Ed Stafford: Putting yourself first is the secret to personal growth

Ed Stafford

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This article is part of our summer content series celebrating the concept of being ‘positively selfish’. We’re turning our focus on the self, recognising how a little selfishness can be a positive thing – how it can even promote your personal growth. To kick off our Positively Selfish Ambassadors series, we’ve caught up with explorer Ed Stafford on what positive selfishness means to him.

For 2,000 years, Britain has had a culture based on one form or another of Christianity. I’m not actively religious (and don’t worry, this is certainly not an article where I try and recruit you into the fold) but it does mean that by default a lot of our cultural ideas and beliefs in this country are quite… Christian.

One of the most Christian things I can think of is doing things for others. Putting others first and sacrificing yourself in the name of being a decent, upstanding member of society is what won us the war. Keep calm and carry on (perhaps at your own detriment?).

Now clearly there will be times in life when you need to put community before self, but fast forward 2,000 years since the Miraculous Conception and one might argue that in putting others first (as a default way to live your life) might not be the best way to proceed.

Read more: Finding happiness – how to live in the moment

Ed Stafford

Photo credits: Ed Stafford

A reflected sense of self

For quite some years in my 20s and early 30s, I struggled with mental health problems. Not straight-jacket issues I hasten to add, but it was a time when I just got on with life and did what I thought was expected of me. I went to uni because it was kinda expected; I got a job in the Army as it kept others off my back asking me what I wanted to do with my life. I was having fun on the weekend, sure (a lot), but I wasn’t flourishing in work or love because I had never taken the time to really look inwards.
There are huge parallels between this Christian / British sense of duty and the psychological condition of having a “reflected sense of self”. If you do stuff to fit in, if you do stuff to please your parents or spouse, if you tip-toe through life on eggshells, then you are likely to have a deep lack of meaning in your life because you’ve never given yourself the luxury of being selfish. You’ve never journeyed towards understanding where your place in the world is, and how you can live the very best, happiest and most rewarding life for you.
In 2007, I had no steady job. I lived in a mate’s attic in Stockwell and stumbled from opportunity to opportunity. I’d worked out what didn’t make me happy (the discipline and rules of the military) but I’d then I’d lost focus slightly as, now outside the Army, I drifted from one short-term freelance job to another.

Read more: Don’t avoid danger – it will fuel your personal growth

Ed Stafford in the army

Photo credits: Ed Stafford

Embracing personal growth

Whilst on one one of these temp jobs, sitting in a bar in Belize, after many drunken conversations, I hit upon the idea of walking the length of the Amazon River. Luke, another contracted expedition leader, had had a daft idea to kayak the Amazon River and, as I’d read Running the Amazon by Joe Kane, I convinced him that his was a dumb idea as it had been done before. What, I argued, would be extraordinary, is if we were to try to be the first people ever to walk it. He agreed, and we shook hands.
When you meander through life pleasing others (or even upsetting them), it is startlingly obvious when you get excited about doing something for yourself. For a start it transcends the mind; I started getting tingles in my belly that rippled up through my entire body. Call it fear, excitement, it doesn’t matter – but a core part of myself had awoken and felt alive.
It seems trite to summarise that from that moment on I knew I would walk the Amazon. But somehow, perhaps because of how much this idea resonated with me at the deepest of levels, I did. I knew that this was a golden opportunity for personal growth; it would push me beyond my comfort zone and set me on a journey into the self.
The odds were stacked against me somewhat. Nobody had ever done it before and the experts all agreed it was impossible. The impassable tributaries, the vast expanses of flooded forest, the indigenous tribes, the drugs traffickers, the snakes… the list went on.
Everyone had an opinion and it was only my Mum who actually believed in me and thought it was a good idea. Could it be that she picked up on the fact that it was the first time I’d ever really struck out on my own and made a bold decision and she was backing that self-belief?
It was the right time of life for me; I was 32-years-old, single with no kids. I had enough confidence in my skills and experience to think I had a fighting chance but, probably more importantly, I had no ties to guilt me into abandoning the dream and staying sat on the sofa at home. I seized the moment and I packed my rucksack.

Read more: How to be fearless – in 5 key steps

Ed Stafford walking the Amazon

Photo credits: Ed Stafford

Danger will help you find yourself

Climbers, wing-suit flyers and base-jumpers will understand having to be slightly selfish to face danger. In my previous article, I went into great lengths about the benefits of adding risk to your life, but is one of the reasons that many people don’t have huge adventures in their life actually not because they are frightened to, but because they are too considerate of the people around them? Too British? Too nice??
You have to make your own choices of course, but that it’s sad to see people not living life because of not wanting to burden others with worry. Life is for living after all, not for being terrified of dying.
Buddhism realises that in order to be a benefit to society you have to journey inwards first. I think we all owe it to ourselves to smash our way out of our considerate British way of life and stick two fingers up at convention and do something selfish.
Do something that really excites you that is for you and no-one else. Put your personal growth first and go on a journey within yourself. And if you do then I suspect you may actually evolve into the best version of you. A version that is happier and more at peace. And a version that is actually a far bigger contributor to your friends and family than the yes man that he usurped.

Feeling inspired? Embrace the unknown on these 3 epic adventures:

Beautiful Bali 

Hike a live volcano at sunrise, snorkel through a forest of coral reef around the remains of a shipwreck, and immerse yourself in the sacred pools of a water shrine.

Take me there

Tropical Thailand 

Boats sailing around the blue seas of Khao Sok National Park

Explore the lake waters of Khao Sok National Park, navigate the backstreets of Bangkok and learn how to rock climb on the limestone cliffs of Krabi.

Tell me more

Vibrant India

The Taj Mahal at sundown

Admire the shimmering beauty of the Taj Mahal at dawn, encounter wild tigers in Ranthambore National Park and take a high tea picnic in the Aravalli Hills.

Show me India

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