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Polar explorer Eric Larsen will be quick to tell you he loves the cold. “Growing up in the midwest, that’s kind of like what our element was,” he says. “I was naturally drawn to the colder regions from a young age.” But Larsen wasn’t just drawn to it, he thrived in it, and he has spent the rest of his life making the Arctic regions of our planet his playground.
Larsen has hiked unassisted to the North and South poles multiple times, including bagging both in one year — the same year he summited Everest. Most recently, in 2014, he completed what might be the last unsupported traverse to the North Pole, a 480-mile trek over shifting ice in 53 days in some of the most extreme conditions on the planet. Larsen will be the first to tell you he has seen as many successes as failures in his expeditions (“I feel like most of the time things aren’t working out how I planned”), but that’s precisely how he has achieved greatness. As Larsen packed his bag before heading on his way to guide an (assisted) expedition to the North Pole, we spoke with him about how he measures, thinks about, and achieves success.
1. Don’t Fear Bad Choices
“My advice [on finding a passion] is to keep trying something until it sticks. Don’t be discouraged if something doesn’t work out or be afraid to reverse course. Too often, 20-year-olds think we have to make all these good choices to make everything work. I have a lot of crappy experiences that are actually pretty beneficial. I think there is no such thing as a bad experience.”
2. Make Use of Hope
“Hope is a really powerful thing. But hope unrealized is the worst thing in the world. In the North Pole, we had this expectation that the conditions would be getting better, and they got worse — more dangerous and physically scary. I was ready to give up. We were like 20 miles from the North Pole and this is after 52 days and I just reached my breaking point. So that’s a delicate balance.
I’d been hopeful the conditions would get better, but when I woke up I changed my mindset and said, ‘it’s shit the whole way.’ And then, I’m fine. Completely fine. That’s an interesting phenomenon in these trips. You get to this point where you realize you can’t control everything. It allows you to deal with that strain and fear and still be comfortable in it. The best way to be successful is to put yourself in a situation where you don’t have another choice. Do you give up or do you do it? You do it. “
In human nature, you just want to relax and coast when you can. And that’s the sort of situation that’s really most dangerous to us.
3. Learn From Failure
“Failure in the moment is hard, it sucks, and I’ve had so many times where I think, ‘What am I doing?’ But I like those failures. Those are good lessons. I’ve learned a lot of valuable skills and what not to do when I’m dealing with really hard objectives; failure is just part of the process. There’s a lot of cost in not being successful — physically and philosophically. And while the big failures are hardest to swallow and it takes a while to get through it, they eventually give you the greatest perspective.
4. Focus on the Process
“I’m involved in the most arbitrary sport in the world. I mean, we get to the North Pole and there’s no difference in the ice from one point to the next. It’s a little cliched, but the journey really is the destination. That is why I’m very vested in the process of what I do. We’re dealing with a lot of physical and mental challenges over the course of a big expedition, but on any given day, it’s not the hardest thing I’ll ever do. The cumulative effect is definitely the hardest, but it’s not like we’re sprinting for 10 hours straight. We’re just trying to sustain our effort. To be able to succeed, you have to love each one of those steps … maybe not love it, but endure it in some way or the other.”
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5. Trust Your Systems
“Our greatest assets are the systems we build around being safe and efficient. They help us conserve energy and avoid big body temperature peaks and troughs that lead to using extra calories. It’s a little like a chess game for what we do. Each part of that process is important for us because it has an impact. And it doesn’t necessarily have an immediate impact. What we do on week one could impact five weeks later. So it’s just a real, deliberate, thoughtful process. That’s not human nature. In human nature, you just want to relax and coast when you can. And that’s the sort of situation that’s really most dangerous to us.”
6. Identify Distractions and Tune Them Out
“On trips that stretch on for such a long time, outside thoughts can take away from your ability to move forward. They suck energy and they’re stressful. They take away from the mindfulness and thoughtfulness — that kind of presence that you need to be in. On a pragmatic level it’s just distraction. So when you’re facing a challenge, put on music or listen to a podcast to try to keep your mind off of those things. You need to take this mental hand and push these thoughts back down.”
Hope is a really powerful thing. But hope unrealized is the worst thing in the world.
7. Don’t Forget Short-Term Goals
“We deal a lot with goal setting. Our ability to foresee how we’re going to get there is impossible. We don’t have any idea what the conditions are like further toward the Pole — there are too many variables. That’s why shorter term goals are so important — even if that’s to just get through the first hour of the day. Then you get to have a snack.”
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8. Rethink Your Focus
“Think about doing one single thing without an interaction for two months. That just doesn’t happen in our lives. We don’t have any context for that because we’re getting texts, and emails, and going to see a movie. So when you’re staring down two months of this physically hard mentally challenging uncomfortable situation with an uncertain outcome, it’s overwhelming. If you just focus on the long-term goals, you get discouraged. And if you only focus on the short-term goals, you don’t necessarily have direction.
I have nightmares about waking up and being on day two of an expedition. It’s because of the time — time when you don’t have a lot of say in what’s going on. That’s where goal setting becomes so important, because each short-term and long-term goal buttresses and supports one another.”
Featured Photo: Eric Larsen in the Arctic. Photo credit: Eric Larsen