Record-breaking adventurer Ed Stafford recalls four instances throughout his life that ‘waiting for the right time’ would have meant a completely different life today.
1. If I’d said, “not yet”: I would not have chosen a life outdoors
“Edward would you like to take part in a 3-day expedition over the Peak District with some of the older Scouts?” “Yes!” I grinned. Of course I did. Dumb question. “The only issue is, to comply with the Scouts regulations, we’ll have to lie about your age.” “No problem” I shot back, “I’ll do it!”
Back in Fleckney, in 1988, to get your Chief Scout’s Challenge Award you had to be 14-years-old. I was only 12. The trouble was I was about to be sent away to boarding school at 13 and so the opportunity would be my last and I knew it.
At such a young age the decision was based purely on not wanting to miss out and wanting to be a part of the older kids’ adventure.
Sean, Tim and (I think) Julian (sorry Julian – if that was your name. Double apologies if it wasn’t) were a couple of years older and the thrill of being asked to jump the waiting list and be given such responsibility made my stomach churn like a NutriBullet.
Even at that age I could see the compliment in the proposal. The leaders believed I was mature enough to tackle this expedition and were prepared to break some rules to make it happen.
Without adult leaders we had to navigate to various aircraft wrecks using our map and compass and it felt like we were in the movie Stand By Me. We were free, we were outdoors, and we were making our own decisions and responsible for our own safety.
If I had to pick one moment that subconsciously shaped my life at a really young age this would be it.
Scouts gave me a legitimate outlet for being inquisitive and to take risks. It seemed like all the things that were off-limits were suddenly encouraged in the Scouts. We could use an axe, light a fire, and go on walks in the middle of the night. The safer answer, considering my age, would have been for me (and my parents) to say, “Not yet.”
I’m so glad we didn’t.
2. If I’d said, “not yet”: I would be dead
Two decades later, in the summer of 2008, I was standing nervously in an indigenous village called Nuevo Poso in Amazonian Peru.
Two hours earlier Cho, my walking partner, and I had been detained at arrow-point by the angry residents after we had tried to sneak around their community without permission. But there now there seemed to be a deal on the table.
The tribal chief was called Andreas Dongo, and he was suggesting that he would indeed let us continue our trek down the Amazon River (through his land) on one condition. That we hired him and his brother, Alfonso, as guides.
Their resume so far was that they’d detained me at arrow-point, threatened to kill me, stolen items of kit from my rucksack and subjected me to hours of angry lecturing. Now I was having to make a decision on employing them to walk with me and protect me.
30 pairs of eyes scrutinised the ungainly pasty figure in front of them and undoubtedly questioned his credentials for getting himself into this predicament.
Yet instinctively I knew I now had the upper-hand.
I suspected that I could make this employment seem like a concession, but in fact to have two respected Asheninka tribesmen walk with us was more valuable than they could have imagined. I hired the most frightening men I’d met in months on the spot.
The shift in team dynamics meant that every time we entered a new community, rather than being treated with hostility and suspicion, we were greeted with the warmth and openness of family. Andreas and Alonso, the Dongo brothers, ended up walking with Cho and me for 47 days and became close and loyal allies.
When I said goodbye to them at a point on the river where they felt they must turn back and return to their people, I asked them what they thought would have happened to me had I not made the hasty decision to hire them.
Without even looking at each other they both answered at once:
“You’d be dead.”
3. If I’d said, “not yet”: I would not have my own TV show
Post Walking the Amazon Discovery Channel asked me to undertake “the ultimate survival experiment”.
They asked me if I was happy being dropped alone on an uninhabited island for 60 days without anything to help me survive. No food, water, knives, lighters or any kit to help me.
Now let’s put this in perspective.
I was an explorer and I could pack a rucksack. But at the time I certainly couldn’t light a fire without matches or a lighter; I had no hunting or trapping skills; and I hated fishing. So I suppose the sensible answer would have therefore been, “Not yet.”
My immediate “Yes!” Meant I had to go about finding the best instructor to teach me how to light a fire with two sticks. “None of this stuff is rocket science.” I told myself and I set about gaining the skills I would need to pull-off an experiment such as this.
In the end my somewhat crude understanding of bushcraft made the show more relatable.
My struggles and anguish at taking 13 days to light a fire were far closer to the experience that most people would encounter. If it had been done by a polished bushcraft guru who’d been honing his whittling skills since he was a nettle tea-sipping toddler where’s the excitement in that?
Looking back on it, if I’d delayed the show to become more experienced, the series would have had considerably less impact – and I may well not be doing what I’m doing today. It had been an opportunity to evolve from explorer to TV survivalist and, fortunately, I had grasped it with both inexperienced hands.
4. If I’d said, “not yet”: I would not be married with a son
In 2015, I met a beautiful lady called Laura.
She was planning a huge adventure to cycle across South America without touching any money. I was drawn to her energy and her zest for embracing life and seeking out adventure (I hardly noticed that she was five foot ten and a former model – honest).
When, after just three weeks, she was faced with eviction from her rented lodgings above a stable block, I should have said to myself, “Not yet Ed – not yet.”
I could hear the voices of my friends and family advising me cautiously, “We think its far too early!” and, “You don’t even know the girl!” Instead of listening to such voices I decided that everything happens for a reason and so I asked Laura to come and live with me in my little flat in Battersea.
Within three months we were engaged and once more the cautions began, “Give it some time Ed. We’re only thinking of you.” and, “Have you thought about taking out a prenup’ mate? You might need it.”
Two weeks after, we were married, Laura fell pregnant and in June 2017 we had our first son, Ran.
I think if any of these stories were to stand in isolation you could argue that I was lucky, and that under normal circumstances I’d be better off being more considered. The thing is they’re not in isolation – embracing opportunities and acting quickly on instinct has led me to a life that I cherish.
If I’d followed the rules in the Scouts I may not be here writing this article.
If I’d not employed the Dongo brothers I’d be dead.
If I’d taken time to build bushcraft skills up I may not be filming my eighth series for Discovery Channel next year.
If I’d listened to my cautious mates I could well still be living in a small flat in Battersea.
Life is for taking action. Life is for realising opportunities and embracing them.
“But Ed” I hear you ask, “you can’t say ‘yes’ to everything can you? There wouldn’t be enough time in the day.” This is true – and so my filter system to determine the opportunities to embrace is called, ‘“F*ck yes!” or “no”’.
‘“F*ck yes!” or “no”’ means that if your reaction to something is ‘“F*ck yes!” then game on. Seize the moment and do it decisively. But if your reaction is anything less – such as, “Maybe I could?” Or, “Perhaps that would be ok?” then its a categorical “No!”
Deliberating is not ‘“F*ck yes!”; considering is not ‘“F*ck yes!”; and, “Not yet,” is certainly not ‘“F*ck yes!”
If this is all still too confusing then just stop thinking. Use your gut to decide. Your brain often just gets in the way but your gut will tell you instantly if something is right for you. Listen to it.
But once you’ve decided don’t waste any time, because opportunities don’t hang around for ditherers.