Jerry Kopack started his career in the corporate world. But at the age of 31, he completely shifted his career and opened a hospice in Colorado with his mom. The perspective-changing experience led him to begin traveling the world and open himself up to new opportunities.
His biking adventures began in Africa and continued on to India, Nepal, Israel and more. He learned about the beauty of the world and of people and wrote about his journey in his new book The World Spins By.
In this week’s episode, Sonya and Jerry talk about his key lessons from working in hospice, his mindset shift that led to traveling the world, the amazing global biking community, and more.
“And so, think about life, like this need for control, there’s this point where you have to just sort of relax your grip, because if you don’t, it’s just going to burn you out. And we can’t control things that happened to us on the most day to day basis. The only thing we have control over as you probably know is how do you respond? And when life kind of throws you down, yanks the rug out from you, how do you get up? How do you decide how you’re going to respond? How resilient are you?”– Jerry Kopack
- Making big shifts in life
- Key lessons from working in hospice
- Contemplating death
- The value of time and shifting identity
- Being open to travel by bike around the world
- The international bike community
- What traveling on a bicycle entails in less developed countries
- How to have more flexibility, control less
- Vision of success and happiness
- Living with this mindset to always say yes
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- Learn more about Jerry Kopack
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Sonya Looney: Hey, Jerry, welcome to the show.
Jerry Kopack: Hey, Sonya, great to be here.
Sonya: We were just chatting. And then I said, wait, like stop talking, I got to hit record because you’re already going straight in and this is this is stuff people need to hear. So what I asked you was, how did it feel to hold the book, the hardcopy of your book, in your hand for the very first time?
Jerry: Ah, wow, I get emotional just thinking back about it. I’ve had it now for a week. And it was this labor of love, this sense of pride. And it was emotional, I actually teared up. And I wasn’t one of those guys who as a kid, wanted to be a writer. I didn’t dream about writing. I dreamed about being an athlete, and I wanted to play professional soccer, which that didn’t exist in the 80s and 90s. And then, as a short, Caucasian kid in Michigan, I wasn’t going to play basketball. So yeah, the writing was nowhere near the periphery of my imagination.
Sonya: So interesting how as life spins by and your book is called The World Spins By, as life spins by how opportunities just open for us when we follow our curiosity, and it really sounds like that is truly impacted your life in a really big way.
Jerry: I guess I should go back and give you a little background. I was following this sort of laminated roadmap to success, that so many people have to success and happiness. You go to school, you get a good job, you buy a house, you meet the girl or the guy, whoever, and everything’s supposed to fall into place. And it just it didn’t play out that way. And through a series of life changing events, after working in corporate America for a decade, I was 31 years old and already kind of feeling that my vision of what success and happiness wasn’t coming to be. And so my mom was also going through a little bit of a job crisis. And she called me up one day from Mexico. And I answered the phone. And before I could even say anything, she said, Jerry, I know what I want to do.
Sonya: How old was your mom?
Jerry: So at the time, so she’s 28 years older than me, so she would have been 59, so just about 60. And she calls me up and she’s on vacation in Mexico with her husband, and she says I know what I want to do. She says I want to start a hospice in Boulder. And for those of you who know me, I have a bit of a dry, sarcastic, sometimes snarky, sense of humor. And in my 31 years of age, my snarky tone, I replied back simply, I don’t know that I want to run a place where people come and sleep in dorms, and trash the rooms and leave. And she’s just like, what? No, no, that’s, that’s a hostel. I’m talking about a hospice. What’s a hospice? At 31, I was doing this corporate gig and I had no idea what a hospice was, or what caring for people end of life entailed. And so she came back from Mexico, we talked, and three months later, we launched a hospice in Colorado. And it was the single most impactful decision in my entire life.
Sonya: What made you decide to do that? Because as you mentioned, you had this corporate job and this is kind of an idea out of left field and something you had never heard of before. What made you decide I’m going to walk away from this known quantity and into this unknown quantity?
Jerry: That’s a great question. To be honest, I just wanted to support my mom. She had this passion about a hospice, and then I could just feel it almost dripping through the phone from Mexico when she was talking to me and so my whole inclination was just to stay the path. I was 31, I was making progress in life. And I just want to support her and I thought this would be sort of, I would do something on the side. And then the further I got into my career over the next year, the more disenchanted, disenfranchised I became. And at one point, I just said, I think I’m ready. If I’m ever going to think of this as anything more than a side business or support my mom, then I probably need to jump in with both feet.
Sonya: And I imagine, I mean, maybe this wasn’t part of the thought process then, but even now thinking back on it, you probably had an identity that was firmly rooted in, I’m this successful business person type of role and then changing into working in hospice, it’s a very different identity. How did you try that new identity on for size and how did that feel?
