A future through adventure
Tired of the recession and juggling figures and business plans? All managers eventually need to find ways of motivating themselves. Entrepreneur and psychologist Steve Carter suggests going on a desert escapade.
Perhaps one of the hardest things we do is to decide what we want to do - with our careers, with our time, with our lives. We might reach for the self-help book, filling in a few checklists in search of a way forward. Perhaps we are lucky enough to receive executive coaching; spending up to £20,000 on support.
Monasteries, Buddhist retreats and so on all offer timeouts for those seeking or needing a change in direction. But, perhaps for some, these gentle, reflective approaches are too disconnected from their personal style. For such people, a surer sense of purpose can be a benefit of involving themselves in something more adventurous. In some cases, a purpose that is a radical alter-native to what has gone before.
It's 5.30am in the Sahara desert. The Sun is just about to crest the Abu Maharik dune - the Father of the Shifters - which runs 600km south west, turning the sky a sequence of colours from white-gold through pale yellows to eggshell blue.
I stir slowly in my sleeping bag on the sand, treasuring the unhurried progress from the deepest of sleeps to a brand new day. Around me sleeping, scattered like tree trunks, my fellow adventurers are still sleeping.
A good adventure
With a mixture of reluctance and anticipation, I roll out of my sleeping bag and stagger across to where Saleh has already made some coffee on a decrepit gas stove and is kneading flour, water and little salt in a metal bowl to later make flat bread on the revived embers of last night's fire. He grins and passes me a battered old tin mug. "Shukran," I mutter in one of my few words of Arabic. "You're welcome," he replies.
Here I am, 200km from Cairo and 50km from the nearest road. We spent the previous day navigating across the sands using low-tech navigation techniques, such as tracing the shadow from a stick in the sand as the Sun moves from east to west, giving us a line from west to east. We had discovered Palaeolithic tools on the shore of an ancient lakebed, we had crested the dune and gazed into what seemed to be infinity. Then, last night, we sat around the campfire, Westerner and Bedouin sharing food and singing songs. Not only your body, but also your mind is in a different place out here. I wander across to a slight escarpment of sand and gravel, and sit down on top of it, sipping the coffee. 'This is a good adventure,' I think.
Looking back over the shallow valley that dips away from me, I watch the others struggle randomly into life. One of the earliest risers spots me and wanders over, scrambling up the last few metres. John and I had spent two hours in deep conversation the previous day. We had been crossing a vast flat lake-bed punctuated at intervals by strange outcrops of harder rock, formed by the mineral bearing spring water that once welled up into it.
He sits down next to me. "I've been thinking," he says. Because that is what you do in the desert.
There is a quality to the thinking you get on an adventure. I had noticed it when I took myself with a Berber guide on a trek in the Atlas Mountains a couple of years ago. Three days in, huffing and puffing over the barren rowan-bushed mountain passes and deep green and fertile valleys often only reachable by foot or mule, something changed in me. I noticed that the screaming babble of goals and demands I had arrived with had faded into a barely considered murmur.
Psychologically, the challenge of coping and testing yourself with immediate and primitive challenges - get there, eat, sleep - reduces the insistent noise of a complex world, to something that is now literally and figuratively a thousand miles away.
Life remains challenging, but it is a new simpler sort of challenge. Will this body of mine take me up that hill? This distancing effect just seems to cut through to what really matters. And this is sharpened by the overwhelming inspiration of the places you find yourself. Eating a boiled egg as you lie on your back at the top of a mountain pass and watch a Golden Eagle soar over head is the perfect place to make the big decisions.
Adventuring seems to cut out the complexities from our thinking, allowing us to simplify our lives to a few clearer goals, albeit ones that may be bold and stretching.
Pushing back boundaries
An adventure isn't just the place. If you can get tour guides to take you up Everest, and companies that can take you anywhere with a clear itinerary and a tight schedule, then an adventure is not so much about where you go, but how you get there.
It's a subjective thing. Adventurous journeys are ambiguous, you don't know each night where you will stop and you can't guarantee to get to your destination. Most of all, there has to be a challenge you don't have the complete confidence you can meet. It's under these conditions you learn so much more about yourself, discovering and re-discovering aspects of who you are that open up new possibilities or allow you to engage with your professional circumstances in different ways.
I had always thought that 'adventures' were something other younger, fitter, braver people did. People who thrash themselves into shape in early morning gyms, have learnt to tie complicated knots and who go for weeks only eating witchetty grubs. But then, a few years ago, my father, a very competent sailor who had always planned to sail the Atlantic when he retired, died. One of the effects on me was an overwhelming need to re-order my life and put the outdoors somewhere into it. I looked for adventures; little adventures that I could manage. The trick was not to see myself in competition with super athletes, but with due care and preparation to find something that challenged me.
I learned to choose adventures with respect to my abilities, but not to be afraid to explore what is possible. The trek through the Atlas Mountains was tough, but took no special skills. The desert is hot and tough, but flat. Sometimes it's about self-talk.
Out of this experience grew the conviction that other people could really be transformed by similar experiences. Alongside my regular role as a consultant to corporate senior management, I developed a commitment to use adventure to help others, to find out who they want to be and how they might achieve that. My clients tend at first to hesitate. Sometimes this is because they feel unsure of themselves physically, or, more intriguingly, because all 'real' adventures have been done.
The leader of the Sahara trip, my friend, the poet turned writer and explorer, Robert Twigger, sees the search for adventure as vital to the successful realisation of who we are and is one of champions of small scale, low budget expeditions. Although he has caught the world's longest snake, was the first person to cross Western Canada in a birch-bark canoe since 1793, and has hunted for lost oases in the Sahara and bona-fide Zombies in Haiti (and found them), he is keen that adventures are seen as personal.
Sitting under an unbelievable heaven the previous night, we had talked about the unknown and the undiscovered.
"The desert isn't empty," he said, "except of people. There are masses of stuff to be discovered. People are always finding new sites. You never know what next. New cave paintings, dinosaur bones and, until very recently, camel trains used to snake across the desert meaning all sorts of stuff over thousands of years used to get dropped.
"There's plenty of adventures to be had and exploring is a great way of having them," he went on. "It depends how you look at it. Exploring is as much about recording a place with new eyes as anything else. Sometimes retracing another explorer's steps can be so illuminating. When I crossed Canada in the canoe, we got to one point described in the 1793 expedition - a logjam - where absolutely nothing had changed in 200 years. There so many possibilities - and you just never know what you will find and where it will take you."
As I sat on that ridge, watching the sunrise, John started to tell me his latest plans and I couldn't help thinking that Robert was right.