In March 2017 my brother Ben left his job, stepped out the front door of his house in Dublin and kissed his wife goodbye. He walked out into the rain, through the southern suburbs up into the Wicklow Mountains, and at the end of the day set up camp just out of sight of the road amongst the soggy heather, in a spot that is normally about a forty-five minute drive away. It was the first night of an epic journey on foot.
It took him six days to get to the port of Rosslare where he hopped on the ferry to Cherbourg and then set off to Istanbul. I am fascinated by Ben’s extraordinary, yet totally ordinary, feat. Walking is so ordinary we don’t really think about it, but walking from Dublin to Istanbul is quite extraordinary!
Modern technology has enabled him to keep in regular touch with his wife and the family. It’s been wonderful to follow his progress on Twitter (@Trampeur) and to watch the little icon he set up for us on Google Maps that shows where he is while he’s traversing the continent of Europe.
The trip had been two years in the planning and he was well prepared both physically and mentally. But there were many times in the first couple of months when he said the toughest bits were managing his thoughts. It became a very basic existence with fundamental anxieties like: how far will I get today? Where will I sleep? Where will I get some food? He shared that he had to get comfortable with not having all the answers and striking ahead with limited information. He could only speak to locals about which villages on his route might have shops and opportunistically ask for water in cafés he discovered that weren’t on his maps.
I promised I would join him for a few days in the summer, and it was interesting to coordinate a meeting point that would allow me to fly in, and for him to accurately estimate where he would be. By gathering just enough statistics about his progress to date, he was able to be able to do some ‘back of the envelope’ forecasting. He was averaging 18km per day, usually walking 3-5 days at 20-30km per day, and then taking a rest day or two. In the end we chose to meet in Zagreb, Croatia. Ben was already fit as a fiddle and over four months into his trip, so in order to keep up with him I made sure I regularly visited the gym in the weeks prior to joining him. However I totally underestimated the challenge of walking 25km per day in 32 degrees heat with 13kg on my back -four kilos of that was four litres of water, so at least it got lighter during the day!
Sleeping wild was interesting and it was surprising how bitterly cold it got at night. All I had was a thin sleeping mat, sleeping bag and a Basha for shelter. (The Basha is a bit of army kit which is a thin sheet of waterproofed synthetic material that you put over your walking poles – so no sides, ends or floor). It felt very exposed. However waking up with shafts of early morning sunlight striking my face as it inched over the horizon, and the intense humming of hundreds of bees collecting morning nectar from the wild flowers all around us, was wonderful. It was beautiful to walk along tiny back roads and through small Croatian villages, but after only one full day of intense walking my left knee became quite painful due to an old skiing injury. That made it interesting to practice staying mindful and focused on the task: just putting one step in front of another.
Milestones and Metaphors
In many ways my tiny taster of Ben’s walking trip was very inspiring and a fascinating metaphor for business and life in general. There were many beautiful vistas and it was magnificent to see a hawk gliding in a thermal, scanning the corn fields far below for food. But there was also the relentlessly mundane; just putting one foot in front of another. Step after step . . . knowing that there were many kilometres ahead. It really brought home the classic saying, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”.
Sometimes in business it feels like very little progress is being made and it’s vital to stay on track, just putting one foot in front of the other . . . despite the discomfort or the uncertainty of what lies ahead. It’s also vital to stay motivated. Ben had a very clear goal: Istanbul. But that was often far too daunting to think about, especially in the early days. He told me, “Some days I really didn’t feel the love, but I just pressed on, knowing that I was making progress even if it was painful or tedious”. Most of the time it was about mapping out the distance to the next village or town (quite literally milestones), or if they were too far to reach in one day, finding an appropriate and safe spot to set up camp and sleep wild.
Consider this . . .
What is your audacious business or organisational goal? Do you have appropriately motivating milestones? This is critical if you have a team. While you may be inspired a leap out of bed every day because you are one day closer to your goal, it is important to recognise the needs of the team. They will have different motivators and may not share your enthusiasm for your goal. What are the bitesize chunks they need to focus on? As a leader it is your job to find out what they are inspired by, what they are passionate about. It’s then up to you to link the organisation’s goals with their personal aspirations. This unleashes their talent and creativity for mutual benefit, even when it gets mundane for a long stretch.
Fit, Lean and Super-Efficient
By the time I caught up with Ben he was fit, lean and super-efficient. He had just two of every item of clothing – one to wear, the other to wash and dry during the day. All his clothing was very economical and high-tech; light-weight, non-absorbent and water-repelling so he remained comfortable and dry whatever the weather. Walking shoes were replaced after every 1000km (four pairs so far!). Food was purchased on a ‘just in time’ basis so there was less to carry; plenty of water was the priority. With careful planning there was usually a village shop or café en route to get some food. Breakfast was often porridge cooked on his tiny gas stove, lunch was usually a rest in a field with a loaf of local bread and cheese or tinned fish, with only a proper meal in the evening.
Consider this . . .
How are you maintaining a lean and efficient operation so there is no unnecessary weight? Is everyone fully trained for their role? Do they have the best equipment for the job? Are processes and procedures fit for purpose? Is everyone on the team pulling in the same direction? Do people plan for the rest, recuperation and re-energising that is vital to success?