Jerry: That is a great question. Yes. So I went to business school, and for people of a certain age, they may have remembered the movie called Wall Street with Michael Douglas and Charlie Sheen. And I swear everybody in my class knew that movie inside and out and we all thought that that was the life that we wanted to lead to be bankers. And I went so far as to gain a job at the Federal Reserve in Denver, my first job out of college. And I remember just not loving it after the first month. And so at the end of my first year, I’m meeting with my supervisor, and we’re going through reflecting on the year that was and setting goals for the coming year. And I’m trying to come up with some ideas, some semblance of fake interest of all the things I want to accomplish in the next one to three years with the Federal Reserve. And as I start to put out my pitch, before I even get through my first sentence, he stops me and says, yeah, because you know what, we don’t really see this as a good fit for you. And it was so funny, because I was getting ready to break up with him and he sort of beat me to the punch. It’s like, no, wait, I’m breaking up with you, you know, sorry, I’m breaking up with you. And so it was at that point where I’m starting to think like, maybe this banking thing just isn’t what I thought it was going to be. And it’s not really want to do, because I know a lot of people have been in positions in their career where, for me, personally, I felt like no matter how many hours, how many more days, however much effort however much blood I gave to this job, it didn’t matter, it didn’t make an impact on someone’s life. And when this whole concept of hospice came about with my mom, it just felt like I can finally make a difference in someone’s life. And that was actually, one of the models we had around the office is that every day is an opportunity to improve someone’s life. And so to be a 31, and then soon after 33–35-year-old person, people would ask me, how does someone your age get into to this role? And I would just simply say, I’m just lucky, I guess. I get to have a positive impact on someone’s life every day. So I’m very fortunate.
Sonya: Yeah, I’m sure that, once you started working in hospice, and seeing people at end of life and seeing what people wish that they would have done in their life or how they spent their time, I’m sure that that also helped validate that decision that you made of, hey, I’m kind of soulless in this job here. There is no meaning or purpose behind it to this very purpose driven career and pathway.
Jerry: Yeah, it was interesting, because it’s inevitable that you form relationships with your patients along the way. And so there was one patient that we had, one of our first patients and she was 95, she lived in the mountains in this old homestead that her father had built, and she had lived there ever since she was a little girl. And it was fascinating to sit with her and recount stories of what Boulder used to be like in the 20s, 30s, 40s. And it was just it was fascinating to just to have her share stories. And, of course, it was tragic when she eventually did pass. But I could take some comfort in the mentality that she had a good life, she lived to be 95, she was doing what she wanted to and she was happy. And it wasn’t until I had a close friend died at the age of 45 of breast cancer, that it finally hit me. And I realized that, okay, this whole mindset of we’re going to work hard until we’re 65 and then we’ll start living our best life that opportunity might not come, tomorrow is not promised. And a friend of mine had paraphrase this quote to me, and it’s really loosely paraphrased, I think it might have been from Alan Watts, but it simply goes, we don’t go to the concert just to hear the encore. And that simply means that you know, we want to hear the whole show, we want to live fully every day, not just when we have the time to later in life.
Sonya: That’s such a great quote. And I’m curious to hear other lessons or other wake up calls that you had while working in this environment because most people have not spent time around people who are in their last days of life and have experienced loss, whether it’s of a really good friend, and I’m sorry about the loss of your really good friend, or loss of an acquaintance or as a caretaker of somebody. So what are some other lessons that are in there for you?
Jerry: Ah, yeah, so I can answer that with a story that really put it all in perspective to me. And it’s something that I remember almost every day, and so I’ve been bike racing on amateur level. I know that you have a long history of bike racing as well and it was the fall, probably September October in Colorado. The weather was nasty and I was coming back from a cyclocross race. And I was coming in to make dinner, I was shivering I was cold and I was wax had been raining sideways at 38 degrees and that’s just how cyclocross works. But I took out a sweet potato, and I started to aerate it before I put it in the microwave. And most people would use a fork to poke holes in it. I, for some reason, chose a butter knife. So as I’m stabbing down this potato, my hands are slippery, my hand slips down the handle, and the crease of my pinky finger slides across this very blunt side of the butter knife, and it cuts to the tendon of my finger. And so I was working in hospice, so I had friends over at the emergency room in Boulder. And I said, hey, this is Jerry, I just think I just cut my finger, I’m going to come in for a stitch. So I wrap it up, and I drive over to the emergency room, and the doctor pulls up or walks up, and he’s a friend of mine. So you got a cut there and we’ll see it tomorrow morning for surgery. And I said, surgery, what are you talking about? It’s just a little stitch, it’s a cut. It’s like, No, you cut your tendon. And if you ever want to be able to bend that finger, again, we’ll see tomorrow morning, and you’re 33 or 34 years old, I think this is probably the right choice for you. And so flash forward, I’m in this splint, my hand completely immobilized, can’t eat with that right hand, can’t type can’t drive my car, for sure, can’t ride a bike, can’t do anything. And I remember, I’m coming to work every day for the next six, eight weeks and I’m just kind of wallowing in my own self-pity. And my mom looks at me, and she’s seen this nonsense, this absurdity of me for the past month, and she pulls me aside, and if you know my mom, one of her favorite sayings is, what is wrong with you? He’s like, well, Mom, you know, I cut my finger and I can’t do this. She’s like, yeah, I know, look around you, where do you work, people are dying all around you. In fact, so and so, one of our staff just got diagnosed with breast cancer for the second time, so knock it off. And that was just this lesson in humility and perspective that I’ve never forgotten ever since. And so we get so caught up in our own myopic world and perspectives that we forget that there’s something else going on out there that’s bigger than us. And I read this quote a while ago and it goes something like, frame every so called disaster or perceived disaster as will this matter in five days, five months, five weeks, five years. And it’s kind of like when you are looking at a topo map of a trail or of a route and this next hill in front of you looks gigantic and sinister that you don’t want to climb it. But then you zoom way out and a larger scale, and it’s but a blip. And so it’s that whole concept of keeping things in perspective.
