Interview with Rafał Sonik (part 3)

copyright: TETE (Tomasz Tomaszewski)


WO: Going through life with this philosophy of yours you got to the top – the world cup, the Dakar Rally. Were there any setbacks on your road to the top?

RS: Many people have had a lot to say about this, because this is probably the most interesting element of analyzing every road to success. My experience is that success earned fast is usually very short-lived, it’s a flash that’s bright but then fades quickly, and usually it’s the effect of extremely good luck that came upon someone all of a sudden. But success that has been built over time is usually not the effect of good luck or favorable coincidences, therefore chances are greater that it will last longer, because it’s grounded. Also, it’s highly likely that it will bring much more satisfaction in the end. Robert Kubica is a great example – it took him twenty years to get to Formula 1 from the moment he sat behind the wheel for the first time.

WO: And how was it with you?

RS: I went to my first Dakar Rally in 2009 in South America with no experience. All I knew was that I could drive a quad and that I had driven in similar terrain in the Southwest of the USA, they have a similar geological makeup to Argentina and Chile. But this was all. The 2009 Dakar Rally results were probably a surprise to all of us! At the beginning bets were going on among the Polish drivers whether I would even make it through to the end, and I came third! Being on the podium was a complete shock. Just to remind you there were three of us on the podium that day – Józek Macháček, the only one of us with a lot of experience because he had driven in the Dakar Rally in Africa and won four times; Marcos Patronelli – just like me he didn’t know what Dakar was, but he was in his element, so this helped him a lot; and me. I was like a space alien among them. In the next few years – 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014 – every time I started the rally with my previous experiences and with the knowledge that if I came third I could also come second or first. But I wasn’t coming second or first, I wasn’t winning. I should have come back from each Dakar race frustrated that I wasn’t winning, but this was the most interesting part of my sports life: I was able to analyze the races and understand why I had not won. Every season I better understood why this was the case. In 2012, when I came fourth, then 2013, when I came third, and 2014, when I came second – every time I was disappointed because I had not won, but on the other hand I was much richer with the experience and knowledge why this had not happened. Finally, in 2014, I analyzed each of the phases and then the final effect and I came to the conclusion that I was not winning Dakar not because my competitors were faster, but because I was making too many mistakes. And I concentrated on analyzing them, from spring through December 2014. I knew all the main mistakes, I understood why I had never won. I eliminated them almost completely, and in 2015 I won.

WO: In the American army this is called the after action review. The key is to learn from your mistakes “don’t point fingers, don’t start blaming people, but concentrate on what should be done next time to make things work better” – this is the key to success of special ops forces in the US Army…

RS: In my case, in my mind, what looked like a stream of failures suddenly became the best road to success. I won the 2015 race by going through a very detailed analysis of all my mistakes from previous years. Later, right after Dakar 2015, basing on very similar analyses I won four out of six world cups. This was the best season I had in this cycle! So what from today’s perspective may seem like a stream of failures was actually the best road to success.

WO: Were these analyses of failures and mistakes initiated by you or by the team?

RS: This was a great challenge in my relationship with my team, but I think my genes probably helped me, or maybe something else, but not anything that could be my doing. In each rally, especially in Dakar, after the special phase there is a stretch of the road where you drive on asphalt, sometimes it’s shorter, other times longer. It’s very rare that we go to the campsite straight from the road. What do I do on this asphalt part? As soon as – after a few, or a dozen minutes of rest – I get some of my lucidity of thinking back, I immediately start analyzing my mistakes from the special leg of the rally. When after one, two, three, or even four hours I get to the campsite, I have analyzed all my mistakes and made peace with them, so by that time I know what to do to avoid the same mistakes in the future, not only the following day in the next special phase, but also during the next rally a month later. And what happens when I arrive at the campsite? I talk to the other members of my team about the quality of their work. Some people did not know what this “cycle” of my analysis and thinking was like, they didn’t realize that I analyze my performance first, and they felt that since I arrive at the campsite and immediately start talking about their shortcomings, I must be looking for mistakes elsewhere, not in my own performance. I realized this was the case after some time, and I openly told everyone on my core team that I always look at myself first, then at them. In order to evaluate your performance well I need to start with myself.

