The Philosophy of an Explorer by Erling Kagge

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Most of us have some dreams in the back of our minds that we feel we should pursue, but often don’t. Whenever we choose safety over excitement, we miss out on the joy of living.

Being an explorer means setting your own compass and actively pursuing your dreams. There are some principles that will help you along the way, such as doing the hard things first, keeping a positive attitude, preparing thoroughly, avoiding stupid risks, finding solace in solitude, and embracing your own greatness.

Main Notes

On the importance of being in nature

→ Nature has its own language, experiences and consciousness. It tells us where we come from and what we should do on the road ahead. [..] The more I remove myself from nature and the more I increase my availability to the modern world, the more restless I become. The more unhappy, too. I am no scientist and realize that I may be mistaken, but my experience has been that feelings of insecurity, loneliness and depression to a large extent stem from the flattening of the world that occurs when we are alienated from nature.

→ I missed the forest, the mountains and the ocean, the feeling of physical exertion in the outdoors. It was a yearning that came from inside me, a deep-felt need for close contact with elements not made by machines. To feel the sun, rain, cold, wind, mud and water on my body. To listen.

On following your dreams

As many have noted before me, it’s easier to take ourselves out of our dreams than to take our dreams out of us. I don’t recommend that anyone set out to do exactly what I have done, even though I know that many have it within their power. Those were my goals. My hope is that this little book will help you – irrespective of your age or gender – to find your own North Pole, your own Mount Everest, your own dream. It can feel both unpleasant and somewhat risky to change your own world. But perhaps it’s even more risky to do nothing, and not to try to discover how good life can be. What you will regret in times to come may be the chances you didn’t take, the initiatives you didn’t show. What you didn’t do. If you say it’s impossible and I say it’s possible, we’re probably both right.

→ On that journey there was no shortage of reasons to remain in a sleeping bag: frostbite, illness, tiredness and injury. At low points we told each other that in the grand scheme of things this was a relatively short period of our lives, and that before long we’d be able to rest. It was no different on the journey to the South Pole. ‘There are certainly plenty who envy me, but few who would swap places with me,’ I noted in my journal. The thought of getting up is far worse than the act itself in those situations. In that way it’s like an Alfred Hitchcock film: there’s no terror in the bang itself, only in the anticipation of it. Because the greatest danger is – as in a good horror film – putting things off. And get up I must. It’s simply a question of whether I put it off for five minutes or five hours. Getting out of one’s sleeping bag isn’t just the greatest challenge on an expedition, it’s also the most crucial step. Most things are easy after that. [..] On expeditions, as in life generally, the final step is dependent on the first, and vice versa.

→ It seems that many of us have a fear of our own greatness, and so make ourselves less than we are. It’s not always an expressed fear, but an idea lurking in the background, putting a damper on things. Almost like a little voice inside each and every one of us saying that it’s time to give up, that it’s not worth continuing, that we’ve come far enough. It’s easy to reject the exciting in favour of the safe, and forget that we each have numerous opportunities for new positive experiences, and to achieve the things we’ve always dreamed of.

On being brave

→ One thing most explorers have in common is this: that when we seek out challenges and dangers, it’s not about playing with death – quite the opposite. We seek out danger because experiencing intense situations and having the ability to surmount them feel like a confirmation of our own power of existence.

Being brave definitely means having some idea of the consequences of your undertaking. At home many thought we were courageous to set out on an expedition to the North Pole, not least because at times the temperature would drop below minus fifty degrees. When I travelled round South-East Asia giving lectures, I was met with little response when I quoted such temperatures; it didn’t seem that fifty below meant anything at all to my Asian audience. It then occurred to me that perhaps they had never experienced the freezing cold and therefore weren’t impressed by the idea of someone enduring temperatures like that. By contrast, it was because my listeners had seldom been alone for more than fifty minutes that they were so fascinated by the thought of being alone for fifty days on a solo journey to the poles.

→ When I climbed Everest, I was so exhausted during the last 300 metres that I went to sleep whenever I sat down on my rucksack to have a break. All common sense said that I should turn back. But, by that time, I’d stopped listening to reason. All I did was put one leg in front of the other, no matter the cost. I felt like an animal, and I acted out of instinct and nothing more. I’ve been given credit for my courage that day and for staying the course. Personally I believe I was neither brave nor cowardly, I was merely dopey and had stopped thinking rationally. Courage presupposes fear, or at least concern for one’s safety, and that was something I had neither the wits nor the strength to consider.