Sonya: Yeah. Yeah, the perspective taking the big picture thinking, I think during the pandemic, people had to do that, for sure. Because if you got so focused on just one thing, it could be completely overwhelming of all the bad things happening right now. But then there’s also the perspective of the big picture and the unknown. Like, I’m zooming out so far, but I don’t know what the big picture looks like. I don’t know what’s going to be in the long-term future. And I want to come back to that idea in a second. But I wanted to actually go back to the hospice, and I wanted to ask you about how you deal with grieving, because I think a lot of people are afraid of death; they’re afraid to be around death. They’re afraid of their own death. And, you know, contemplating your own death is something that I tried to do on a daily basis. For you, how have you dealt with seeing death up front and a front seat to this in a lot of cases?
Jerry: Yeah. Well, that’s a great question and a heavy question. There’s different situations. It’s like I mentioned earlier with our first patient, and in subsequent patients since then, you form these connections with people and you know that this day is coming. And so you try to open your heart as much as you can. At the same time, it’s scary to open your heart too much because you know it’s going to hurt. The same thing happened with say, my friend Cynthia, who died of breast cancer. Yeah, there’s not really any way to prepare for it, other than then to just make the most of every day. And so for example, I’ll tell another personal story here. So my dad and my mom got divorced when I was four. They both have been remarried for about 35 years. And last year, my dad’s wife, again of 35 years, she was sitting on a couch and he went outside Michigan to shovel snow came back 20 minutes later, and she had had a heart attack and she had died. And so that was horrible because he never had the chance to say anything that he may have wanted to say. And then I look at on the other side, my mom recently got diagnosed almost two years ago with pancreatic cancer. And so that’s really heavy. But we both worked in hospice together. So we’ve been able to have really transparent conversations of what this process looks like. And at the same time, I guess from my own selfish perspective, if I was going to say, would I rather lose a loved one in the blink of an eye, or over time, I would take over time, because I’ve had the most amazing conversations and time spent with my mom over the last two years. So it’s been really, really wonderful even though I know that there’s a date out there sometime. But I get to live every day with her and just share all these special occasions with her.
Sonya: Yeah, I mean, we could record an entire podcast probably talking about death. And, again, it’s a topic that I think a lot of people tend to avoid. I want to ask you, actually, everyone has an expiration date, we just don’t know when that is. And when somebody is diagnosed with a disease, it becomes more clear when that expiration date might happen. So if you are talking with a loved one, like your mom, and you said you’ve had these amazing conversations, what type of questions come to mind that wouldn’t have come to come to light otherwise, if you didn’t have this expiration date?
Jerry: Wow, good one. So we had this, this kind of tongue in cheek expression around the hospice, that essentially everyone has terminal. And that kind of goes back to the point that you made, you know, whether it’s this week, whether it’s 10 years from now, 50 years, we’re all terminal. And so some of the conversations we’ve had have just been listening to her childhood, her growing up, her experiences, her fears, where is she at right now. I have four brothers, and I know that she has different conversations with each of us. And I know my two older brothers, they don’t have these kind of conversations about okay, well, when it gets to this time, this is what it’s going to look like. Whereas my mom and I, we’ve shared this hospice experience together, having run a hospice together, that we actually have these conversations. And it’s nice in a certain way, like it’s not pleasant, but it’s knowing that we can be this open with one another to share fears, and to share anxiety. Whereas I think of my other brothers, she has more of a guarded approach, because I think that she’s trying to almost protect them. She doesn’t have to do that with me, because we’ve had that shared experience. And so it’s been really nice, just having that level of, of interaction. And then of course, like I mentioned before, just all those old memories that we’ve shared together. So when she was 60 years old, my mom has been a cyclist and a cross country skier for a number of years, and you’ve spent time in Boulder, and so for a 60th birthday a number of years ago, we went and cycled up Flagstaff Road on her bike, which was a fantastic ride. And so we always look back at pictures of that, and just finally reminisce about those memories.
Sonya: Yeah, again, I’m really sorry about your mom and I think that is probably really meaningful to her to be able to feel seen and be herself through this really, really hard time in a way that she probably can’t with anybody else.
Jerry: Yeah, yeah, it’s, I think it’s been helpful and therapeutic for her. I can’t imagine going through what she’s going through. But I would like to believe that it’d be so comforting to know that I have someone that I can talk to. And I know that she is she’s married and her husband is there for as well, but parents have different relationships with their spouse than they do with their children. And so she probably shares things with him that she doesn’t share with me and vice versa. So it feels very gratifying that I can be that person for her.
Sonya: Okay, so I’m gonna make it a little bit lighter now for everybody. And so, you know, we’re talking about the value of time we’re talking about. We’re talking about death because death gives time meaning. You talked about making the most of every day and how that is meaningful and how your friend Cynthia who passed away, that was a wake up call for you. So what was that wake up call? And what did you do after you had that?
