Fiennes, ‘the world’s greatest living explorer’, is the first person to visit both the north and south poles by surface travel, and the first to cross Antarctica on foot (both aided and unaided). He recently became the oldest person to summit Mt. Everest, and is in the midst of planning something spectacular with a small team later this year (which he won’t reveal lest the Norwegians beat him to it).
His talk tried to put all of these accomplishments into the perspective of “”Making the dream come true”: creating a vision and taking the steps to make it reality (hence the entrepreneurial connection). He comes across determined, focused, unsmiling, with a self-depreciating humor but little tolerance for how the world judges what he does. It’s an inspiring (and sometimes painful) presentation, but (of course) leaves me with questions afterwards.
During the Q&A, he was asked several times what drives him: he didn’t seem to understand the question. Maybe there isn’t a reason: it’s simply an existential axiom that he does it. Certainly the 3-year expeditions, filled with incredible hardship and loneliness, can’t be seen in any higher context while they are ongoing. I suspect that every day, every step, was simply an act of will forcing himself to go on to the next step, to make the day’s objective, to finish the stage in the time allotted. It’s not a reflective exercise.
In a much milder way, it’s how the business-building works as well. It’s all situational: what is the most important thing to get done today; when I try to do it, what stands in my way. How do I deal with that, while hoarding resources for the next challenge, and the next. Where is the finish; can I keep going towards it? Maybe the only way to do that is with focus, determination, and a bit of blindness to what others think.
People generally seek to minimize pain and enhance their comfort: they move towards soft equilibrium spots in life. But there are some who move away from it: the Olympic athletes I’ve met, people like Feinnes. What is the motivation to see out extreme conditions, to worsen their lot rather than improve it (as the pictures of frostbitten fingers and blistered toes demonstrated throughout the evening). Again, he doesn’t seem to think about it. He points to the charitable funds raised, takes obvious pride in being First, but there doesn’t seem to be an overarching goal or something that he is trying to prove. He goes on one expedition after another simply because that is what he does (and it’s the only thing that people without A-levels can do, he says).
There are lots of ways to be comfortable in life, and lots of reasons not to leave the security one has, no matter how far it falls short of what one might want. I’ve found that I have to step off a comfortable center and take some hardship to open an opportunity for something better. I couldn’t be promoted from Research Director to CEO: I had to quit, go back to school, and start fresh.
I know that the organizers wanted us to think about setting lofty goals, taking risks, persevering in the face of any hardships, and finally battling through to completion. Well and good. But it isn’t the story that Ran Fiennes tells. Rather, his seems to be the tale of a remarkably capable man who could notched accomplishments without knowing, caring, or even thinking about where they led,