About this time of year, a couple of years’ back, I was training for an expedition to the South Pole. We’d been working towards it for five years – preparing, planning, training, dreaming. I was stronger than I had ever been in my life. It was going to be a hell of an adventure. Exciting times!
And then our funding deadline came and went. We had failed to secure enough sponsorship. The expedition was off. We had failed.
I spent the next week in the pub feeling sorry for myself. We had all put so much into this, put our lives and ambitions on hold in pursuit of this one dream. It felt so unfair. Why wouldn’t someone give me £1,000,000 of their hard-earned money to go on a chilly camping holiday to the South Pole? And what the hell was I going to do now, my diary stretching empty for months off into the distance?
Here’s what I was going to do, I realised, in a welcome moment of clarity at the bottom of an inappropriately-early-in-the-day pint of lager. I was going to stop feeling sorry for myself.
I was going to stop blaming the world. I was going to take responsibility and control of my adventures rather than waiting for some mystery angel investor to swoop down, give me a load of money, and make my dreams come true.
I was going to see an empty diary as a wonderful opportunity.
And I was going to make shit happen. Myself.
Six weeks later, instead of beginning hauling a stupidly heavy sledge through a vast, inhospitable wasteland in Antarctica, I began hauling a stupidly heavy cart through a vast, inhospitable wasteland in Arabia instead. Ever since I first read about the adventures of Wilfred Thesiger a dozen years earlier, I had wanted to make a journey of my own, in his footsteps, into the Empty Quarter desert. After waiting 12 years, I now made it happen in just a month and a half.
Here’s how I did it.
I did it by committing to it. I blocked the dates off in my diary. I told people I was going to do it. I recruited someone to come with me. I didn’t really know the guy, Leon, though we would become good friends. It was enough for me that his reputation suggested he was competent to handle what the trip demanded of him, that he was filled with enthusiasm to make it happen, and that he was willing to commit – now – despite neither of us even knowing yet what needed to be done.
We bought flights: you need an important symbolic and financial declaration of intent that forces you into action. We prepared, trained, and learned as best we could before this too-soon-but-set-in-stone departure date. And then we began walking into the desert. It was a rush, certainly, but there will never be a perfect time.
You will never simultaneously have infinite time, money, freedom and mojo.
So the best time is now.
The beginning of the expedition was a farce – of course. This is what happens when you get going before you are ready. The alternative would see me still at home two years later, deep in research and development, seeking perfection, and hiding my lassitude and lack of balls behind it. “Ready, fire, aim!” is a good mantra for getting things up and running.
Our homemade desert cart, laden with 300kg of water and supplies, was useless: I had neglected to include a steering mechanism in the design. It went only in a straight line. There had just been time to test it, only once, on Margate beach, in the rain outside the deserted amusement arcades.
But it didn’t matter too much. We found people who could help us. You will always find people willing to help you if only you can demonstrate that you are committed, passionate, and determined. Our experts were a bunch of borderline illegal immigrant welders from across Asia who welded, whacked and improvised our desert cart into something that might, just, make it across the desert to Dubai. Whether you operate in the worlds of Minimal Viable Products, the concept of Shipping Early, or merely making a shit cart to haul across a hot desert because it makes you feel alive, the principal remains the same. First Commit. Then Begin. Everything else follows.
Our DIY desert adventure was seemingly a world away from the original South Pole journey. There were fewer penguins. There was less money too: £1000,000 of corporate sponsorship versus two thousand quid of our own earned cash. There was no glossy website or press release, no social media strategy or “world first” record.
But this new and very different expedition still contained all the core ingredients that initially provoked me into committing five years of my life trying to get to the South Pole. There was a bloody hard challenge, a journey in the footsteps of a hero in a land I would never otherwise experience. There was respect, empathy and friendship. And there was a good story and great memories.
And so, despite the shift from my initial goal, and although the replacement adventure was rushed, budget, amateur and improvised, it turned out to be everything that I wanted. We successfully completed the trek and we created a little film that we are proud of.
And what became of our terrible cart? It’s sitting proudly today in the official Wilfred Thesiger Museum in the United Arab Emirates!
This was part of a speech I gave for Escape the City.