Jerry: Yeah, so this happens a few months before my mom decided that she wanted to retire from hospice and we were going to separate. So the hospice had been my identity. So again, I went to business school thinking this is going to be my identity and then after 10 years, a hospice had definitely been my identity. And Cynthia had passed and then this happens, and while it was the best thing for us to separate from hospice, it still was really difficult to step away after 10 years of doing something and that’s all you ever knew. And so I got on a bike, and I had a friend down in Africa, who said, hey, come down to visit me. And I’d been in corporate America and then running the hospice for, I don’t know, almost 20 years total. I’d never taken more than two weeks off of work ever. And so I had this sort of gift of time. And so I got on my bike, and I went down to visit my friend in Zambia. And from there, I met somebody who said, you should go to Zimbabwe. And from Zimbabwe, I went to Madagascar. And then I was in Madagascar about ready to fly home to the US after being gone for probably a month or so, this woman was from India, and she met me in the airport in Madagascar, and she said, after hearing your stories, you should go to India. And I thought, okay, I should go to India. And from India, I just kept going, India and then into Nepal. And at this point, it had been probably two months of just traveling and not having a job. And that was by far the most freeing time I’ve ever had in my life. My job every day was to get up and ride my bike and just explore. And so I had gotten back to Katmandu and was going to get on a plane probably next couple of days and I met the Swiss couple. And this couple was also bike touring. And so we had dinner one night, and we started talking about all the places they had been, all places I had been. And they said, hey, so what are you doing next week? And I said, well, I’ve been gone for almost two months, I’m probably gonna head back to Colorado. And Evo, the husband says to me, it’s like two months. We’ve been gone for two years. And I thought, what? How can somebody be traveling on a bicycle for two years? Like this was unheard of in my world. I said, wow. Yeah, what was the question? And he just came back. And he’s like, so what do you do next week, besides the fact that you think you’re going home after two months? What are you going home to? I thought, I don’t know. Do you have a job? No. I was the first time in my career, I haven’t had a job. So it felt weird to say that, and he continued on with his barrage of questions. Are you married? No. Do you have children? No. Do you have a dog? No. Anything else? No. Let me ask you again. Why are you going home? And I thought to myself, I don’t know. I don’t have an answer for that. And it was the first time in my life where I thought like, I don’t really know what I’m doing. And he said, why don’t you come with us? We’re gonna ride through the rest of Nepal, into northeast India, Thailand, China, and eastern Tibet. And I thought, wow, I’ve known you for an hour and a half. What’s the worst that could happen? Right? We’re all on our bikes. And if it doesn’t work out, we travel at different speeds. We don’t laugh at each other’s jokes, we just go a different way. And along this whole time, I had been traveling with this mindset, living with his mindset, to always say yes. And as a type A competitive corporate guy, it’s so easy to think that I can control everything. And it’s easy to say no, because that gives us this semblance of control. But I had learned that even as willful or resilience as you think you are, you can’t control everything. Like I couldn’t control what happened to my friend. I couldn’t control so many other things that happened to me along the way. So I started just travel with this mindset, always say yes. And I thought to myself, if I am really living this mentality, then the only answer is to say yes, and to keep going and travel with these guys and see what happens.
Sonya: Yeah, I mean, the power of asking questions, and then being able to honestly answer them for yourself sounds like it’s so powerful when that guy asks you the why question. And a lot of times, people ask us a question that we just never even thought to even ask ourselves, and then the answer, like what happened to you, can change your life. But in order to do that, you have to be open and like you said, let go of control here. And initially, it sounds like the first question was, okay, where am I going to go to start and you went to Zambia, and even most people would say, oh, Zambia, like I don’t want to go like how did you decide that was okay for you to go there when previously your life that you have built up was about being in competition and on the bike and also being in control?
Jerry: Yeah, it was a little nerve racking. I had done some other bike tours. I had biked, toured for like a week at a time, one time through Vietnam, which was nerve racking, another time through Spain. But in my mind, Africa just seems way, way outside of my comfort zone. You read National Geographic, you watch TV shows talk about all the things that happen with the different diseases and different afflictions and the lack of clean water and sanitation. It scared the heck out of me. But I had a friend from high school, who was working for the CDC, the Center for Disease Control down in Zambia. And he had three kids. And so for whatever reason, that rationalization, I thought, okay, well if my friend is down there with his family, and he’s living there, I’ll probably be okay. But I definitely was for sure worried about malaria and other things that can happen to you in Africa. And so when I got to Africa, he’s asking me, have you had all these different shots? It’s like, yeah, of course. And he’s like, what about your rabies? I was like, no, I never thought about getting rabies, like, well, you know, it’s just well as other things that can kill you down here. And he said it very jokingly, like, oh okay. And so I was like, well, how do I get a rabies vaccination. And so it turns out that you can walk into the local pharmacy, and for a series of three shots at $30 each, which you administer yourself, you can be fully vaccinated. And so I went and got the first dose and I called up one of my friends from the hospice, who was a nurse and I said, hey, I’m about to inject myself with a rabies vaccine, give me some tips here. And she kind of walked me through how to inject myself.
Sonya: Where did you inject yourself?
Jerry: Left deltoid. Yeah, she basically said, put your arm on the table, relax your arm, and you’re going to have to push it out, because you have to pierce the skin. And there are plenty of people who give them shots every day. And I just have never done that. And it’s one of those things like I’m not afraid of needles, but I know that I’ve always had the opportunity to turn my head if I don’t want to see it. Well I kind of couldn’t do that with this. So it’s like, yeah, deep breath and rabies shot into my shoulder.
Sonya: So it sounds like that perspective taking piece of asking your friend for help from the CDC helped you get the confidence to say I can go over there. And something I think about a lot is how travel really opens your perspective. And this is a word that I guess is coming up a lot today, but you know, whenever you started your career in the corporate world, you probably had this perspective of this is how it’s supposed to go, maybe it wasn’t a safe way to go, but this is what I’m supposed to do so that I can be okay. And then same with travel, we think, well, I can’t go to Africa. I can’t go to Israel, I can’t go to India, because of whatever these reasons are, from where we live and the perspective that we’ve taken. But then when you talk to somebody else, that the person you met was in Madagascar, the perspectives that other people can provide, that is different from the perspective that you grew up with and then being able to listen to that perspective and be curious about that. It sounds like for you that that has helped you make shift after shift after shift.
