Vail Daily column: Journey to the North Pole
In my November column, I shared Part 1 of my conversation with polar explorer Eric Larsen. As you may recall, in May of this year, Eric and his partner, Ryan Waters, completed a 53-day, 480-mile unassisted journey to the North Pole. As you can see in the photo, with the North Pole being sheets of melting ice and not a solid landmass, a significant part of their journey was spent in dry suits swimming and pulling their 320-pound sleds across the Arctic Ocean.
While the physical trials may be most obvious, given my (and our firm, Think2Perform’s) interest in human performance, I was keenly interested in how Eric and his partner dealt with perhaps the less obvious emotional challenges of their remarkable trek. To learn more, I asked Eric about setbacks and the resiliency to persevere in the face of obstacles and also posed a question about preparation and unanticipated events.
Q&A WITH ERIC LARSEN
Me: With the many daily, and maybe even hourly, setbacks you encountered, what skill was critical to throwing off discouragement and defeat during your trip?
Eric: Setbacks were constant, so managing all the impossibility of trying to achieve our goal of reaching the North Pole was really difficult (to say the least). It’s hard to visualize how many obstacles we encountered and how that affected our overall mindset. It’s crazy cold, the ice is moving, whiteouts, snowstorms, super heavy loads, open water, blizzards and polar bears.
Goal: We set a goal to get to the North Pole. Both of us were focused on that goal. It was the main reason why were on the Arctic Ocean. Anytime things got rough (which was constantly,) we reminded ourselves of the overall goal of our journey. However, we also used a lot of short-term goals to serve as benchmarks of our progress as well as helping to keep us motivated.
Belief: We believed we could get to the North Pole — that we had the strength and mental fortitude.
A good plan: At least for a few days or hours at a time. We were constantly revising how we would achieve our overall goal as the conditions and our physical ability changed.
One step at a time: Thinking about the end of the expedition on day or week one is overwhelming — even to think about the end of the day was too much. We focused on small goals — the first hour of the day, lunch break, the end of the day when we could set up the tent or covering certain distances.
Problem: Solution. It’s easy to see problems as an end point. We encountered more obstacles and problems than I could possibly even write here. From broken gear to trying to cross open sections of water to huge pressure ridges and rough ice, we were constantly problem solving. Sometimes we got lucky and found a solution right away, but, more often than not, it took a few attempts to get it right. Needless to say, we persevered until a solution was found.
Teamwork: Sounds cliche, I know, but from physically moving our 320 pound sleds to sharing the work load of breaking trail and more, team work for us was critical. There is no way I could have done this trip alone.
Structure/schedule: We traveled on a fairly regimented schedule. This kept us on task and moving.
Commitment: We had put nearly everything we had — both physically and financially — on the line to do this expedition. I’ve often said, “the best way to be successful is to put yourself in a position where you don’t have another choice.
Decisive, confident and safe: One of our mantras on the ice. With a million decisions to make every day (with many of them being choices based on two bad options) and not a lot of physical or mental resources to make them, we needed to use as little time as possible for decision-making. We practice assessing situations as we were encountering them and deciding what to do on the fly. Once we’d chosen a course, it was equally important to believe that you had made the right choice. To second-guess was to waste time and energy as well as erode critical confidence. Paramount, of course, was safety — any decision we made had to be safe – although we were fairly regularly operating at the limits of safety.
Find the positive: When things are so bad for so long you have to find some joy (or humor) at some point. For me, noticing little things, taking pictures, thinking about the “story” of each day brought a little bit of joy.
Me: You must have spent months, and maybe even years, preparing for your trip. Was there anything emotionally or psychologically unexpected you hadn’t anticipated? If so, what was it and how did you deal with it?
Eric: There were two moments that really caught me off guard. The first was how hard it was to be away from my son, Merritt, who was around one and a half years old at the time. It was hard to be gone for two and a half months knowing that he may not remember me when I got home. At one point, my wife, Maria, and Merritt went to a party and he called someone else Dad. I broke down.
I also had a really hard moment at about 17 miles from the North Pole. I had allowed myself to think about the end and that we were going to make it. Instead, the conditions devolved and our progress slowed. We had been in similar conditions, but I had allowed myself to be hopeful of better conditions so when my expectations weren’t met, it was too much.
PARALLELS IN OUR OWN LIVES
You’ll see from Eric’s answers to my questions, so much of what he shared about his journey, including the skills he used to meet his goal, applies to our everyday lives — our families and our businesses. While we’re not trekking to the North Pole, we all strive to make the most of the lives we lead. As you reflect on Eric’s thoughts, skills and learnings, take a few moments to ask yourself how they can be applied to your life. What’s your process for overcoming obstacles and achieving your goals? How do you deal with the unexpected?
Chuck Wachendorfer is a partner and the chief operating officer at Think2Perform, a business and sports performance firm that improves bottom-line results for executives, athletes and organizations. He resides in Edwards with his wife, Lori, and their three children. Think2Perform is a partner of the Vail Chamber & Business Association. They offer a series of Breakthrough for Business”workshops throughout the year, helping local businesses achieve their best practices. To learn more visit http://www.vailchamber.org or http://www.think2perform.com.