What my father taught me...

October 31, 2018 by Bertrand Piccard

Most children grow up hearing their parents tell them fairy tales. In my case, it was rather stories about exploration. I was captivated and listened to my father’s accounts of the conquest of the poles, Mount Everest, space and the oceans’ depths. I discovered the stratospheric ascents of my grandfather August who invented the pressurised cabin, a technology used in all modern airplanes. He was also the first man to have seen the Earth’s curvature with his own eyes. I also was enthralled by the stories of my father’s dives with his Bathyscaphe submarine including his legendary feat of descending to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the deepest point in the oceans 11 kilometers beneath the surface of the Pacific. It remember like it was yesterday when the movie « 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea » came out. I was seven years old. Seated next to my father, I had turned to him during the film’s screening and said to myself «I have my own Captain Nemo back home!».

My father and grandfather always said to me that setting a record only involves outperforming whomever preceded you. The explorer’s calling amounts to more than that: discovering what is genuinely novel or making historic firsts, in other words accomplishing something that nobody had ever done before or even thought was possible. All the historic firsts I heard accounts of in my childhood had proven to be genuinely useful for humanity. They had opened new paths and new modes of transportation. They had changed the world and, above all, altered our perception of the impossible. Those feats that did not have a direct practical impact, such as the conquest of the highest summits, had nevertheless given mankind hope by showing what human beings are capable of achieving with courage and perseverance. Some also proved to be turning points in terms of protecting the environment. In the case of my grandfather, his stratospheric ascents demonstrated that airplanes could economise on fuel by flying at higher altitudes where there is less air density. Or the dive by the Bathyscaphe « Trieste » into the Mariana Trench: by discovering sea life at a depth of 11,000 meters, my father had forced governments to give up their plans to stockpile radioactive and toxic waste at the bottom of oceans that everybody thought were deserted.

In my close relationship with my father, exploration became for me the only way of life, and I was convinced that everybody shared this state of mind: shedding preconceived ideas to enter a world of uncertainties and the unknown; using unanswered questions to stimulate your creativity and invent new solutions; and transforming the impossible into the possible! Could there be any other way to approach the world? I didn’t think so until I realised that the explorer’s state of mind is in fact very rare on our planet. Confronting the unknown scares off all those who prefer the comfort of dogmas, paradigms and habits. What a disappointment! For him even more than for me.

My father aged prematurely because of this disappointment, the skepticism that surrounded his inventions and dampened his enthusiasm and the tireless efforts he made to secure funding for his projects. He had mortgaged the family house in order to pay for his most recent submarine. Along with my brother and sister, we saw how the repeated rejections he experienced gnawed away at his morale. Exploration is marvellous but oh so difficult in a world that prefers certainties.

I faced a painful dilemma inside as a teenager given my loyalty to my father and my sense of duty to work with him and help him achieve his ultimate dreams. What should be the third generation’s calling? Maintain the same course or follow its own path? In fact, it was neither one nor the other, but it took me a long time to realize that. Far from having to choose between the two options, I would accomplish both! Carrying on without continuing, differing to enrich the legacy and shuffling the cards I’d been dealt in order to play a new game. Looping a large loop so that coming full circle could be achieved on a different level. I was not meant to mirror my father’s life, but rather reconcile the diametrically opposed attitudes of my scientist father and my humanist mother: injecting a philosophical dimension into technology, a spiritual element into exploration and an exploratory approach into the search for life’s meaning.

I thus became doctor, a psychiatrist and hypnotherapist, to find my way as an explorer. I plunged into the anguish my patients inflict upon themselves to avoid growing, into their resistance to change and into their fears of transcending their ills. Hypnosis enabled me to discover the beauty of healing and the vast internal resources at our disposal as human beings to transform ourselves. I was fascinated by the heightened level of accomplishment we can reach thanks to our self-awareness in the present moment, whether through mediation or by flying loops with a hang-glider. Extreme sports enabled me to link spirituality and exploration, discovery of self and of life and the world.

I was not interested above all in what I was doing, but rather in how to share it with others to give them a longing to also surpass themselves and push back the boundaries preventing them from growing. I wanted my adventures to serve a useful purpose for them. This is how our three generations differ. The first two had a boundless faith in technology to explore the outside world, leaving no space for feelings that were considered useless. The third generation trusts exploring human feelings in order to discover our inner world. There’s the same curiosity, the same need to understand and change the world, but in a complementary fashion. Together we complement each other and form a whole. I would not exist without the preceding generation, but my ancestors’ story would have come to an end without my own contribution.

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