Jerry: Yeah, it has. There’s still a huge leap of faith with trust, right? Because just because some person who I met in an airport in Madagascar says you should go to India. You still have to trust them like, okay, is this the right thing to do? Or is it the right thing to do to go to Zambia, or to cycle your bike from Zambia to Zimbabwe, then travel through Madagascar. And I think it’s like anything else in life – repetition breeds confidence. And so the more you do things, the more experience you have, the more relaxed you gets. And so you had mentioned briefly about Israel, and one of my favorite stories about perspective shit happened in Israel. And so I found myself traveling in Israel several years ago. And up until that point, I had watched the news like so many of the people in our country have and around the world, we see all these stories about Israel and the crazy things that happen there, the chaos and some of the terrorism. And I thought to myself, like I can’t see myself ever going there. But I met a guy from Israel when I was in Nepal and we hit it off, and he was a cyclist as well. And he said, hey, if you ever find yourself with some time on your hands, you should come to Israel and stay with my family and I. And so I spent maybe an hour with him. And a year and a half later, I reached out to him and I said, hey, Yuval, this is Jerry, we met back in in Nepal. I’d love to come visit you. I didn’t know him from anybody. And he didn’t know me. But he invited us into his home to me shared his home with me and his family. And it felt like when I met him at the airport, like I was seeing one of my brothers, he gave me a big hug and it was incredible. And then along the way, he said, well, I’d also like to do some of the route with you, maybe three days. So thought that’d be great to have someone locals show me around Israel. So we took a bus from his house in the middle of the country up to the north and near the Syrian border. And we cycled for like three days. And he split off and he went down. And so then I was by myself, and I discovered this group called Bikepacking Israel. And so I threw a little post out there, I said, hey, my name is Jerry, I’m from the US, I’m going to be traveling in this region, I’d love to meet some people and have a coffee or a tea and just talk. Because for me, traveling isn’t about how the mountains that you travel over, the desert to travel through, it’s the connections is the people. And so didn’t hear anything. And I’m traveling for like three days, and I’m seriously within touching distance of the border wall and to Lebanon. And there are armored up humvees that are patrolling the street, there are guys walking around with full camo gear and machine guns. And after a while of being there, it just becomes perspective shift, like it’s just it’s no big deal. It would be the same as seeing somebody getting off the bus with a briefcase on the way to work. Seeing somebody with a machine gun up in Israel, like it was the same. And so I pull into this coffee shop to fill up some water and I’m dirty, I’m disheveled. I’ve been cycling up there for three days and having a shower and the guy behind the counter, kicks my water bottle and kind of turns his head sideways, he looks at me and he says, are you Jerry? And I thought, what? I’m looking for cameras thinking like, where’s the rules here? Where’s the game? And I said, yeah, and he says, hold on, he reaches into his pocket, grabs his phone and hands me his phone. And there’s a voice on the other end and says, hey man, do you need a place to sleep tonight? And I thought, yeah, I do. Because you really can’t camp in a military zone and a border. So yeah, where can I camp? He said, no, no, give me your phone number. I’m gonna drop a pin on your phone, follow it to my house, my neighbor will unlock the door unless you win. I’m not home, I’ll be back in probably two weeks, stay as long as you want. If you’re there, and I get back, great, if not safe travels. Oh, and by the way, do you need my Wi Fi password? And I was thinking to myself, this is incredible. I’ve never met this person, never will meet this person. I’m in this very contentious region. And this person who was a complete stranger offered his home to me with no ulterior motive. And so it just flipped on this light switch to me that no matter where I’ve been, and I’ve cycled through 18 countries, people are just people. And that’s just the takeaway.
Sonya: Yeah, I mean, the bike is such a great connector to an international family. And I haven’t done bike packing like you have, but I’ve done races around the world. And just having that common connection of the bike for some reason, I don’t know what’s so sticky about it, or what’s so inclusive about it, at least in my experience, and it sounds like in your experience as well, but it’s super special. And that’s such a cool thing about having a hobby or an obsession or whatever you want to call what we do as a way to connect the world. And I just wish that people would look for more ways to be connected instead of divisive. And even within the cycling community, people can be divisive, like oh, I race gravel or I ride gravel and you ride a mountain bike or you’re a roadie or divisiveness is something that people will do. But then it’s important to think big picture coming back to talking about big picture of hey, two wheels is awesome. And around the world, people recognize each other as a fellow person for riding a bike.
