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Oct 13, 2023 by Marc Peruzzi

Only Solutions: Finding Purpose

Featuring snowboarder and activist Jeremy Jones.

Jeremy Jones had imposter syndrome.

It was 2003, and Jones was at what should have been the apex of his career as a professional snowboarder, filming session after session of ripping big-mountain action in Alaska with the crew from TGR.

His name was associated with 30 brands. With more heli time than his peers, he pioneered and progressed Alaskan-style snowboarding—big steep faces—inspiring skiers along the way. Jones was the face of steep snowboarding and a role model to everyone that rode the mountain, not just the halfpipe.

But instead of basking in the pure stoke of it all, Jones was restless. He’d been in the mountains long enough to witness a changing world. Winter was growing shorter and less predictable. Steep lines in the Sierra weren’t “in” as much anymore. The science he read about global warming rocked him at an existential level. He thought about future generations of mountain people. He felt helpless just as we all have felt helpless in the throes of climate anxiety. What’s one individual compared to an entire planet? Atlas wouldn’t shrug—he’d be crushed.

As time passed, I became hyper aware of my carbon footprint and also the exclusivity of the snowboarding that I was highlighting. That started to not feel that great.

Jones, though, was compelled to act. He called a friend at the Surfrider Foundation and asked which nonprofit he should cut a check to. It’s human nature: Jones wanted to help save winter with part of his income, but decidedly not his time. Like all of us, Jones was looking for the easy way forward—writing a check. The gliding traverse is less of a pain than the bootpack. But his buddy came back with what for Jones was grim news. There’s nobody working on this that’s making any progress, he said. You’ll have to do it yourself.

“I did not like his answer,” says Jones now. “I chewed on it for two years. Who am I to tell the world what to do? I’d barely graduated high school. I was doing a ton of heli-boarding. But as time passed, I became hyper aware of my carbon footprint and also the exclusivity of the snowboarding that I was highlighting. That started to not feel that great.… Whatever I did had to be bigger than changing light bulbs and ditching plastic water bottles. We had to drive policy changes. Eventually, I called Auden Schendler (Senior Vice President of Sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company) and asked him if he would support my efforts to found the nonprofit that would become Protect Our Winters (POW). It took four years to get it off the ground.”

Today, POW is the strongest voice for climate action in the mountain space. By all metrics other than a planet that continues to warm, POW has been a success. But it hasn’t been easy. The crew works to exhaustion getting out the youth vote.

There are constant setbacks, but I’m drawn by the hard work. I still take strength from the community supporting me.

They also directly lobby Washington politicians from both parties with a scientific- and economic-based approach that used to be apolitical, but is now an entrenched polemic. Jones’ social media is a war zone. A new crop of politicians deny science. That crowd tends to yell in your face.

The cause remains the same, but the struggle intensifies. “It hurts,” he says. “And there are constant setbacks, but I’m drawn by the hard work. I still take strength from the community supporting me and the joy I still find in the mountains in winter. It’s not hard for me to say, ‘Yeah I’m going to dig in and try to make the planet healthier so future generations have the opportunity to prosper and slide on snow like I did.’”

Photograph Elyse Cosgrove
Jeremy Jones meets with Colorado Senator Michael Bennet.

When I think of someone who has balanced joy, creativity, and purpose in the mountains, I think of Jeremy Jones.

We can’t share in his fame, athleticism, or success with POW—other than to support it—but we can share his creative drive. Just as there was and is more to Jones than his athleticism, there’s more to each of us.

Let’s start with purpose. As we’ve steeped ourselves in a cultural reckoning the likes of which the U.S. hasn’t seen since the 1960s, it’s a frequent topic of opinion pieces these days. Here’s how that argument typically goes (although much is left unsaid): Now that you’re financially secure and your children are too, it’s time to do something that matters. Maybe that’s writing a book. Maybe it’s running a nonprofit. Maybe it’s acting as a mentor.

