Tim Ferriss had an excellent idea of asking a bunch of people who inspired him the same 11 practical questions and making the answers into a book. I’m quite sure Tim couldn’t care two hoots about my answers, but here they are anyway! (If you’re interested, I also wrote a long blog post about his previous book, Tools of Titans.)
• What is the book (or books) you’ve given most as a gift, and why? Or what are one to three books that have greatly influenced your life?
I have given many copies of As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning as gifts, originally because I loved it as a travel story, and latterly because last year I used it as the inspiration for my own busking adventure in Spain.
Books that have influenced my life…
- Living Dangerously was the first adventure book that captured my soul and made me realise that it was possible to live an unconventional, exciting, challenging life. Until I read that book by Ranulph Fiennes every single figure in my life had been directing me (in a well-meaning way) down the usual route of school, university, job, pension, death.
- The Quiet Soldier is a book I read many times when I was young and learning to set high, self-motivated goals. It’s about joining the Army (21 SAS) so probably won’t appeal to many. And in the end, I preferred to find my adventure in a world away from guns. But it’s a book that was responsible for many press-ups and trips to the Brecon Beacons!
- 1000 True Fans is not a book, but it’s probably the most important thing I read in terms of steering me in a direction that made it possible for me to earn a living from what I love doing. (Bonus reads in this department: Tribes, Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook, Tools of Titans, Let My People Go Surfing, The $100 Startup.)
- I have written extensively about recommended books here.
• What purchase of £100, or less has most positively impacted your life in the last six months (or in recent memory)?
I’m clearly a terrible materialist as I love this question in Tim’s book. So I’m going to indulge myself and write lots of things here.
- It cost me nothing, but rigging up a pull-up bar behind my shed has had a great impact. Every time I pop out into the trees for a pee (pretty often when you spend all day in a shed drinking tea), I blast out a bunch of pull-ups.
- Also costing me nothing in my shed is my homemade standing desk. When I’m a grown-up I’ll get one of those fancy ones that go up and down. Until then, this plank and a few boxes have done wonders for my back.
- Costing significantly more than £100 (about £5000) was my shed itself. Separating work life from my home life is often hard for self-employed workaholics. This has helped massively. It is also such a cool place that makes me so happy which much help me work and write more positively.
- A NutriBullet has helped me guzzle considerably more vegetables.
- A subscription to the Freedom app in order to block social media when I’m meant to be working/relaxing/with my family/sleeping etc. Social media is a distraction, and an addictive one. We all know that. But distractions are also distractions even when they are not specifically distracting you. By which I mean: remove even the option of checking social media, and I free up brain space which is better spent on the task at hand.
- An Anker battery case for my phone that gives an entire extra charge has been really helpful as my phone becomes increasingly important for the stuff I do out in the wild – navigating, photography, writing, uploading to social media.
- The Instapaper app. When you come across an interesting but too-long-for-now article online, you just press a button on your browser and it gets saved, offline, on your phone for later.
- The Stronglifts app. Every few months I get really bored of exercise. This app is a simple, effective way of holding my hand through incremental but tangible improvements every day until my mojo returns and I can crack on by myself once again.
• How has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for later success? Do you have a “favourite failure” of yours?
After cycling round the world, I assumed that the correct thing to do was to now get a proper job and grow up. I somehow got an amazing job, much to my surprise. But donning a suit and heading off to the office every day just was not for me and I quit. I was 30, had no job, no idea what to do, and feared that my life was now cursed having tasted years of the open road and carefree travel. I had no money. I was extremely miserable.
But the brilliant thing about doing what you love rather than what you’re expected to do means that you meet other people like you. My ride round the world meant that I now had a bunch of new weirdo friends as well as all my sensible, proper-job friends. One of these weirdos, Ben Saunders, was somehow magically making a living from going on polar expeditions and then giving talks about them. I sent him a text message asking whether he fancied a partner for his next expedition. And that was that.
I now spend my days doing (mostly) what I love. There is boring stuff to it. Nothing happens magically (I learned to my disappointment). It happens by doing good stuff, being imaginative and fresh in your planning, being persistent and working blooming hard. Luckily I enjoy doing all those things. And that is magical. 9am Monday morning is my favourite moment of the week: here we go again: another brilliant week of work awaits!
