Lessons learned from going to the edge

Crossing Greenland

I was recently delivering a series of lectures on a cruise ship about the various polar expeditions and adventures I have done over the years.  After each talk, members of the audience would come up and asked a variety of questions to help them understand more about what it’s like trying to survive in such extreme environments.  Their questions, and my subsequent reflections made me realise that some of the things about adventure and going to the edge of one’s experience can also be useful in the business world, hence writing this post.

Why do you want to take part in expeditions?

I want to test my capabiliites and find out what I can achieve.  Most people tend to live fairly ordinary lives with little opportunity to go “to the edge”.  In a place like the Arctic, the main focus is survival.  That’s it which means there is freedom in that simplicity.  You learn if you can survive by going back to basics.   It takes over 1 hour to melt enough snow to make a cup of coffee so the mere act of switching on a kettle and waiting for it to boil when you are at work, makes you value it differently.  So you learn about yourself and the relative importance or unimportance that you place on everything which helps to not get phased by the next person telling you there is a deadline and why have you now answered their email yet.

What’s it like?

The Arctic is a desert wilderness – snow, ice, and white all around as far as the eye can see. Its often too cold to speak to others during the day as you ski in single file, and therefore you have no sound, no colour (apart from white) and no voices.  This sensory change makes you focus on the other ones – touch, smell, taste and therefore food becomes a key motivator in your day. What are you going to eat. when and what will it taste like are questions that keep your mind occupied for hours on end. WIth that absence of colour, you really notice it when you get back to springtime in the UK, and how vibrant and colourful the flowers and trees are.  Noticing what your senses are telling you and not relying on the same ones all the time can be useful.

How do you know where the edge is?

You only learn where your “edge” is when you feel that you are coming close to it. There were a couple of times where I felt I could not ski another step as I was so exhausted, but then I found a way to keep going.  Just another 5 minutes I would say to myself, and then I can decide what to do. I never told myself that there was the option of stopping, just the option of making a different decision.  I learned about mental strength, which was intially developed as a result of training to be an elite athlete as a youngster.  The feeling that no matter how tired you were, you could always run another lap.  The key is to notice what the message is that you tell yourself.  Is it “another 5 minutes and we will see” or “just until that point and then I will stop”.  The latter has an inbuilt decision already, where are the first statement highlight the delaying of a decision, so you dont commit yourself to the opt-out.



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