In his monthly Flash Pack column, Ed Stafford considers how adventure acts as a conduit to crucial life skills – from learning how to read people to becoming a better parent.
Develop awesome people skills
“Ed look behind you!” cautioned Cho, my Peruvian walking partner on my Amazon expedition, as I span around to observe five dugout canoes packed with Asheninka tribesmen heading towards us. Women clutched machetes and the men that were not paddling were stood up with bows and arrows trained in our direction. Faces were adorned with red war-like paint and strained in fury.
Instinctively my hands silently rose up into a passive open-palmed gesture to show I was not an aggressor. As the vessels landed, the villagers swarmed out of the boat clutching their weapons – all eyes trained on us. The adrenaline that my body had automatically released into my system was now processing information at lightning speed, which created the illusion that time was slowing down. This slow-motion was giving me the vital seconds that I needed to react in a manner that would hopefully save our lives.
Reading every inflection of every face my own behaviour was acutely responsive to the unfolding event. Nothing existed but this moment. I have never been more focused. I intuitively knew not to show fear, and to try and calm the situation down. I also had other layers of awareness advising me not to be too bold or brash as to come across as aggressive. Yet another level was warning me not to smile out of concern that it be interpreted as mocking or disrespectful. I felt like the very expression on my face had to be delicately managed to stay alive.
To summarise the next three fascinating yet utterly exhausting hours, we went from unequivocally nearly being killed, to hiring the chief and his brothers as guides. To summarise the next month, I expected the Dongo brothers would walk with us for three days but they remained part of my team for 47 days and became lasting and loyal friends.
I often describe adventures as being like life in glorious technicolour. They are inherently dangerous and dynamic, requiring constant skill and experience to navigate. It’s a tough thing to put into words but everyday life just gets that bit easier when you’ve been faced with such extreme life-threatening situations. At its simplest level you just have a wider set of experiences to draw on, so you are therefore wiser than if you’d stuck to the daily commute. But at a deeper level you’ve unwittingly trained yourself to become better and better with people in order to manipulate (in a good way) the outcome of a situation.
Become a planning and preparation guru
Before you even board the plane you are learning skills and gaining experience that will help you in other aspects of your life. To decide to have an adventure in the first instance takes courage and decisiveness. To ensure that it happens can take hard work, dedication, and thinking outside the box to blag some free kit perhaps. The process of planning a journey requires research skills and organisation. You’ll have to have targets and set deadlines as to when they need to get done. All of these are skills that I would argue give you an advantage in many jobs and when managing your life as a whole.
Even being able to pack efficiently and shrewdly is a skill that sets you apart as a human being in the modern world. Are you a flabby packer who has bulging heavy bags with lots of stuff chucked in “just in case”? Or have you carefully selected items that are lightweight, have multiple uses, and allow you to be as operationally flexible as possible when you are in country?
Tune in and become more self-aware
Sometimes you need a change of scenery to simply come up for air and give yourself some space to reflect. Having made a career out of taking things to extremes, my very intense version of this was to strand myself alone and naked on a desert island for 60 days.
To anyone considering a period of voluntary isolation I would say these words of supportive caution. Don’t underestimate it – it could just be the hardest thing you have ever done. I’m not just talking a little bit lonely, or “OK, I’m getting bored now”. I’m talking allowing your whole concept of who you are falling apart and have to rebuild yourself from scratch kinda hard. Life-changingly, skin-crawlingly, excruciatingly, earth-shatteringly hard. But in a good way.
Self-awareness is a trait that I value above many things. To understand what you are and how you want to interact with the world is a truly wonderful gift. To not simply stumble through life moaning about your problems elevates you to another plain of potential and possibilities. But you need to divert your attention inwards for a sustained period of time to unlock this magical door.
Learn to deal with pressure
The first time I realised anything was happening was a huge bang, no – a huge boom, and the ground shook like an earthquake. Initially stunned at my desk, I sat upright and my eyes opened wide to witness my comical work colleague stand up and run around the pre-fab building with his hands on his head shouting, “Don’t panic Captain Mainwaring!”
It was 2004 and we were working in a makeshift camp outside Herat airport in western Afghanistan. As electoral advisers to the United Nations our role was unarmed and it appeared that we were being bombed – probably by the Taliban.
As the reality of the event kicked in I lifted the phone and called Kabul. More violent explosions ripped through the air as I spoke, “We’ve come under attack. Ermmm…” my brain went blank – I didn’t really know what else to say. There were so many unanswered questions in my head that I have to admit – I froze.
Zooming out from the startled, recently-retired Army captain standing in the middle of a shower of Taliban-made bombs, is there any wonder that my brain, in this instance, was refusing to play ball? There were a couple of knowns: explosions appear to be going off all around our flimsy (unarmored) porta-cabin, but at this stage I had no further information and so my brain was frantically trying to fill in the gaps.
In truth there was little that we could do at this stage but pray that it wasn’t our time to go and wait for the explosions to stop. But if I was to give my more youthful self some advice it would be the practice of mindfulness. In instances of information or stress overload, there are too many things that you need to think about all at once. That’s why some people’s brains go to mush as they begin the panic and flap.
Simply stepping back from thoughts and emotion and becoming present allows us to go beyond thought and regain perspective. The simple act of “watching the thinker” takes energy away from the thinking brain and allows it to settle a little. This space and clarity enables those people who appear super-calm in a stressful situation to operate with composure. And who doesn’t have stressful parts of their everyday lives to wade through?
Flex your ability to deal with danger
This step will give you the confidence to be a better parent. We’ve all heard the almost cliched advice that “there are no failures – just learning experiences”. So it makes sense that if you have regular adventures where there is inherently more risk of making mistakes, then you give yourself more opportunities to learn and grow.
As talking about “managing risk” will probably ensure that 90% of the readers who have got this far in the article suddenly decide to leave, I’m going to give it a makeover and rebrand it as “dealing with danger”.
How you deal with potentially dangerous activities and situations evolves as you get older. The 20-something Ed would have gone looking for it and would have been very blasé about putting measures in place to reduce it. He was lucky though that some of the near misses on early expeditions didn’t have graver consequences. Thirty-something Ed was undoubtedly more experienced and responsible (you were slightly less likely to get killed if you followed him) but I don’t think he was aware of the huge benefits of taking risks. He just enjoyed the rush. Forty-something Ed is now a dad and that role shift has given him the opportunity to fully explore the value of taking risks.
A couple of months ago, I took my family to an uninhabited island off Sumatra to see if we could live off grid for a month starting with a big bottle of water and a bunch of bananas for the two-year-old. Why did I do it? Because I’d been hit by the very common instinct of wanting to protect my son from all dangers – but so much so, that I had to take a good look at how much risk I wanted to have in Ran’s life.
I’ve come to the conclusion is that it’s easier and lazier to wrap your kids in cotton wool. To give into instinct and never let them out of your sight. But from my experience, if you make the effort to find ways in which you can allow kids to confront manageable dangers then they can turbocharge their own development exponentially. It’s harder, you have to be aware of why you are choosing the bumpier road, but I think the results are utterly worth it.
Seeing my boy thrive on an island eating hermit crab legs and coconut toasted in the fire made my heart swell with pride. Laura, my wife, and I put our necks on the line to some degree to enable the whole experiment to happen, but I’m glad we did. I have no doubt that it was a bolder and more caring parenting decision than to stay at home and allow him to watch more Peppa Pig. I have no doubt that the adventures that have gone on have made me a better dad.
Images: Pete McBride, Discovery PR