→ Showing courage in day-to-day life can be a different challenge altogether. Now and again it strikes me that I’d rather climb Everest twice again than have to go through what some people face in everyday life, with all its injustice and cruelty. Being responsible for raising three teenage girls seems far more daunting to me than scaling any mountain. It takes so much courage to battle a serious illness, to show kindness, keep promises, to end relationships – not to mention daring to love and to express love – to deal with betrayal, disappointments and sorrow. As the Norwegian psychiatrist Finn Skårderud once asked: ‘What is a bungee jump compared to waiting for the call of a loved one that never comes?’

→ Courage presupposes that the challenge has an element of danger. It’s great to work hard for a good cause in the office of a charity, but courage is not necessarily demanded. For any undertaking to be truly challenging you have to stand to lose something. This applies in great things as in small. You might be risking the annoyance or scorn of others, physical danger or economic uncertainty.

On loneliness

‘Loneliness is of course not an asset in and of itself. It often feels like a burden, but it also has potential. Everyone is lonely – some more than others – but no one escapes it,’ writes the Norwegian philosopher Lars Svendsen in his book The Philosophy of Loneliness. Many religions and philosophical systems across the ages have emphasized that loneliness can be something positive, but today many people perceive it as something intrinsically negative. For me it’s all about how I respond to the situation of being alone, whether I’m able to harness loneliness in a good way or whether I just become restless or a little frantic. Often I find that I’m restless for the first hours and days of a period of being by myself, but usually – if I can stay the course and not allow myself to be tempted into seeking out company or distracting myself by thinking about the past or future – a sense of calm settles over me after a time. Then I can start to enjoy being alone. That experience of loneliness is very close to what is sometimes termed ‘solitude’.

→ [Speaking about reaching the South Pole by foot] Today, several years later, I still don’t have all the answers to what I learned during those days and nights on the ice. But I do recognize that it was during that period of my life that I learned that it was possible to live in a different way to how I had done before. Being alone, being left to oneself for an indefinite period of time, isn’t dangerous. Quite the opposite. When I came home my life continued as before. Invoices had to be paid, clothes had to be washed and when my washing machine broke down it had to be repaired. The difference was that I was more certain of what was important in my life. I became better at separating things that really meant something from what meant far less, and sorting out which people were of importance to me and which were not. I also knew that now and again I had to be alone, or else I could easily forget just who I was.

On freedom of choice and responsibility

The secret to a good life, seen from the ice, is to keep your joys simple. I don’t see it as a goal to live as simply as this at home, but nor do I believe that the best thing for me is the maximum freedom of choice possible. It’s always about having just enough options to feel I can choose one that works for me, but not so many that I feel I’m not able to assess the relative merits of each option. There’s not as much difference as it appears between having no options and having a plethora of them. Both situations can render me powerless – although, on balance, I might prefer having no options to choose from. In that case I’m just frustrated, but if I have options and make the wrong choice, then I have frustration and regret to contend with.

→ In a lecture to students at Kenyon College, Ohio, the American author David Foster Wallace talked about the importance of paying attention to what’s happening right in front of you, rather than becoming preoccupied with abstract ideas. A free life should involve discipline, attention and awareness, and, of course, generosity. Real freedom is being able ‘to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day’.

On hard work and luck

→ No one believed I could ever manage to run a publishing house; many even continued to doubt it long after I’d started. Strictly speaking, I’ve only had two advantages over others with similar dreams: that I try hard and that I’ve been good at preparation – a bit better than some and a lot better than others. In that sense, I’ve had it easier en route. What I’ve lacked in terms of muscle and native wit I’ve tried to make up for by not standing about with my hands in my pockets. ‘Victory awaits him who has everything in order – this is called good luck. For him who has neglected to take the necessary measures in time, failure is an absolute certainty – this is called bad luck.’ These words come from Roald Amundsen’s account of how he became the first in history to reach the South Pole.

When I finally set off on an expedition, there’s a certain satisfaction in knowing I’ve done everything I could have done beforehand. And more often than not, I feel like I’m attracting good fortune when I’ve done my homework. The possibilities pursue me. At other times I’ve been badly prepared. On those occasions it feels like I’m constantly on the defensive. Before I’ve solved one problem another has arisen. Then it feels as if bad luck is stalking me.

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