I love the sentiment. And giving back to the culture that allowed your success is commendable. But we can all find purpose and through that contribute. It doesn’t matter what we do for work or our tax bracket, and it’s not dependent on money-for-nothing sinecure.

There are constant setbacks, but I’m drawn by the hard work.

At one point Jones simply asked “Why not me?” It was the right question. He was never an imposter, and the rest of us aren’t either.

When I wrote earlier that Jones should have been at the apex of his career in 2003, I wasn’t implying that he wasn’t, only that because of his passion he’s had multiple zeniths. As if he were describing an introductory class, Jones calls passion Purpose 101.

“The first thing you need to do is find joy,” says Jones. “Maybe that joy comes from your work, maybe it comes from your recreation. For me it was snowboarding racing, and then big mountain snowboarding, and now backcountry and expedition snowboarding. I’m 48. I’ll ride 200 days this year because I love it. You exude that joy at the grocery store and in the lift line. You lift people up because you’re fired up. There’s purpose in that. Everything that came later for me started there.”

It’s a common arc of personal development. Passion leads to self worth, self worth leads to altruism and love of others. The main character in E. Annie Proulx’s book The Shipping News is simply “Quoyle.” He has no first name; no last name. His entire life he’s been led to believe he’s of no worth. For Quoyle, existence is quarrel and toil. And then he lands a job as a reporter at a small-town newspaper on the coast of Maine. The subject matter gives him joy. People read his work because he cares. He takes pride in seeing his name in print. He’s rewarded with a column. He finds purpose.

While filmmakers, videographers, photographers, writers, and editors make up the Hence community, creativity isn’t proprietary to some perceived “creative class.” Athletes like Jones find it in style, speed, and smart progression. Craftspeople find it in their hands. Engineers find it in innovation. Laborers find it in hard work.

Photograph Ming T. Poon
As he does in the backcountry on shoots, Jeremy surrounds himself with a solid team. Location: The POW offices in Colorado.

We can’t all be Jeremy Jones, but we can all be Quoyles.

Photograph Ming T. Poon
Jones back home in his element in the Sierra Nevada where he routinely puts in long, human powered tours.
Photograph Elyse Cosgrove
And Jones in the Beltway.

Even if your work disappoints, there are other outlets. Jones was snowboarding Palisades with kids from the Washo tribe shortly before we caught up.

There’s work to do, and collectively we have more power than we know. And while it doesn’t rank with caring for Ebola patients in Africa, it matters. We can’t help where we were born.

What you need to do is find joy. You lift people up because you’re fired up.

“If you find yourself with skis or a snowboard on your feet,” says Jones, “then you have to recognize that of the seven billion people on the planet, you’re in a really good spot. I took that to mean I had something to contribute.”

I know this is a short column for a treatise on meaning. It’s the stuff of a few thousand years of philosophy and far brighter minds than mine. But meaning and purpose are life and death topics. I once assigned an investigative story on suicide in the Mountain West. Much of the story focused on thrill-seeking and endorphin-high mountain town folks. People like us. That story taught me that while we can bury our angst in powder days and the good kind of physical suffering, when injury or age brings us down we are often unfit to deal with the ensuing depression. A steady diet of meaning and self reflection is just another form of preventative self care.

Besides, free will means we don’t need to be such easy victims.

Viktor Frankl wrote in “Man’s Search for Meaning” that “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how.’”

Frankl was writing about the Holocaust—which he experienced in a concentration camp. Our challenges are not so dire, but we still must find purpose in a society that increasingly dehumanizes us by celebrating the temporal and the vapid. We are more than our social feeds. We are not imposters. Find passion. Reflect on meaning. Mentor and be mentored. Take pride in what you do.

Only Solutions is written by Marc Peruzzi for Hence’s creative community. It covers topics that matter like why creativity and mental health are so dependent on exercise in the natural world, and how work creates value in an age of fast fashion, AI generated plagiarism, and “influence.”