Of Alps and Attitude

How spending a week with a group of visionary nutters spurred me to make some big changes.

Haje Jan Kamps thoughts from a week long mountainside retreat

Most of those who know me in any capacity, know that I’m a right gobby bastid. Me not blogging about something is the exception rather than the rule. Which is why it’s weird how long it’s taken me to write about Alptitude, an event put on by the Happy Startup School back in May 2015.

The main problem I’ve had with writing about the event, is that every one of my drafts sounds like I’m making a rubbish attempt at recruiting for a cult.

The language used to describe the event sounds airy, lofty, perhaps even pretentious, which, perhaps, cuts right to the heart of the matter. Even as a professional wordsmith, I throw in the towel, with the realisation that it is hard to vocalise what Alptitude is, in a vocabulary that works for its target audience.

Yeah, this sort of thing isn’t helping.

Yeah, this sort of thing isn’t helping.

What is it?

The pitch for Alptitude is simple: You know how, when you go to a conference, the speakers might be inspiring and good, but how the really interesting stuff happens in the in-between-bits? Basically, the great conversations that happen over over-roasted coffee, shit croissants, and cups of fancy-labelled mineral water? Yes? Well—Alptitude is what happens if you create a conference that consists of only in-between bits.

I know that fording rivers is one of those things that team-building events does all the time. In this case, it wasn’t planned. It wasn’t staged. We were deeply unprepared in every way. And — most importantly — we simply had to ford the damn thing, because the bridge was gone.

I know that fording rivers is one of those things that team-building events does all the time. In this case, it wasn’t planned. It wasn’t staged. We were deeply unprepared in every way. And — most importantly — we simply had to ford the damn thing, because the bridge was gone.

So far so good, but trying to explain why that has an appeal turns out to be really bloody hard. See, it’s not just about the in-between-bits-minus-the-shit-coffee; the core tenet of the Happy Startup School is happiness; for the world, for business owners, for staff, for everyone.

How do you build happiness into the heart of what your business is and does? How do you make sure that business, the environment, the people you work with, and the larger world around you are pulling in the same direction, towards the only thing that, ultimately, matters: Happiness?

Going just that little bit deeper.

Alptitude is what happens when you get a small group (there were around 30 of us) of carefully curated people together. People who run businesses, mostly. Businesses that in one way or another have embraced openness, happiness, and a ‘new way’ of doing business. Businesses that have decided that strip-mining the world for resources is uncool, and who are trying to explore: We know what we don’t want – how do we quantify what we do want.

If that sounds profoundly ambitious, then that’s because it is; but the interesting thing is that the type of people who are drawn to these sorts of concepts and questions are a special bunch. And getting 30 of them together in one location is… Magical.

We explored some huge topics, and I had some really deep conversation with fellow participants of the event. As in; conversations that ran so deep that they’re things I haven’t really spoken to my closest friends about.

We covered big questions, both of the internal world of thoughts and emotions, and the external worlds of how it all connects. Topics of doubt, of unstated ambitious, of deep yet hard-to-elucidate fears. The kind of stuff you imagine happens on a £1,000-per-hour shrink’s chair, were you ever the person to pay for world-class psychoanalyst. That was awesome and – in some cases – bordering on life-changing.

The only thing that gave me pause for thought were the sessions on invisible puppetry. That was a bit far, even for me. (Ok, not really — this is Laurence laying out some of the challenges they’ve faced with pivoting their agency business into the Happy Startup School)

The only thing that gave me pause for thought were the sessions on invisible puppetry. That was a bit far, even for me. (Ok, not really — this is Laurence laying out some of the challenges they’ve faced with pivoting their agency business into the Happy Startup School)

At one point, I helped one person pick their business apart and put it back together again. If you’ve ever run a business, you know that offering advice on core parts of someone’s startup is much like offering relationship advice – the truths that sometimes need to be said can be hard to share, and even harder to hear. And yet, something about the setting and the vibe of what we were doing seemed to make it possible.

Someone helped me answer a question I’ve been struggling with for months. I shared some of the incredibly difficult decisions I’ve had to struggle with over the past few years – some that I’ve talked about in public, and some that I haven’t.

Mixing talks with hikes up mountain-sides was an inspired idea. There’s something about the immovable and immutable vastness of mountains that helps offer a reality check and a sense of perspective for whatever challenges you’re facing. Also, getting the heart pumping and getting some extra oxygen into the brain doesn’t harm.

Mixing talks with hikes up mountain-sides was an inspired idea. There’s something about the immovable and immutable vastness of mountains that helps offer a reality check and a sense of perspective for whatever challenges you’re facing. Also, getting the heart pumping and getting some extra oxygen into the brain doesn’t harm.

 

"We decided to test the hypothesis that a hug that lasts longer than 58 seconds becomes otherworldly."

Another really good illustration: somebody was talking about how we greet each other, and how the differences between cultures; the Dutch kiss three times, the French kiss twice, the Brits… well… are a whole story to themselves. In the course of this conversation, the suggestion was made that if a hug goes on for more than 58 seconds, it becomes something else. Something not-quite-sexual but undeniably intense. And so, because it was the only sensible thing to do, the whole group present decided to try it, with a 1-minute group hug that included some humming, a lot of giggling, and a realisation that being this close to a group of people you’d never met a few days prior is… well, otherworldly.

These sorts of experiences are magical, but part of the problem: The discussions were profoundly meaningful. The talks that happened were enlightening, moving, and insightful. But trying to explain to someone who wasn’t there why this was the case, how it happened, who the catalysts were for making this week such a steady trickle of meaningfulness – and that no , it was not nearly as mad as it sounds – is nigh-on impossible.

A rare opportunity to make new friends

After many a draft of this post, I think the best I can do to explain is this: The late nights and early starts meant that you have interactions with people that are pervasive, yet fleeting.

You meet next to the coffee machine. You walk next to someone up the top of a mountain. You briefly interact by the pool, then again by the fridge, then again after a brief seminar. There are platitudes, chats, conversations, and mind-syncingly deep realisations, all with the same person, in different geographic locations, spread out throughout the week.

This is how true and deep friendships are made over the course of months – all compressed into a single week, on a mountain top in Morillon, in the French alps.

Welcome to Mordor. I mean, Morillon.

Welcome to Mordor. I mean, Morillon.

Why this is so hard to write

I’ve started writing this article a dozen times. Every time I see a tweet from Carlos, Laurence, or any of the other folks who were present at Alptitude, I’m compelled to try again.

I find it really difficult to write about the experience without also at the same time being apologetic. Not about what I experienced, but about my complete ineptitude in explaining why what happened was meaningful.

Even using the factually accurate experience of trying to explain my Alptitude experience as as something that literally transcends words makes me sound like an unbearable tosspot. And yet, that’s exactly what it was: An adventure that re-adjusted how I approached life, people and business. An escapade I’m unhesitant to recommend to anyone who has a mind open enough – despite, not because of, my half-arsed attempt to explain it all – to give it a shot.

Fuck it, I give up. I’m just going to hit ‘publish’.

To read other first-hand-accounts by people who weren’t quite this ham-handed in trying to explain what went on, check out the rest of the Alptitude publication here on Medium.