• If you could have a gigantic billboard anywhere with anything on it — metaphorically speaking, getting a message out to millions or billions — what would it say and why? It could be a few words or a paragraph. (If helpful, it can be someone else’s quote: Are there any quotes you think of often or live your life by?)
I have been a fan of quotes ever since I was 10 when our English teacher made us copy down a couple at the start of each lesson, and test us at the end of the week. That arsenal of quotes, couplets, verses was one of the best things I left school with.
I am going to resist diving down the rabbit hole of my archive of quotes for it would take me all day. Instead, I’ll plump for one word:
We all have things in our life that we would like to do or wish we had done. There are many reasons why we have not done them yet – time, money, expertise etc. But one terrible reason for not having accomplished that thing is “it’s impossible. People like me cannot do that.” Removing yourself from the game before it even begins is both absurd and insidious.
Begin what it is you dream of today, with whatever tiny action you can manage today. Repeat these tiny actions until they become habits, and you will build momentum, confidence, and determination. At this point, you can re-evaluate whether you actually do not have sufficient time / money / expertise, or whether, perhaps, you are just choosing not to spend your time / money / effort on this thing.
No more excuses. Begin. You might fail, of course. If you don’t ever fail you are not a genius, you are a coward. Fear regrets more than failure.
• What is one of the best or most worthwhile investments you’ve ever made? (Could be an investment of money, time, energy, etc.)
Beginning to blog. Back in the olden days of 2009, I realised that I needed to build an audience if I was going to be able to earn any money from writing or speaking. So I began to take my blog seriously. I treated it as a ‘half-time job’, dedicating roughly half my hours to building content, growing an audience etc. I used this 31-day project as a starting point. I think it is a brilliant thing for bloggers to return to every couple of years.
It’s a slow process: I have been working on my blog for years. In this era of social media, the blog is a more questionable approach, and I have lapsed from posting five times a week to posting about once a month. What you might choose to dedicate time to in order to build a niche, a reputation, an audience, is probably different now to when I began. But one thing remains: you need to produce GOOD stuff, not just LOTS of stuff, and you need to be in it for the long run. Very few overnight sensations happen, and even fewer build a longterm lifestyle they can be proud of.
In terms of money: a 24-hour gym membership for £12.99 a month. I don’t believe that anyone who spends £4 a week on booze, chips, cigarettes, make-up, coffee, magazines, or who spends three hours a week on social media can claim that they do not have the money or the time to visit a gym three times a week for a dose of press ups, pull ups, squats and burpees. I would not allow free NHS care to anyone who doesn’t do this and whose health problem is linked to their fitness.
• What is an unusual habit or an absurd thing that you love?
Putting the car windows wide open on the motorway at 70mph, mid-winter, and seeing how long I can hack it for.
Swimming in cold water.
• In the last five years, what new belief, behaviour, or habit has most improved your life?
Working really hard to teach myself how to make better films even though they take soooo long to do, not many people watch them, and they earned me no money. Gradually though, I began to get work from brands because of my films and now my partnerships and campaigns have become a significant part of my income. Some people get cross with me when they see me using adventure to sell stuff. But they need to appreciate that, like pretty much every adventurer ever, I have to sell adventure in order to pay for life. Traditionally, for me, that has been in a less visible way, giving talks at corporate conferences. But now I also get to play outside, have fun, mess around making films, and earn enough to pay for my life and fund my own independent adventures and film projects.
• What advice would you give to a smart, driven college student about to enter the “real world”? What advice should they ignore?
Ignore the real world. Career advice has always been a hopeless art. It was ‘in my day’. It is even more so today when nearly all the ‘grown ups’ whose advice you might respect have no idea about careers that did not even exist a decade ago. So find the niche of the Internet that excites you the most, and listen to what the experts in that niche have to say about their life.
Ignore experts on the internet. Or, at least, beware that behind the cool blog, the enviable social media profiles, the seemingly idyllic life, is a whole iceberg of hard work, uncertainty, and people who don’t make it to the top.
