Updated: Feb 26
One day when I am 90, what will have been really important to me? Undoubtedly if more people honestly answered this question, answered it with veracity and at a much younger age, we would see more people authentically aligned to what they do, how they lead, who they listen too, how they apply their energy and ultimately how they succeed.
Why do I say this? With some of the work we undertake in wilderness settings we repeatedly find people engaging with an inner dialogue asking themselves questions about their life’s journey and how true they have been to themselves. Most of these people are ambitious, and driven - People who have achieved much in the context of the commonly used definitions of success.
In beautiful orange and red hues, the sun was just dipping on the horizon of the African savanna. Silhouetted to the right of an ancient marula tree, facing the sunset, sat a deeply contemplative trail participant. Not far away we heard the soulful call of a black backed jackal. Through experience, I guessed that he might be thinking about his life’s journey, where he had been, where he was and what he wanted.
For people spending time in wilderness, this introspection is not unusual. Later that evening he spoke to me about how this trip had him unexpectedly taking stock both professionally and personally. By the conventional definition of success, this man owned property around the world and had held positions in major international corporations.
I was leading an unsupported backpacking trail on a stunning wild concession in the Greater Kruger National Park [one of the largest, and few remaining, open systems in the world]. Our group, an interesting mix of senior respected professionals, comprised two differently skilled executive team members, two SME business owners, a scientist, a specialist physician, an advocate and a highly skilled IT consultant.
With time I have started challenging the paradigm that society, technology or otherwise, gets in the way of people becoming their best authentic self. Yes, society can play an influence, but if we look at this statement in the principles of true ownership, extreme ownership, often we are our own worst supporter. Becoming your best authentic self requires deep work that requires your stamp of approval, not that of others - To this point:
When talking self development, society largely focuses on developing technical skills associated to a certain aspiration. Contrastingly it places very little emphasize on our undertaking deep introspection, and then doing the difficult associated work to allow us become the best authentic self we can be [not what we think we should be].
When looking at what we deem to be "the perfect picture of success" we mostly only see one slice of the picture versus the full, and possibly less appealing picture [pizza principle] . There is great truth in the principle that "there is no satisfaction in comparison”.
When self development work, it is often felt that we need the approval of others; Yet the person doing the deep self development work owns, or feels, the associated emotions and needs to look in the mirror upon waking up; Not society. Truly authentic and successful people find approval within themselves - They do not look to others for approval, they give themselves permission to succeed.
The principles of motivation are clear, we cannot create intrinsic motivation in others, it has to come from inside. As leaders driving performance we understand that we, in ideal terms, should recruit people who both align to the organisation and to the role taken. On a personal level how do we do release our intrinsic motivation, if there is no congruence with the picture painted on the outside to that on the inside?
Back to the African savanna. Roughly following the course of a major river, we were steered by the age-old wilderness philosophy of leaving only footprints and carrying in backpacks all that we needed to be completely self-sufficient. Our group loved following the tracks of two elephant bulls to find them some time later, spell bound they watched large pods of hippo who similarly observed them and on our final night they were blessed with lions roaring slightly west of our small tents.
Wilderness experiences afford us an opportunity to step away from what normally drives us. The combination of the sights, sounds, smells and exposure to big spaces, triggers a set of emotions that catalyze a sense of groundedness and re-connection with self. Much like the principle of the "the mirror and a glass", we often reflect on the memory of our journey and the vision of where we want to go and why. When I see a participant contemplatively collecting our drinking water from a well we have dug in a seemingly dry river bed, or silently looking with complete awe at a closely feeding herd of cape buffalo, or simply staring deeply to the horizon, I know that the chances are good that introspection is taking place.
Wild places have an incredible power to inspire, influence, create connection with others and improve cognitive function. They allow us to access our vulnerability, open a door to our introspectively exploring what optimally vs. sub-optimally motivates us and help shape who we continue to become. What was once seen as mildly esoteric is today proven in deeply validated research including studies from Stanford, Harvard, INSEAD and so forth. It comes as no surprise that the National Outdoor Leadership School (USA) annually sees 15,000 people work through their programs.
Global influencers such as Doctor Travis Bradberry argue that we should focus on spending our money on experiences versus more material possessions. We agree with this; We repeatedly see how most people arrive on safari, or a wilderness intervention, with a set of expectations - We know that some of those will be met, but we also know that most people leave with much more.
In the search for our been “the-best-we,-we-can-be” I think that many brave people have made leaps and bounds. Equally so I observe that many of us realize that our journey towards authenticity [professionally, socially and at homes] still requires lots of courage, vulnerability and real work. Just as we spend many hours exploring Simon Sinek's principle of “the why” to improve the businesses we work in, we should spend even more time applying this to ourselves. Tony Robbins talks of “identifying the incredible invisible force, that like gravity, controls your whole life”.
We aspire to those who have gotten it right to live truly authentic, and successful, lives. And so to the question, one day when I am 90, what will have been really important to me? In answering that question, a deeply personal question, I have no doubt that continuing exposure to wild places will help shape who we are and who we continue to become.
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