Clarity of Purpose and Mind
While walking alongside Ben at a healthy 5km per hour we chatted about life, relationships, movies and books we’d read. He was listening to a lot of Podcasts during some of the more mundane stretches along busy roads and we shared some of the latest thinking from the fields of neuroscience and psychology. It was interesting to discuss purpose, mindfulness and how powerful it can be to manage your thinking rather than let it run riot. There is a fine balance between being present in the moment so you are guided by your purpose and focused on the job at hand, and time travelling into the future to envisage a clear and inspiring goal.
For Ben it was all about being very mindful of traffic on busy roads, staying safe, fed and watered, while putting one step in front of the other to get to Istanbul. By the way, in case you were wondering, his purpose, from his blog, is quite simple: “I want to experience travel in the most elementary way possible: on foot, sleeping wherever I stop for the day”, while adding, “to demonstrate that the world is a safer place than you might be led to believe”.
For more see http://trampeur.blot.im/about.
Consider this . . .
How effective are you at reminding your people about the purpose of your organisation, its vision and end-goals, while encouraging them to be the best they can be in the moment? There is now a lot of research saying that people want meaning in their work and that they want to know how their job plays a part in achieving a greater purpose. Many people also need regular encouragement to be the best they can be. That takes effort on the part of the individual as well as the manager. What are you doing to encourage your people to regularly self-assess and evaluate what they need to do tomorrow that will make them better than they were today?
Another reason for Ben doing this epic trip is to get him out of his comfort zone, to rearrange established thought patterns so he can open himself up to new ideas. He is in mid-career and said, “I think I have much to gain from a radical change of perspective. . . I needed to step way out of my comfort zone”. This trip is definitely radical!
Consider this . . .
While I’m not advocating that you need to walk across Europe, how are you facilitating changes in perspective? Modern business requires new thinking and shifting paradigms to stay ahead. If you carry on doing what you have always done you will continue getting what you always got, and many businesses have floundered due to lack of inviting new perspectives. Back in 1998 I left my job to backpack around northern India and Nepal for three months – it gave me a very different world-view. Just a couple of years ago I did Vipassana, a ten day silent meditation. This also shifted my perspective and helped me to very clearly see that most of the chatter in my head was nonsense based on old biases and programming. What are you doing to step out of your comfort zone and shift your thinking beyond habitual patterns?
Zooming In and Zooming Out
Ben would spend a lot of time checking maps, both hard-copy and digital. The exact route was never clear more than a day or week in advance but the end goal was always crystal clear. Maps are fascinating. Each level of detail has its purpose. Ben needed the overview of Europe to choose his route and decide whether he would go north or south of the Alps. He was initially planning to go south through northern Italy but opted for north in the end. He walked across northern France, through southern Germany, dropped south through the Austrian Alps to Slovenia, then south-east through the Balkans; Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria and into Turkey.
In France he had good quality high resolution maps of 1cm:1 km so he could see farmsteads and walking trails – he wanted to avoid main roads as much as possible because sadly many long-distance walkers and cyclists are killed by traffic. However the further east he went the rougher the maps became (while walking in Croatia we discovered a town with a major bridge that was not even on the map) so he started using Maps.me which allows you to download maps when connected to wifi that you can read with GPS when you are offline. Every now and again he would have to zoom-out and make a major decision about the route i.e. whether to follow a particular river valley but most of the time it was village to village.
Consider this . . .
How effective are you and your team at zooming in and zooming out? What maps are you using to navigate your way to achieving your vision? The key skill of a leader is to be able to know where to place their attention. This may be at the granular detail of a financial spreadsheet or specific task, or at the broad level of purpose, vision and strategy – as well as anywhere in between. This mental agility is key to success in the complex world and economic environment we now live in. I see many managers get stuck in the details of the job, rather than train and delegate, so they can keep an eye on the big picture and direction.
Inspired to do more
While my initial trip with Ben was rather uncomfortable, painful and exhausting, I was very inspired by being with him. When I got home I realised that, while I thought I was fit and prepared, I wasn’t. So I immediately decided to join him for another little stretch through Bulgaria. This time I’d been on the treadmill with a 13kg weight jacket to get my knees stronger and I doubled up with special knee supports. I also ensured that I had comfy new high-tech walking shoes rather than the old walking boots I’d used on the first attempt. The second trip was very different and far more enjoyable despite a few blisters with aching feet, calves and thighs toward the end of a 35km day. I was far more prepared mentally, and by having the proper equipment (especially the knee supports), I was able to go farther for longer. We walked from the small town of Dimitrovgrad in Serbia to Sofia the capital of Bulgaria. Sixty-seven kilometres in just two days. It was tough going but very enjoyable, especially the quality time with Ben, because we don’t get to see one another very often. If you like photos you can see my snaps from the trip on Flickr.
Consider this . . .
Where do you get your inspiration? What are you doing to inspire your people? This can often be a very personal thing, but if you never ask, you will never know. I’d like to invite you to be relentlessly curious about what it is that inspires and motivates your people. If you can tap into that, everything becomes so much easier. Life and business are tough enough, and there are always mundane tasks that need to be done, no matter how senior you are or sophisticated your job is. However when you have a clear purpose, vision and goal driven by inspiration and determination, it is relatively easy to overcome the greatest obstacles and achieve extraordinary results, one step at a time.
Remember . . . stay curious!
With best regards
P.S. Ben is due to arrive in Istanbul on the 4th November, where his wife Aisling will meet him on the Galata Bridge.