WO: I assume that if you do this analyzing well, it’s also a way of building trust. I am not looking for someone to blame, but I want us all to be better.

RS: The point is not to look for, or find, someone to blame. The only goal is for us all to do better, individually and as a team. This makes all the difference. I just told you about the years 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014 when we had been going to Dakar to win, but were coming home as losers. You must remember that it is one thing to motivate yourself to try again, and a whole other thing to motivate the whole team. What happens is a whole team comes to the race, not just that one person, and the whole team is disappointed because it had previously come to win, had worked so hard all year, but had lost – this is not just about the one contestant. In order to motivate the whole team for the following year you need to find even more strength in yourself, make an effort. Most of all you need to show everyone that you analyzed your performance and that you believe that the following year you will do better, and then they will believe that they will also do better.


WO: For many people today their job is a sort of drudgery. Finding passion in my job is probably the thing that makes me want to do my best.

RS: Passion is one, but the quality of what we do is also key. Notice that whatever the image of Rafał Sonik may be, I am not competing with Małysz, Stoch, Kubica, or anyone like that for media attention or visibility, but I could compete with each one of them when it comes to the quality of what I do. If you sat us all in a row – a few, or even a dozen of us – many of those people, or even most of them, would be much more recognizable than me, but not everyone can compete with me when it comes to the quality of what I do, in different aspects of life. I don’t say this because I am full of myself, I just know that we have become a symbol of high quality. In August 2015 TVN ran some extensive online research, a poll – one of the questions was “who would you like to be?”. What was the answer, what do you think? This was the late summer of 2015…

WO: Hmm, I don’t know…maybe the person I am talking to?

RS: The most famous Polish youtuber at the time won, Wardęga. He had over one hundred million views of his video “Pies pająk” (“Mutant Giant Spider Dog”). To people online he was the epitome of a person whose career skyrocketed, who quickly found fame and fortune.

WO: To me this is fascinating in terms of how people build their value nowadays…

RS: Notice that at the time Wardęga was the absolute mainstream. He was exactly the age, the type of person that online consumers were fascinated with, they accepted him immediately. Margaret was in second place – why? Because she was a girl from nowhere who also became very successful very, very quickly. I came third, and I was in the upstream. Why? Because I was twice or even three times the age of the average respondent, and I came from a completely different world. Wardęga and Margaret were from their world. They were teenagers who skyrocketed to fame. Wardęga – over one hundred million views of his videos, genius! Margaret – a brilliant girl who, at first glance, didn’t have what it takes to become a big star, but who also became very famous very quickly. Almost every girl wanted to be like her. And suddenly among these people, a guy three times their age, completely out of place in the internet, totally not from their world. Do you know why I won third place? The explanation was very short and simple: because I had started from nothing, I became successful in life, and once I did that – all by myself, according to the respondents – I was willing to share my success with others. In the www there is something like a cloud of words, a bunch of labels that describe a particular person.

WO: Yes. The words that are used more often are visually bigger, and the lesser used labels – smaller in size…

RS: Exactly. In my case the biggest labels apart from “pan Rafał” (“Mr. Rafał”), was the word “mistrz” (“master”). Notice that I wasn’t a master soccer player, or a Formula 1 driver. I was a quad racer – a guy who really had no reason to make it into the limelight, whose sport was niche, relatively unknown.

WO: In my opinion this is a very positive message, what you represent is attractive to those who voted in the poll, whoever they were. It was even more positive if these were people for whom youtubers, for example, were people to look up to.

