When I look back on my life I realise I’ve been pretty lucky: I spent 13 years in the Army and travelled all over the world, spending time in the jungles of Southeast Asia, travelling through the Americas, across the Sahara desert, into Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and more. When that phase of my career came to an end I assumed that the days of big adventures had come to a close. For a long time after I felt a real pang of loss and, when not working the office lifestyle, immersed myself in every possible activity that allowed me to spend time outdoors. The many hours of training and planning brought me to the conclusion taking part in anything larger than a short event - say a couple of weeks - was out of the question.
As life ground forward, the frustration grew until it became a near constant whine in my head. Looking back, and after nine years of working behind a desk with only short journeys into the wild, I realise the announcement I eventually made was inevitable.
About four years ago I was working in London as a consultant for one of the big five accountancy companies in London. On my birthday a group of friends and I headed into the City for an informal gathering. After a couple of drinks, my lips loosened, I boldly announced that I was going to ski to the North Pole. The next morning I woke with a slight headache, and realised my announcement have been a mistake. I phoned my friend Olivier and to tell him that my act of bravado was nothing more than a joke. Too late! Olivier cut me off before I say another word and said, "James what what you're going to do is amazing and I’ve already found a charity view to represent. I’ve spoken to the CEO this morning, and she loves your idea.”
I had no option but to go for it.
Four years ago I inadvertently resurrected a life of adventure by skiing to the North Pole. At first, during the journey, I assumed that once was the trip was over my appetite would be sated and that any lingering interest in extreme travel would soon fade. At this point I'd like to ask if any of you are getting a sense of deja vu? If so, then you already know what was to to come. At the end of the trip I was hooked. Not slightly excited, but determined to travel to more and experience the joys of truly wild places, to explore the amazing world that crouches just over the horizon.
For the next two years I spent as much time as possible journeying into different places, my trips taking me to the wilds of Northumberland, Dartmoor and the Brecon on journeys of ever increasing durations. Two of the most memorable and, in one instance scary trips, were to Norway. And I loved every moment! But, as amazing as these mini adventures were, I needed a huge expedition to satisfy the vice at the back of my mind. In 2018 I formulated a plan to ski solo to the south Pole.
Have you ever had one of those days when you feel drained and decide to take a bath and settle in for any early night? A great idea until you fall asleep on the sofa and the bath tub starts to overflow. That’s how my life felt. Like the foamy waters, my day job had overflowed from the office and into my daily life. Work consumed nearly all my spare time - simply keeping up with the latest developments in the IT industry was a job in itself! On top of the work I was writing, whether it be a new book or sending requests for funding and grants. In the evenings I was doing the same again as well as reaching out to potential sponsors. Burnout waited around the corner.
My regular training sessions were invigorating, but only when I was out and active. Afterwards, already fatigued from the 8 - 6, and later, of office life I was shattered.
I’d taken on too much and, after failing to find sponsors, finally decided to postpone the South Pole solo idea. As you can imagine, I was far from happy.
After a few months of meandering through my day job I heard of a team preparing to cross Greenland. Fortunately I knew the guy leading the team, Lou Rudd, a captain in the British Army. I emailed him, we chatted and then we met and I was accepted into the team. Five months later we set off across Greenland, 600 km in weather I’ve never experienced in all my life.
That journey - a trip across a vast white wilderness - was simply the most amazing I have ever experienced. And afterwards the hunger was even more intense. Desire demanded that I resurrect the plan to complete the huge expedition to the South Pole.
But how was I going to do this? Again, although I was aware of the fact I have a day job I felt able to commit time to preparing this journey, but I wasn't able to see a clear way to manage all of the other tasks such logistics, fund raising, etc. Not without some help.
Rather than trying to do everything myself I decided to let go of the control freak inside me and and work with a support team to produce the desired results. What at first appeared to be a huge and unmanageable project was broken down into multiple tasks and each member of the three person admin team took on the role specific role, a bit like soldiers in a small patrol.
Once the load was reduced I suddenly realised that I was capable of doing much much more with the skills I have available. Now this might seem obvious to you, but I’m accustomed to planning and running all aspects of many of the journeys I’ve taken over the years.
