There are certain moments in your life when you embody the superpower of foretelling the next few seconds. These are the moments in the movies when the protagonist knows she is about to get hit by a car even though it’s still a few seconds into the future.
I had one of these moments on July 22nd, 2021.
Fortunately, my moment didn’t result in an accident. On the contrary, it resulted in me spending the weekend of September 10th, 2021, in Keene, New York, being part of the pilot episode for a TV show titled A Climb To The Top.
Figure: A jubilant me on top of the Algonquin Peak. Source: The Amazing Kenny.
What is A Climb To The Top?
A Climb To The Top is the brainchild of my dear mentor, friend, and professor from Columbia University: Chuck Garcia.
Chuck climbed his very first mountain, Mt. Rainier, on 9/11/2002, exactly a year after the 9/11 attacks that killed 2,977 people and set off a butterfly effect in the U.S. and around the world: Operation Enduring Freedom was initiated to oust the Taliban regime from Afganisthan, Department of Homeland Security was created to prevent future attacks, a Victim Compensation Fund was set up with funding extended until 2090, to state a few examples.
The 9/11 attacks also had a butterfly effect on Chuck’s life. It led him into a career in mountaineering and leadership coaching. For 20 years, Chuck has been using lessons from his mountaineering journey to help people climb the metaphorical mountains in their lives. He published his first book, A Climb To The Top, in 2016 to serve as the go-to guide for improving your communication and persuasion skills. Soon after it became well renowned, he launched his radio show by the same name in late 2019 to feature people who have overcome life’s challenges to climb their mountains (where I’m proud to be one of the guests!).
With the success of the radio show, he then began thinking, What next?
Figure: Chuck on his radio show. Source: Chuck Garcia
This led to the ideation of a docuseries: bringing in people from various walks of life in every episode who are undergoing changes in their lives and helping them navigate the changes, while climbing a mountain. Chuck’s vision (which I deeply resonate with) is to inspire people who watch this show to resonate with the stories and feel inspired to craft a new story for themselves.
I had the privilege to be one of the cast members who were part of the pilot episode of the docuseries A Climb To The Top that was shot in Keene, New York.
Behind The Scenes
It all began on July 22nd, 2021.
Chuck and I had just finished recording our episode for his radio show. I was decompressing from an hour of talking and sharing my experiences when Chuck began excitedly, Saun-dhaar-ya, I wanted to tell you about a project that I am currently working on…
I listened with intrigue as he explained his vision for creating a television show — an intelligent reality show — that portrays the stories of a few brave souls in each of its episodes as they set off to climb a literal and metaphorical mountain with Chuck. My mind began racing with thoughts.
Oh my! This sounds exciting.
Wow, Chuck is venturing into television now.
Hmm… I wonder why he’s sharing this with me.
Oh, maybe, maybe he’s asking me to be a part of it?!
That can’t be it, can it? Wouldn’t he have told me already? Maybe it’s not it.
Yet, my intuition tells me it is.
And it was.
He didn’t ask me to be a part of it; rather, he wanted me to apply for it, which I did, and as the stars aligned perfectly, the publishing agency liked my profile and ended up picking me to be one of the cast members.
So there I was: boarding an airplane on September 8th, 2021, to visit a city whose presence I hadn’t felt in 2.5 years since graduating from Columbia University.
Figure: If you’re wondering: no, I don’t have a dog. 🙁
The pilot episode shoot lasted less than 72 hours in total but gave me memories worth a lifetime. I wanted to share my experience of being part of this magical project and talk about the people I met, the purpose that brought us together, and my foray into performing in front of a camera.
There were 21 people in total: 6 cast members (Chuck, Grace, Kenny, Rose, Ben, and myself), and 15 crew members who took care of everything from direction to sound to lighting.
It was one of those rare instances where every one of the 21 got along well with each other and infused an air of positivity into the entire experience, even though most of us met each other for the first time in our lives.
The night before we left to Keene, Chuck, Kenny, Rose, and I had dinner at a Greek restaurant in downtown Manhattan. I remember walking into that dinner feeling excitement with a pinch of nervousness. Even though I met the cast members via zoom calls in the weeks prior, I wanted to make a good first impression in person. Thankfully, within 10 minutes of us meeting each other, the ice was broken and we launched into a night of carefree storytelling. In a world where smartphones have hijacked dinner tables, the four of us broke the convention and intently listened to each other as we all got a chance to share our story (kudos to Kenny on this!).
I walked out of that dinner feeling emotionally rejuvenated, brimming with excitement for the upcoming few days.
Figure: A (poor resolution) picture to capture a conversation-rich evening.
On Friday, we set off at 9 AM from New York City in two big vans for a 6-hour drive to Keene, NY. Except for a 20-minute nap that I sneaked in mid-trip to alleviate my nausea, I was either conversing or listening to someone’s conversation the rest of the time.
All of us in the cast came with an open heart to share our stories: Kenny was moving away from a 30-year career in screenwriting to launch his leadership coaching venture; Rose was contemplating her future as a professor and trailblazer in championing education for all; Ben wanted to change the world with his vision to harness renewable energy in an innovative way after working as a naval officer. As for me, I shared my vision of becoming an entrepreneur in the area of edTech, and more so a polymath who has creative autonomy and control over how my time is spent, while navigating the constraints of doing it as an immigrant.
I slept at 11:10 PM that first night and remember having this thought right before I entered my REM state,
“Magic happens when people come together for a common cause, and are present with each other without distractions. I learned so much about everyone around me today. What a beautiful day!”