Jerry: Yeah, yeah, when I was in India, I saw this mural painting on a wall. And it’s simply read four wheels moves the body, two wheels moves the soul. It just resonated with me because probably like you, bikes have always been a part of my life, even when I was four years old, growing up in rural Michigan, and farm roads, gravel roads, and it’s just this sense of freedom, this sense of connection. You get together with all your friends, you just go ride bikes. And I remember, I got my first real bike and it was a Schwinn 10 speed. We called them 10 speeds and not road bikes, just because they had 10 speeds. It was black and it was gold. And I went for a bike ride my first real ride and it was five miles to my friend’s house. And five miles when you’re 10, 11 years old may have been 500 miles, like it was the biggest thing I could ever decide to do. And so I had a water bottle full of Mountain Dew and a pocket full of Snickers because this was Michigan in the 80s and that’s just how we did it. And it was the most freeing liberating experience of my childhood just being on bikes. And yeah, to your point, I think there is something very inclusive, very sticky and very curious about bicycles that when I’m traveling through countries, people see a bike and it’s different than if I just got off a bus, traveling that way versus getting off my bike. I’d roll through a rural village, everybody wants to come talk to me. And they’re so curious, where are you going? Where are you from? How many miles are you going? And it’s amazing just to see people get so excited about cycling. I mean, think of the passion that it instills in me just talking about it right now. And I’m sure all of your experiences with racing.
Sonya: So funny. So you’re talking about your experiences traveling by bike. But logistically, people probably aren’t thinking like in their head picturing what that looks like because you’re not just like traveling somewhere with a bike and staying in a hotel and like mapping out your ride on Strava to return back to the hotel like you’re actually bike packing and bike touring? Can you talk about what those logistics are like, and maybe a few stories of things that maybe didn’t go well? Because I’m sure people are curious. And as am I.
Jerry: Yes. So people are traveling either with a road bike on pavements, or with gravel bikes. So looks like a road bike, a little bit knobby tires, but I travel on a steel hardtail mountain bike with front suspension, because it just gives me greater versatility. So there have been times that I’ve hiked my bike six hours, over 17,000-foot mountain pass, which most people would say, good God, man, why would you do that? And it’s just the places that I can get to with this bike. And so it was interesting, because as I mentioned, I very much was a type A sort of control freak. I’d like to say I’m more than A-minus right now; I’ve sort of becoming a little more relaxed as I get older. And as I’ve had different perspectives. When I first started traveling by myself, I needed to know how many miles I was going to cycle each day what my stopping point was, where’s the next village? Where am I going to get water? Where am I get food? Because it plays some traveling are pretty remote and either Kyrgyzstan or Morocco or Israel or Nepal, it’s different places. And so when I met my Swiss friends, I remember traveling with them and it’s the first time I traveled with anybody on a bike. And so the first couple of days, I would say to them, hey, so where are we trying to get to today? And what’s our plan? And I remember Evo, the husband would reply back to me, quite matter of factly, because he’s Swiss, and they just don’t have much humor, he would say to me, sorry, for any Swiss people listening out there, he would say to me, well, we’re gonna ride our bikes until about five o’clock, and then we’re looking for a place to sleep. It’s like, oh, this whole concept of no direction, no stopping point, was so foreign to me. And I just I couldn’t wrap my mind around it. But gradually, as I got into that mental state, it was freeing of my mind and this, this need to vise grip everything and know what’s going to happen and have control. And so that was probably one of my first really fascinating tales about just relaxing my grip and just letting life happen and not trying to control everything.
Sonya: Yeah, so I’m sorry to interrupt, I just want to add something to that. Something that I’ve been thinking about while you’ve been telling some of these stories is how, when you almost don’t have an endpoint, like a finish line for the day or a script to follow, it forces you to be more present in what you’re doing while you’re doing it. Because you’re probably thinking more along the lines of where am I now instead of where am I going to be? Because if you don’t know where you’re gonna be, then you’re not thinking about it as much.
Jerry: Wow. Yeah, what a very existential concept. Yeah, it was; it was very freeing, it’s very liberating to just see where the day would take me. And many times when I was by myself, or when I was with the Swiss, we would just end up someplace to be, we’d find a place to camp. Some days, we would roll through a tiny village in the Himalayas and somebody would come up to us and just ask us, do you want to come sleep in my house? And that whole concept, because this was before I had that encounter in Israel, It just seems crazy that someone who doesn’t know me, and I’m clearly not from around there, they would say, hey, come stay in my house. And as I’ve come back to Colorado, it’s given me this sort of paradigm shift to wow, what would I have done if I saw someone who just looked disheveled, dirty, tired, definitely not around here from someplace foreign, would I go up to them? Would I go out of my way, which happened to me so many times, would I go out of my way to approach that person and say, hey, you look hungry, come have a meal with me or hey, do you need a place to sleep tonight? Come stay in my guest room. And so I’ve actually started to do that more now, where I am a host for this organization called Warm Showers. And so there are people who come through Breckenridge where I live, they’re traveling either on the Great Divide route, the trans America routes, or the Colorado trail and they’ll stop and I’ll invite them into my house and they’ll come in and they can take a shower, they can do laundry, I’ll feed them, they can sleep. And it’s just been this really amazing opportunity for reciprocity.
Sonya: Yeah. And again, coming back to that seeing humanity in people and in the unfamiliar, because I think a lot of times, I mean, I’m guilty of this, like, I’ll see somebody that looks unfamiliar and I’ll immediately think that’s a threat, instead of coming at it from a point of compassion. And that’s something that I’m really working on myself. And it’s really great to hear that story that you just mentioned.
Jerry: Yeah, as I mentioned, like people are just people. People have asked me, weren’t you ever afraid when you were in this country or in this area?
Sonya: I was gonna ask you that, like how?
