics: happiness, fears, sense of body. In the nature there is no depression, there is no suicide, there is no obesity – we create all those things. I think we got to come back to nature because we need to connect with it to be happy. We need to bethink that humanity is not above nature, we ARE nature, we are a part of it.
How did you decide to be a coacher?
Johan: I work with philanthropy for my whole life. My parents and my grandparents had been working with it. So it was a part of my childhood. When I took part in «Pole2Pole» expedition, they call me adventure activist. It means that I combine my adventures with philanthropy; I combine my adventures with doing well around the world. People started to ask me about advice and at first their questions was connected with expeditions. Then their question changed to more philosophical, for example: «You couldn’t bike. But you biked to the Sahara. How did you do that? Did you want to give up? What made you continue?». Therefore, I started to think about it more and wrote books, where I create a concept of my life philosophy – to reach my goals. But the most important thing, which I know from psychology, is the fact that people need to talk to somebody. All people have something to tell, something to discuss, something to solve in their life. That is what I am doing in my coaching: I am helping other people.
Can people live without any goal?
Johan: When I spoke to the monks in Himalaya, I found out that they also have goals, even if they cannot be married and spent all these time on reading and meditating. Their goal is to understand more about the happiness and the truth, to help other people to understand what they are. Everybody has a goal or a kind of dream. I do not think I have ever met a person who has no goals. I believe that you will be uninteresting as a person if you had not anything you look forward to.
What do happiness and success mean in your understanding?
Johan: People are looking for happiness, while happiness is inside them. I believe people will be tired of social networks, where they just show their lives, proving others that they are happy. We are focusing on the wrong things. We are moving away from nature, we are not listening enough to our inner voices. Being happy has nothing through with being successful. Being happy has nothing through with being in love. Being happy is a balance between many things. Nevertheless, we are trying to find love to be happy, but then love breaks and we are unhappy. When you buy a new thing and lose it, you also feel unhappy. These things are not related to real happiness. Knowledge, education, family – here these things, which create happiness. To my mind, happiness is built on three different stages. The first one: to find a purpose of life. The second: to have somebody to share your dreams with. And the third: to have something to look forward to. I became happy when I started to guide other people, when I started with my philanthropy, when I started with changing other people’s life. Moreover, to be successful for me is to make a difference other people life, having impact in a positive way.