Figure: A view of the landscape where we stayed. Source: The Amazing Kenny.
“When you know your WHY, you can endure any HOW.” — Viktor Frankl
This was the phrase I kept replaying in my mind as I walked the last mile of a day-long hike up and down the Algonquin Peak, an 8.5-mile hike with a 5115 ft elevation (and 3100 ft elevation gain). Although it’s the second tallest peak in New York, its steep elevation and rocky pathway makes it the hardest of the 46 peaks to climb in the Adirondack Mountains.
Figure: A view from the Algonquin Peak summit. Source: The Amazing Kenny.
Aside from actually climbing up and down, we paused every mile along the way to shoot scenes for the episode. Every time we paused, a part of the cast and crew would be busy shooting while the rest of us engaged in conversations and admired the beauty around us. I resorted to spending a lot of this time simply watching the clouds, sun, and trees. Having spent the past few months immersed in ideating, building, and running my course, having an opportunity to pause was a gift for me.
I will be honest: I struggled the last mile both while climbing up and climbing down. I kept thinking, Are we there yet? Please let us be there. I would silently pray that someone passed our group or the crew wanted to shoot some B-rolls, just so it would give me a chance to pause and rest for a while. What helped alleviate this struggle and put it into perspective was watching the crew members climb not just with their backpack, but also with 50 lbs worth of expensive shooting equipment.
What they accomplished as a crew that day was herculean and they all deserve a badge of honor.
Figure: The Heroic Crew.
Climbing that mountain meant a great deal to me; to all of us. Amidst gasping for air, I knew it would become a story I retell over and over in my future. Of all the lessons I learned that day, the most impactful one was acknowledging the importance of community while climbing, and in life.
As Chuck beautifully writes in his book,
“Mountains are not climbed alone, neither are careers. Success depends on the generosity you are willing to extend to your colleagues. Known as the Law of Reciprocity, this universal principle is on display in so many other aspects of our lives.”
It was around 6:00 PM on Friday, September 10th.
I was lying down on a hard, short bench next to our cabin. Fueled by curiosity to learn something new, I opened YouTube and typed the future of learning. After scrolling for a few seconds, I landed on watching the TED talk by Mark Rubin on how to trick your brain into learning more.
Mid-way through that (enjoyable) video, I heard someone calling out for me. It was my time to go in front of a camera and share my story.
It was a surreal experience. There I was, sitting next to Chuck, as the camera crew ran through some final checks before giving us the green signal. While I’ve known Chuck for years, I was meeting the crew for the first time. It felt odd to share my deepest experiences in front of people whom I just met. But the moment Chuck and I began conversing, I lost track of those thoughts and immersed myself in the conversation.
Figure: Picture captured after one of our on-camera conversations.
In total, I spent a few hours in front of the camera: including three one-on-one conversations with Chuck, two group conversations with the entire cast, and a few journal entries which were just me talking directly into the camera.
Every time, right before the action!, I would take a few breaths, smile at the people around me, and acknowledge the privilege I had.
I felt touched watching everyone around me in the crew work so hard those few days to set up the stage for me and the rest of the cast. This entire experience gave me the opportunity to pause, reflect on the important questions, and share my story.
What greater privilege could I have asked for?
Figure: I believe I was in the middle of the phrase, “I’m scared of rocks…” when this was clicked.
I’ve known Chuck for 4 years. It took me only one email though — his very first email — to know he was someone very special.
On August 28th, 2017, I sent him an email at 9:07 AM, right after I sat through one of his classes on communication at Columbia University. I couldn’t control myself: his delivery, diction, and body language were so compelling.
Figure: The very first email correspondence between me and Chuck.
He is still the only person I can recollect who responded to a thank you-note with the invitation to have lunch. That lunch set off a butterfly effect over the next 4 years: while we lost contact for a year after I graduated, through the virtue of LinkedIn, we reconnected sometime in 2020 and began having an impromptu call every few months to be a part of each other’s lives.
Thank goodness we did!
If we hadn’t, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to have spoken to him for ~8 hours, one-on-one, in these 3 days.
We spoke about everything from emotional intelligence to the power of money to the future of education. Chuck makes just conversing fun, with his insatiable curiosity, animated demeanor, and impeccable diction.
I developed a connection with him in the three days that feels unbreakable now. And thanks to Chuck, I also had the fortune to meet the rest of the cast members, all of whom I had such fun connecting and conversing with.
Figure: The Incredible Cast.
The moment to say goodbye to Chuck finally arrived Sunday night as we drove back to New York City. I hugged him thrice while saying goodbye. As soon as we dropped him off, I could feel the void in the car — and in my heart — which later turned to tears that brimmed up in my eyes.
I let it flow, just as all of our conversations did.
We have no idea what the future of A Climb To The Top will look like.
Over the next few months, as the editing process begins and comes to an end, we hope to submit the pilot episode to all the streaming services: Netflix, Hulu, Discovery+, and more.
It might be picked up by one; it might be picked up by none.
If it does get picked up, you can expect to watch the episode sometime in late 2022. A part of me is scared for that day; scared that the Soundarya that the world watches will be an old Soundarya, not the present one.
What if I change so much that I don’t resonate with the stories I shared anymore?
I thought about this question a few times. For now, I’ve concluded with the following:
If I do change so much that I don’t resonate with the story anymore, it’s the best-case scenario: it’s a sign of growth; of evolution.
Because, I’d rather change too much than too little.