Jerry: It’s the two questions that I get on repeat is one, how many miles did you ride? And the answer is, quite honestly, I have no idea. I’ve never, I don’t have a Strava account. I never tracked anything in my entire life. Even when I was racing bikes, mountain bikes and cross I never trained in that way in which maybe is why I never went on to further accolades with my racing. But when I was traveling by traveling, I just I never, I never looked at those stats. So it just never really mattered. To me, it was all about, as you said, just being present in a day and seeing where the day, the road, the path, takes me. And the second question is, were you ever afraid? And the answer I can say unequivocally is no, not not for a single minute. And I get that, that I have a different perspective, because I’m a white male. And as a female, I’ve got to believe it would be a different perspective, people might look at me differently, so I don’t want to say that it might not be scary, because my experiences aren’t everyone’s experiences. But for me, personally, I’ve never had anyone approached me with anything outside of kindness and generosity and curiosity.
Sonya: How do you let go of that control piece? As a female, some of the things that you have said, I would see myself thinking of it, I would be too afraid to try that. And that might just be again, my perspective, because of how things I’ve seen and whatever it might, it may not even be a real truth to that. However, that’s my reality. But yeah, how do you let go of that control? Because for me, I like having that control as well. Like what you said, I used to be a type A plus. And I would say, I’m an aspiring a minus.
Jerry: Well, you have definitely, I think you’re a plus has served you like you’ve, you’ve been a very accomplished cyclists. So I think thank you, I think to get to a certain level, you have to have that sort of drive, and that that need for control, and I had it. I just didn’t, it didn’t get me to where I want it to go.
Sonya: So I’m gonna interrupt real quick and say, I don’t always think that that need for control will get you very far. Because that need for control can hold you back in so many ways. It could prevent you from having experiences. It could prevent you from having self-compassion. I mean, there’s so many ways that control can be detrimental and being able to be more flexible, I think is really a gift. So how do you how did you become more flexible?
Jerry: It’s a work in progress, man, like I’m still not there. Yeah, it’s one of those things that the more I travel, to, say places like India, where there’s this sense of organized chaos, there’s just so many things that are just way beyond your control. And if you try to control India, like it’s just gonna eat you up. And so, I mean, this is there’s a quote that I like, and obviously, I’m a fan of quotes. But there’s this quote from I think, I don’t know, the ‘80s maybe. And it’s ironically or interestingly enough, it’s a Mike Tyson quote. And his quote is, everyone has a plan until he gets punched in the mouth. And what that simply means like, you know, it’s a bit of a graphic quote, but what that simply means is, you have to adapt when things don’t go your way. You can have all the planning that you want, but at some point, it’s not going to go your way. And so, think about life, like this need for control, there’s this point where you have to just sort of relax your grip, because if you don’t, it’s just going to burn you out. And we can’t control things that happened to us on the most day to day basis. The only thing we have control over as you probably know is how do you respond? And when life kind of throws you down, yanks the rug out from you, how do you get up? How do you decide how you’re going to respond? How resilient are you?
Sonya: Yeah, your attitude, your actions and your effort.
Jerry: Well, yeah, because I’m sure that there are races that you’ve been in, that didn’t maybe go the way that you wanted. And there are so many aspects of racing or of life that are that are physical. But as I’m sure that you’ll agree, so much of racing, probably even more in the physical, especially on the endurance side is the mental.
Sonya: Especially when you’re in a less developed country, where like you said, you’re talking about India, I was laughing to myself, because I’ve thought about some of the races I’ve done that aren’t in Europe, there are more of these far off places where people might not dream of riding a bike. And sometimes things don’t go to schedule. I’ll share a fun, just a fun quick story. I was in Costa Rica for this race. I think it was 100-mile mountain bike race and it was supposed to start at 5am. But stereotyping, the Costa Ricans are late, so they didn’t start the race at 5am. So all of us are just standing there freezing, waiting to go. There are people still driving and parking, the race isn’t starting and a lot of people think, well, I ate my pre-race meal at this time. And I did my warm up at this time. And I don’t know when the race is going to start now. And yeah, this is actually bridging me to a question I wanted to ask you, because in your book, a lot of the stories that you share are from these farther off places where people probably wouldn’t want to go ride their bike, what is intriguing about those places to you? Because I didn’t see anything in there about like, Switzerland, like going to Switzerland, not to knock on just to continue knocking on Switzerland, I guess.
Jerry: Yeah, in Switzerland, for the record is not in the book. But yes, so I don’t know there’s something about going to a place that is so different. So outside of my comfort zone. My first ever bike trip was to Spain. And I remember my first ever trip outside the United States was Germany. So places that are not too dissimilar to United States. And I had a friend from college, from CU Boulder, and she was living over in Germany, and I went to visit her right after graduation. And I remember just being so used to my own little myopic world in Colorado, this little slice of the country, and everything there was different. But instead of saying different, I thought it was weird. Why does that toilet have two flushes? That’s weird. Why does the grocery store look like this? That’s weird. And finally, she just said, it’s not weird. It’s just different than what you’re used to, because you’ve never been outside of the country. And she started to call me culture boy, because essentially, I had no culture because I had never traveled. And so from there, I just wanted to see everything that was so much different. And so the idea of going to Africa was way outside of my scope of comforts. And then once I got to Africa, to Zambia, Zimbabwe, like okay, this isn’t so bad. And people here, I don’t know what to expect, but they’re really nice and they’re really friendly. Okay, so what’s beyond Africa? How about India? India is so unique. And it’s without a doubt the craziest place I’ve ever been in my life. And I’ve been there three times. And every time I go there, I just got back from a trip there last month, and every time I go there, I think I have it figured out and it just throws me a curveball, yanks the rug, hits me in the kidneys.