It was at this point that I realised we are all capable of doing much, much more than we think we can. The key is to step back, do less and accept reality.
So how do we do this?
1. Know Your Strengths
This might seem obvious, but all too many of us have become accustomed to saying yes to every request that comes our way. Instead simply taking on every task thrown at you spend a little time evaluating your skillset. And don’t be fooled into thinking that just because you might have an idea how to fix an issue that you’re qualified or capable.
Here’s an example from my own experiences: I’m a public speaker who, according to no small amount of feedback, is entertaining and insightful. The one thing I’m not is an expert on all topics which is why I’ve asked for help in building some of the content of my talks (just in case you’re wondering, I mean talks I give at fun events and not those created for clients and schools).
This approach isn’t than usual, some of the greatest explorers, men and women whose names and deeds straddle history, have employed huge support and marketing teams to help spread the message.
2. Ask for Help, Early
This is tough one, especially for anyone like me who prefers to do things their way and on their own. It’s very easy to be a jack of all trades, and master of none - I’ve tried this approach and failed on a couple of occasions.
If you’re uncertain about where you should put your focus and when to ask for help I suggest you analyse your current skills and capabilities. The most effective means to doing this is quite simple: write it down; grab a pen and paper and then make a note of everything you believe you can do.
Take a break, daydream for a while and then come back to your list. Now look at it and ask yourself what are your true skills and circle them. Ideally your final tally should consist of two or three skills, which looks pretty paltry, especially if you’re created a huge list, but don’t despair. Look at everything else and make a note of people who might be in a position to help.
The key here is to apply some critical thinking. The tasks you’ve set yourself are going to be arduous enough and you simply can’t afford to lose time to tasks that others are better suited to.
3. Start Planning at Your Every Day
Working a 9-to-5 job is a thing of the past for most people. Instead there’s a good chance that you arrive before 9 o’clock and finish well after 5 o’clock. When you start planning all the tasks you need to carry out you have to be 100% aware of not only how many minutes you have available to do the work, but also how long each task will take. What I mean is, always err on the side of caution: if you think a job is going to take an hour and a half to complete, then schedule two hours.
On the above note, I find it helpful to work to the two hour rule - every task will take two hours. If it looks like you’re going to run over that time window, then break the is down into multiple subtasks.
No matter how much planning you do there’s a chance the workload will leak into your personal life so be aware that this may impact your family, or relationships. If you single, go for it and don’t worry about how much time you going to burn.
4. Be Prepared to Fail
Personal Spoiler Warnings: In November 2017 I announced my intention to ski solo to the South Pole. My original intention had been to break the UK speed record for skiing to the South Pole, set by Richard Parks. A short time after the announcement the current world record holder issued a challenge via FaceBook: why not have a go at breaking his record time?
And so the scene was set. At the time it felt to me as if fate’s hand had settled on my shoulder and, with the gauntlet at my feet, the journey would be a foregone conclusion. I went on the rampage, announcing to all who would listen that I was going to the South Pole and that I would break Christian Eide’s record. And for a long time my own hype was so contagious that I fell for it. But we all know what happens when hype meets reality!
And that’s precisely what happened: my expedition was postponed.
5. Accept That Most People Don’t Care
Close your eyes and feel the collective excitement as Britons basked in the certainty that Robert Falcon Scott would be the first man to ski to the South Pole. Now imagine the grief many felt on hearing of his death. First the good news: don’t worry about dying. Now the bad: you aren’t Scott, or Amundsen, or James Wolf. To most people you are… who? Take hold of that thought and pull it close because this will sustain in the run up to, and through, your expedition.
Most people simply don’t know about you and probably don’t care. This makes finding sponsors and fans much easier. Rather than trying to appeal to a huge and broad section of society you now have a focal point, whether is be ultra event fans, mountaineers, or whatever the basis is for you adventure. Now you can apply your full attention in areas where you can make a difference.
What does all of this mean? It’s the 'power of one': do only one thing and do it well. Better yet, do an excellent job and watch as people come to you with offers of help. You might say I’ve been talking about teamwork, but that’s not the point of this post. The core of this message is about you and what you’re capable of and that includes your willingness to work with others to achieve not only your dreams, but theirs too.