Become a ‘working artist‘. For years I made the mistake of thinking that success was about fame, glory, money etc. I was envious of people more successful in my profession than me. And then I realised that an artist who measures himself against Da Vinci is destined for disappointment. Instead, measure yourself against yourself. Are you working harder than you did last year? Are you better than last year? Are you happier than last year? If the answers are ‘yes’, and if you are making an adequate living, then consider yourself to be fortunate indeed. I make a living doing what I love: that, to me, feels like success.
• What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?
Build a social media profile. If that is your first objective, and your greatest passion, then that is a pity. You should want to travel, to go on expeditions, for the sheer joy and challenge and excitement of them. To push yourself and become a broader, bigger person. That should come first and foremost. The times in my career when I have felt fraudulent, unhappy, reluctant to look in the mirror, are the times when I have pursued (not very successfully) fame and fortune rather than a difficult horizon. Striving to win the admiration of the Internet is a 21st Century madness.
The other bad recommendation I hear is all the “quit your job to follow your dreams” nonsense. Marvellous if you’re minted. Daft for the rest of us. My advice if you want to be doing something different with your working life to what you are doing at the moment is to start small. Fill your weekends and spare time with what you love. Become competent. Build your skills – both in the thing itself and in the story-telling side that, perhaps, might ultimately give you a route to earning some money. Photography, writing, speaking, film-making, whatever: you need to get good at something beyond the thing itself if you are going to make it pay. So work like mad, juggle all the balls in your life. When it gets too much, consider trading a day of your working week for a day of your passion. Repeat. Continue the process, little by little, until one day you realise you are earning enough from your passion to make a fist of it. Only then do I urge you to take the leap and quit your normal life for the new one. Work, work, work, work, and one day you’ll be an overnight success (or at least getting paid to do what you love, which is better even than that.)
• In the last five years, what have you become better at saying no to (distractions, invitations, etc.)? What new realisations and/or approaches helped? Any other tips?
I’m proud to say I’ve got really good at this! And now I am so much happier.
“Come speak at our event, unpaid. It will be great exposure.” – No thank you, when every single other person involved is being paid. The cleaners, the ticket staff, the food guys: everyone being paid. Me on stage talking for an hour for free? That’s not fair.
“Let’s grab a coffee and I can pick your brains.” – I wish you well on your adventure, but no thank you to giving you half a day of my life and pouring out twenty years of effort to you. (Compare this to “I have read the relevant bits of your blog. I have researched x and y. My plan is to do this. I still don’t have the answer to these specific questions.” In which case I would be delighted to help you.)
“Our networking event will be marvellous. Lots of celebs, glamour, flashing lights, and you will get to meet so many potential future clients.” – No way. Yuk!
I am terrible at saying ‘no’. I feel guilty, arrogant, unhelpful when I do it. But saying ‘no’ has been one of the most useful skills I have learned for freeing up time and mental space to do the stuff that is important for me. The way I do it is by having a pre-prepared ‘canned response’ in my emails. Whenever I want to say ‘no’ I just click a button and off it goes. I don’t feel so bad about being unhelpful or disappointing people this way. In case it may help you, this is what my message says:
Thank you very much for your kind invitation. Unfortunately, I am trying to buy back a little time in my life by saying ‘no’ to interesting things that I’d ordinarily love to say ‘yes’ to. Apologies not to be saying ‘yes’ this time. I hope you’ll understand.
• When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused, or have lost your focus temporarily, what do you do? (If helpful: What questions do you ask yourself?)
Go for a run.
Then I take out a piece of paper and brain dump all my thoughts. I make a long, unfiltered list of everything that is in my mind that needs doing (pay tax, buy milk, run a marathon, phone Mum…). I find this enormously helpful in freeing mental bandwidth.
Then I write a lot of lists. Places I’d like to go. Books I’d like to write. Aims for the year. Aims for ever. Aims for the next month. I just churn stuff like this out, over and over, randomly as my brain dictates. Little by little I get a feel for what feels important to me versus what feels urgent. There’s a critical, little noticed difference between the two.
Thank you to Tim Ferriss for these questions, taken from the interesting Tribe of Mentors book.