30 Jul Fulfilment through Adventure
By Mal Macgown
There is an Adventurer within each of us. Perhaps it is stifled by notions of duty, necessity, complacency or, more commonly, fear masquerading as these. There are two stories that come to mind, from two very different lives, but with a common theme – that demonstrate how choosing to answer the call of the adventurous spirit, leads to growth, resilience, and fulfillment.
The first is a glimpse at why a well-paid, comfortable dental surgeon in a leading Sydney North Shore practice suddenly upped sticks and headed halfway around the world to try out for the British SAS – me and thousands of others pursuing their ultimate dream.
Madness or adventure? Well, there’s no doubt I loved my life here in Sydney. Great job, friends, beautiful part of the world. I even had a reasonable balance of adventure including triathlons and being a part-time Commando doing parachuting, roping, combat diving and the like. So, why, at the age of 29, risk all that balance for an adventure with an extremely high failure rate and one that could, and, on a good many occasions very nearly did get me killed?
There were certain fundamentals that drew me to risk it all to be part of this unit, so unlike any other in the world. Specifically, the British unit enjoys extensive operational history and its unique ethos, resonated with me. Whilst the relentless pursuit of excellence in all things is perhaps expected, there are other British SAS ideals that appear at odds with military and Special Forces norms – equality within their ranks and humility, for example. Being the thinker, the soldier and the spy all wrapped into one, and, further, embodying the dichotomy of the ‘super soldier’ capable of extraordinary things, whilst also being the empathetic humanitarian –to many observers in the world, this is an impossible combination.
I wanted to know if I was made of that stuff, and was therefore prepared to risk failure and all the adjustment in self-esteem and identity that can bring.
Just the 6-month selection process was an adventure in itself – in reality, that selection never ends and many consider it takes 4 years of intensive training before someone who passes selection is trained in the basics. This process took me to every extreme terrain imaginable – 4 months at a time in the deepest Arctic winter, 2 months in the steaming jungles of Borneo, the cold wet European mountains, the hottest months in the Mid East and the arid lands of Africa. The slightest wrong move or the hint of you losing composure or saying something you didn’t mean to, and you would be out. Suffice it to say, from the thousands that tried out for Selection from the British Regiments and from around the world, only 9 of us finally passed. Two of those nine, good friends, were dead within months of that honour.
My first major operation is a sobering example of the nature of this level of adventure – to endeavour where the outcome is unknown, to persevere against all odds. On this occasion, everything that could go wrong did. Dropped way behind enemy lines in Iraq in the first Gulf War, with 7 others, I was soon on my own, seriously injured, starving, freezing and fighting for survival. I knew at least one of my team, was dead. The fates of the others were unknown. Survival required all the resilience I could muster, as a prisoner of war under prolonged brutal interrogation and torture, suffering relentless pain. It stripped me down to my very core. It would have been easy, a relief, during the darkest days, to lose focus, just a little…….and perish.
And yet, I consider my cumulative experience, both good and bad, during my 10 years in the SAS, to have been the most rewarding, mentally stimulating and fulfilling adventure I could possibly have undertaken.
The second story is of my Grandmother, a true adventurer and an inspiration to me. She lived to 110, and from beginning to end pursued her adventures around the world from England to China and back. She was a lumberjack in the first world war, traveled to Hong Kong as a nurse between the wars, fled to England just before the Japanese invaded. Even when she was over 100 years old, she exemplified curiosity, taking a keen interest in all things; from international affairs to the internet, to the wellbeing of her neighbours and those in need. She loved nature and would often pack a lunch and with her black lab, Angus, set out for the day exploring the wild hills of Islay in Scotland. Her walks became shorter but she always ‘gave it a go’, pushing herself whilst respecting what her limits actually were.
Her attitude to life, her thinking, is, for me, the perfect paradigm of an adventurous spirit and why it is important. It kept her in the ‘Challenge Zone’, regularly, taking on measured risk, challenging and adjusting her limits, taking on the unknowns. Trying and failing, learning and growing and trying again. She understood, what this gave back to her – fulfillment in all aspects of life.
What do I feel is key to an adventurous spirit?
Essential to the adventurous spirit of curiosity, self-challenge and growth, is a practiced and deep connection with my inner-self – my top priority The need for raw honesty in my self-appraisal each day – a reality check.
We need to get used to looking inwards, understanding exactly who we are when stripped back to our centre. Calmly feeling and accepting our strengths, weaknesses, areas to improve on, our limits and where we can extend ourselves. This compassionate process enables us to set realistic goals, respecting our limits so that our challenges are achievable, rather than unrealistic limits resulting in continual failure, undermining our confidence
The importance of being prepared for failure and disappointment. We need to think carefully about what failure looks like and feels like, so it is not so much of a shock when it happens. For me, if I am prepared, I can understand more clearly how ‘failure’ emotions can be channeled positively, so I have a chance to learn, grow as a person and have a better chance of improving myself and my future performance.
How do we start? We must all start somewhere. Make the decision. Identify a goal, whatever it is, that matters to you, that gives you a little tingle of fear, but that you think you can achieve and, over time, gradually extend. It may be getting out of a hospital bed and learning to walk again, or simply going for a 5-minute walk rather than no walk at all. It may be exploring a place or going to an event or starting a course you’ve felt too intimidated to try before. It could even be having the courage to quit something that is holding you back in that private hell of stasis – whether that is an addiction or an unhealthy relationship or situation. The challenge, the thing that matters, the adventure, is different for each of us.
But whatever it is – allow yourself the courage to take that first step, to excite your curiosity and unlock the adventurer in you. Take personal responsibility for this. Take it from someone who has tried and fallen many times, it is the falling and feeling all the precious intensity of being laid bare, that will bring you closer to the nub of your true self – and closer to fulfillment. It cannot happen by itself – you need to make it happen.