When world-champion kayaker Emily Jackson was eight years old, a flood of strangers entered her family’s house in Bethesda, Maryland. They began ransacking closets, giving her mother cash for the contents of whole drawers and carrying out buckets of toys. “I was confused,” remembers Emily, now 24, “but also excited to be going on what my parents kept called ‘the big adventure.’”
The Jacksons had decided a month before to sell everything that wouldn’t fit in the 32-foot RV that was to become their new home. At the time, neither Eric “EJ” nor Kristine Jackson–Emily’s parents–knew their decision would reshape not just their lives, but the sport of whitewater kayaking. They were hitting the road to support EJ on his competition circuit, which would result in his winning multiple world titles and achieving unparalleled fame in the paddling community. Eventually, it would lead to the founding of their own boat company, Jackson Kayak, and it would make world champions of both of their children, Dane and Emily.
That experience of was so formative for Emily, it became the starting point for a TEDx talk she gave in Beaver Creek, Colo., in January.
“What is it in life that causes us to compromise the things most important to us?” she asked a packed auditorium. “I have found it to be constant comparisons. When we become fixated on comparing ourselves to those around us, we lose track of what’s truly important to us.”
Watching her family take a leap of faith to pursue their dreams inspired her, even as a child. “At eight, I was old enough to know that my parents had almost separated,” she tells me backstage after her speech. “In Bethesda, everybody else around us drove a Porsche. We could barely afford to eat….My parents started compromising their own happiness.”
Something had to change, so her parents talked it over. Moving into an RV full time would be a big step, but it would allow the family to stay together while EJ pursued his passion for kayaking. The biggest barrier was learning to let go of social norms.
“This is concept I call ‘life without compromise,’” EJ explains. “The concept frees you up to do the things you’re supposed to do, that you think are important. When you do those things on regular basis and not what other people say you’re supposed to do, you achieve success. The type of life you can lead is so much bigger and broader than you can imagine.”
But to the Jacksons, “living without compromise” does not mean giving in to some kind of hardline, Ayn Randian individualism. As their decision to leave Bethesda suggests, it means coming together to find a solution that works for everybody, as opposed to submitting to situation that, though socially accepted, works for nobody.
As Emily became one of world’s leading female kayakers, she’s tried to keep these lessons in mind. Together with her husband, fellow professional kayaker Nick Troutman, she’s stayed mobile, traveling the world to paddle and compete while managing a team of athletes for her family’s company.
“It’s a much more enjoyable life,” says Troutman. “You don’t have to hate your job. You’ve got your priorities in order; you know what you want. You’re just more satisfied with life.”
Because we can have so many priorities that might not always seem to fit together, Emily suggests making a list of your five most important goals. “Making a list, writing it down and trying to figure out what’s important to you has always been in my family. Dane still has written resolutions to try new foods other than pizza,” she says, laughing.
“Family is at the top of my list. When I dance for an hour with my [two-year-old] son Tucker, I know it’s ridiculous and I don’t have time for it, but I make time for it. You never feel like you’re compromising something if you know it’s really important.”
After the event is over, the Jacksons allow me to join them for sushi. Everyone takes turns congratulating Emily on her talk, which she’d been preparing for a year. Nick shows a terrified Tucker live lobsters in a nearby tank.
Towards the end of the meal, our waiter approaches shyly. “I swear I never do this,” he says. “I’ve served presidents before, movie stars, but I have to ask: Are you EJ? I’m a paddler and grew up watching your videos.” EJ politely responds while the others tease him about his stardom. When the waiter admits that he hasn’t been in a boat in several years, however, the entire table erupts in encouragement.
“Get back out there,” they all tell him. “Don’t let work get in the way. There’s no time for excuses.”
There’s no room for compromise. There are rivers to run.
–Read about another of Emily’s examples of living without compromise, winning the Payette River Games while nine months pregnant.
–Watch a video about the Jackson family story based on interviews with Dane and Emily.