RS: If you look at the most obvious successes of people at the top of this list my success was bigger because I did not come from their world, because motor sports, apart from Formula 1, are not followed by people on the internet at all. And since even Formula 1 is not really followed by people online, who cares about quads and some guy who, to top it all off, isn’t even a peer because he is three times older? I was totally unreal to them, and then all of a sudden I became real. I found out about this poll quite some time later, and the person who presented the results stressed that the respondents were people who knew almost more about us than we did about ourselves, more than the people analyzing the results, that the research they had conducted to answer the question asked of them was very detailed. These were not people who saw the “Pająk” videos by Wardęga and immediately said – Wardęga is the best. No. According to the presentation of the research – and this was a very credible presentation – people who answered the poll checked all the potential candidates in detail before they answered the question “who would you like to be?”.

WO: On the one hand I can only congratulate you, on the other I can say that in this case there is some hope. You are doing what you love, according to plan, and this does not go unnoticed. And the things you saw as important – linking business, sports, and being a philanthropist – are part of your DNA, and you see no reason to change this state of things, there is no point in making any changes.

RS: You just described something that is really crucial in all this! What helped Wardęga and Margaret come first and second was doing something creative. People who said “I would like to be like Wardęga” saw him through the stunning success of his “Pies pająk” videos, as well as the smaller successes (though also probably quite big) of his earlier productions. They did not come to this decision based on knowledge about Wardęga himself. However, people who replied “I would like to be like Rafał Sonik” were much more focused on who I am than on my spectacular achievements or what I had created. In general, we – my team and I – are focused on showing things the way they are, not on creating a story for the public. When we prepare a presentation we don’t say to ourselves “hmm, wouldn’t this look great if we made it into a good story”, we say “OK, what was it really like? Let’s talk about that”.


WO: A true story is the most credible in the end. And your stories include blood, sweat, tears, satisfaction, and teamwork. You have so many stories to tell – whether those stories are about your business, about Rafał Sonik the philanthropist, or about Rafał Sonik the sportsman. And you don’t need to create, to build a story around anything…you have real stories.

RS: Summing up the conscious part of my life, so the last twenty or thirty years – because people don’t become conscious of their lives when they are eighteen, in my opinion this happens much later – you are right that the best thing is that I don’t need to create anything, make up any stories, I just need to adjust what I do to the most appropriate form, the content is already there.

WO: During this conversation I listened to a sportsman who is used to making an effort, used to hard, rigorous work, to extensive self-examination and assessment. A topic that oftentimes comes back in these types of conversations with sportspeople is what happens when your career is over? In your case you have a business, you know how to manage it, you freely and smoothly move between sports and business, business and sports. But there are sportspeople whose career is over and they miss the adrenaline and the trainings, they can’t find themselves in the world outside sports. In your opinion how can you prepare for this life change and what traits can help you build a life for yourself after a life of sports?

RS: I have no idea how to do this. I’ll say even more – this may turn out to be an even bigger challenge than fighting for the next world cup. Of course you can try to become a mentor, coach, there are many people who take this road, maybe even most. But, you see, I don’t know the answer yet, because for me life outside the world of sports does not exist. I don’t know what life would be like if I were to stop doing what I do. Perhaps I can see the option of changing my sports discipline to one that I could practice at an even later age, doing this would move the challenge of building a “new life” forward in time, but today I don’t have an answer to that question. Today this is probably one of few questions that I don’t have a well thought out and credible answer to.

WO: How can your experience as a mature sportsman and businessman transfer on to a young sportsman, a non-sportsman, or a start-up businessman living in an increasingly digitalized world? Do you see any way of connecting these things? To help the young ones learn something from the others?

RS: I don’t know. I think that our world is so different to that from ten, fifteen, or twenty years ago that giving instructions or offering solutions will not go very far. Only some individual traits link these two worlds – so, if someone has the opportunity to find their passion – whether it is a computer keyboard, a touchscreen, or maybe e-sports – then they will go far with that passion. But if they are unable to find passion inside, they will always be a backdrop, or a part of the backdrop.

WO: Rafał, thank you for a very inspiring conversation!

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