Sonya: I get so excited when I hear that like, yeah, I can’t wait to go, sign me up.
Jerry: I feel like I’m having like this dialogue with India, like, oh, you think you got me figured out? How about this? And like, wham, I didn’t see that coming. And so just this that curiosity like that zest for life, is just what drives me to these places. And it’s not to say that Western Europe isn’t amazing, because it definitely is. And I’ve been to a few countries, including Switzerland, but something about places that are so far beyond my norm, my comfort zone, just gives me life.
Sonya: I feel exactly the same way as you. And I don’t know if you’ve heard of this, but there’s something called the Via Institute of character strengths. And there’s a free quiz people can take and it basically is about how to live your life amplifying using your character strengths and how to spot them in others and it sounds like for you like zest and curiosity, like those things are really important to you.
Jerry: So much so, I’m going to date myself here because I’m probably well, I’m about five weeks from my 49th birthday. And that’s the first time that I’ve said that out loud. It sounds really weird. But so I grew up watching this movie called Cool Hand Luke with Paul Newman. He’s to watch out with my dad, and the character Paul Newman, his name was Luke in the movie, and he was always sort of pushing the limits of what he was supposed to do. Always questioning authority and there’s this line in there and I can’t get the accent right, but the warden in prison says what we have here is failure to communicate. It’s my dad that would say to me when I was little kid, because every time he would say like, this is the rule, because that’s what dads say to their sons. And my answer was always, but why? And so I mean, you have two little kids, and I’m sure at some point, they’re gonna start saying, Mommy, why?
Sonya: My son has started and actually, I mean, maybe it’s because he’s just started, but I love it when he wants to know why. I just think it’s the best.
Jerry: Yeah. And so my dad was a Korean War veteran. And so he didn’t have this mindset to question authority, because in the war, in the military, you don’t question anything. This is an order. This is an edict. And that’s just how it goes. But that wasn’t how I was wired. I don’t know if it’s just genetics. I don’t know if it’s because of him. And it made me to go the opposite direction. But everything that he would say I was just why, why, why. I wanted to know why that was. And the answer, “because that’s just the way it is,” just didn’t work for me. And so that’s, you’re right, I have this inborn, innate curiosity to always see why things are, what’s around that corner, what’s over the top of that mountain pass? What’s in that country over there? Like, I just want to know. The world is this big, beautiful, fascinating place and the more I see of it, man, it’s just, it’s addictive, the more I want of it.
Sonya: I have one last question for you. And it’s about something you said at the very beginning. And you said something about having a vision of success and happiness and how that shifted for you. So currently, as you sit five weeks from turning 49, what is what is your current vision of success and happiness? What do you aspire for the next while until you continue growing or as you continue growing?
Jerry: I feel like I’m in a job interview. Maybe it’s a good one. Like, where do you see yourself in five years? That’s a great question.
Sonya: And not even like an outcome place where you see yourself but what does success and happiness mean to you now, because whenever you were younger, it sounded like your success of your definition of success and happiness was the typical path of, go to school, get the girl, get the house, blah blah blah, which is awesome. And for a lot of people that does make them happy. But what makes you happy now?
Jerry: what makes me happy, I am very fortunate to live in Colorado, and I live in the mountains a beautiful place. I know that you live in a beautiful place. And this is this is honest truth, I wake up every day and I say to myself, I get to live here. And I just I love where I live, I have a great community of friends, my family is close to me. And I am just enjoying life and enjoying talking to people like you on your show. I’ve been following your show for a while now and you have always had guests who are very accomplished, very inspiring individuals. And I just feel so honored to be one of your guests. And so I just want to spend time talking to people, hopefully making a positive influence on their life. And just overall, being a good guy. Like I don’t I don’t have those same monetary goals about this car or this house. And I don’t know, I think traveling on a bike, having two pair of socks, one pair of underwear, one pair of shoes and all this stuff, just this simplicity, it’s just changed my perspective of the things that are important to me. And the things that are important to me, honestly, are experiences and connections. And beyond that everything else is just gravy.
Sonya: Yeah, I think the currency of happiness, I actually wrote an article on this a little while ago, like, probably a couple years ago now, but yeah, the currency of happiness is different for everybody. But a lot of the well-being research actually shows that happiness… well, the word happiness is also a word that people don’t like using because happiness happens in small moments. It’s not like an overall state that people can have. But it comes from connection and it comes from meaning and it comes from purpose. And it really sounds like you’ve made huge shifts in your life and had a lot of courage and a lot of openness and a lot of flexibility to find this path and to inspire others to find their path as well. So congratulations on this life that you’ve had so far, on this amazing book that you’ve written for people to connect with and for all the things that you’re going to do in the future that none of us know what those are.
Jerry: Wow, thank you. Those words mean a lot to me.
Sonya: And where can people find you? Where can people find your book and get to know more Jerry and where can people stay at your house if they’re passing through?
Jerry: Great question. So actually have a website it is just Jerrykopak.com. There’s a bunch of stories on there that were my initial blogs that somehow turned into a book. And there’s links to buy the book and you can also send me an email and give me a call or send me a text and yeah, I definitely have a guestroom if you ever find yourself in Breckenridge, Colorado.
Sonya: So, thanks again, Jerry. And yeah, I really appreciate everything.
Jerry: Sonya, thanks for interviewing me. I appreciate your time.