Polar explorer Ben Saunders has described the lessons he learned about setting goals, teamwork, and self belief when he became the first person to successfully walk to the South Pole and back.
Speaking at the CIPS UK Conference, Saunders discussed the importance of resilience after he walked for 10 hours a day for 108 days to travel 1,795 miles across Antarctica, following in the footsteps of failed missions by explorers Captain Robert Falcon Scott and Sir Ernest Shackleton.
He described weeks of walking through a completely featureless landscape, at times in a total whiteout where it was only possible to navigate by compass, and the mental and physical toll this took.
Saunders, who dragged a 200kg sled, lost 22kg of body weight during the journey and spent countless hours melting snow for drinking water.
The 42-year-old said the thought of a cheeseburger had kept him going for much of the last phase of the journey, but he didn’t feel a sense of elation or relief when crossing the finish line in 2014.
“We worked our butts off for 15 years and nothing really happened. It was vaguely disappointing. When I looked back on this experience, I realised I had perhaps made the mistake of thinking success was a threshold, a finish line in the future. If I worked hard enough, one day I’d get there and step across that line and everything would be awesome. My life would change profoundly.
“It's the biggest cliché going, but the journey is the most important part and not the destination. In business, of course, there is no finish line. I'm not saying for one second that it's not important to be ambitious, to have vision and goals that genuinely challenge and stretch you and your team, your people and your technology. But I am saying that you should use those goals as waypoints, not as destinations where everything stops when you get there,” Saunders said.
Saunders and his fellow explorer Tarka L'Herpiniere were not able to shower and only changed their underwear three times during the trip, but the process taught the duo a lot about teamwork and communication.
“It revolved around being radically and brutally honest, open and frank with each other. We understood that if something small wasn't working properly, if we ignored it and hoped it would resolve itself and somehow go away, under that much pressure, small things become big issues very quickly.
“If the other person was doing something that the other felt was impeding our performance as a team, the agreement was that we would table it, talk about it and try and fix it straight away.” It is important to recognise that the criticism comes from a desire to find a positive solution.
Nowadays, Saunders has moved into a new career and the new environment has tested his skills and self belief in a similar way to exploring one of the planet’s harshest climates.
“That feeling of being a little bit out of my depth, a little bit overstretched has come with every milestone in my life, every big expedition that I've pulled off. I realised that feeling was not a sign that I was in the wrong place, but the reverse. Whatever was happening, I was going to learn and grow from this challenge.
“My theory is that self belief is a malleable human quality that responds to stimulus. It's a bit like strength or endurance, physical stamina. The more you stretch it and test it, the stronger it becomes. If you only do what you know how to do or what is comfortable, your self belief is never challenged and given the impetus to grow.”
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