This week I was in Finse, Norway training for an upcoming polar expedition. The training involved skiing up to 25 km per day while pulling a 130-pound sled in blizzard conditions, sleeping in freezing tents, eating dehydrated food with only a shovel as a restroom. It was painful, cold, and difficult, and yet I loved it.
I have often pondered why many entrepreneurs like myself love adventure travel and extreme sports. It’s seemingly ironic because we have everything we could ever hope for. This is doubly ironic as I am built grateful and optimistic. Not a day goes by that I am not thankful for everything life has given me: an amazing family, lots of close friends, health, the opportunity to pursue my purpose, the freedom to explore, and an aptitude for happiness.
So why do we put ourselves in situations where we deprive ourselves of the very things we are thankful for and risk losing it all?
I remember vividly driving a Formula 1 car back in 2000. As I pushed it to its limits, time slowed down. I never felt as alive as I was in that moment where I knew if I went any faster, I would lose control. After a lifetime of professional and personal risk taking, as a tech founder and investor who loves to heli ski, kitesurf and do many types of adventure travel, I have a few insights.
1. A love for flow states
Flow states are magical. They are these moments where everything else disappears and you become in sync with your surroundings, at one with your environment operating at the highest level. Yet they are fleeting and are not the norm of the human condition.
As I will detail in my upcoming review of Stealing Fire, extreme sports are an amazing way to harness flow states because they require focus and concentration. The risk of death seemingly quiets the monkey mind. In my case, my mind is rather quiet to begin with, possibly because I suffer from aphantasia. However, I still love that meditative state that I enter in when skiing in deep powder, taking in the scenery and weaving through the trees in a flowy dance. Likewise, I love flying above the waves while kitesurfing or kitefoiling, feeling the sun on my face, the wind in my hair and the smell of the ocean around me, experiencing the contour of the waves under my feet.
And so it was last week. I was exhausted, pulling my sled in a white-out blizzard where I could not see if I was going up or down. My entire field of vision was 100% white. All I did was focus on my breath, gliding one foot, then the next in a rhythmic way: one, two, one, two, over and over again. I entered into a trance-like state where I felt at one with the elements. Our minds must not like blank canvases because I started hallucinating that we were in a valley with a refuge offering hope of shelter in the distance. In that moment I understood how travelers lost in the desert can see the mirage of an oasis. (To be clear, I was not on any substance, psychedelic or otherwise.)
This is not to say that extreme sports and adventure travel are the only way of achieving flow states. Quite the contrary, I experience them through meditation, psychedelics, tantric sex, or when in the zone while playing padel or tennis. Those are all different modalities we can use to reach the same state.
In the West, the most common way people use to reach a flow state is through mastery of a skill. It’s always wondrous to witness these displays of magic. We can always tell when we are witnessing it. This is why we are in such awe of the prowess of Federer, Messi or Jordan and reward them accordingly. I have experienced watching this in so many contexts: watching Steve Jobs on stage, attending Derren Brown’s magic show, listening to Hamilton on Broadway, but also in countless other moments from “normal” individuals who had mastered a skill.
The one requirement for using a skill as a means of entering a flow state is mastery. While I was learning skiing, tennis, or kite surfing, I was never in a flow state. I was focused on technique and repetition. It’s only once you master something enough that the process can disappear in the background that you can be in the zone. You will be well rewarded, but you must put in the hours.
That is why I recommend extreme sports and adventure travel. They are a shortcut. You do not need mastery. Let me attest to how few skills I truly have when it comes to surviving in the cold and cross-country skiing, but the dangers involved focus your attention and act as a flow state generating machine.
2. A sense of meaning ingrained in the human condition
Humans seem to have this ingrained need for feeling danger and thrill. It was probably built in our psyche because for most of homo-sapiens’ existence we faced death from other humans, wildlife, and nature itself.
This is why many of my friends in the military often have trouble adjusting when they come home from active duty. The mundanity of modern-day life seems dull relative to the life and death situations they face daily. Shallower traditional friendships pale in comparison with the bond they have with their brothers in arms.
We feel there is something somewhat empty and unsatisfying about the nature of modern life where everything is safe, sanitized, and superficial. Perhaps what we all need is a bit of danger and risk to remind ourselves what we are living for.
Extreme sports and adventure travel are such a form of synthetic risk. We face risk, but in a measured and controlled environment. We do not want to experience the sufferings and deprivations of real war, but our psyche needs to feel the thrill and possibility of risk.
It’s worth noting that many “risky” things are less risky than they may appear at first glance. When I told my parents I left McKinsey when I was 23, they were horrified. I had just been promoted to associate. I was making nearly two hundred thousand dollars a year. To this point I had never really failed at anything I tried. Beyond leaving the safety and prestige of the job, they worried that a failure would crush me.
In a way they were right. With my first startup, I went from zero to hero. I grew it to over $10M per month in gross merchandise sales with over 100 employees in two years. I made the cover of every magazine and was a hero of the Internet revolution in France. Then it all came crashing down. The Internet bubble burst and I went from hero to zero and lost it all. My parents’ worst fears had been realized.
However, what I had really lost? I had confidence in my abilities. Even if I had to crash on their couch for a while, I did not worry I would starve. Worse comes to worse, I could always go back to McKinsey or take a regular job. I knew my skills were valuable and valued. In return I lived a life of purpose. I had a clarity of focus and sense of mission. That’s why in the end I chose to remain an Internet entrepreneur. I had not gone into it to make money anyway. I just wanted to build something out of nothing and use technology to help make the world a better place. As the bubble had burst, I thought that whatever I would build would not necessarily be very large, but it did not bother me. In the end, I was wrong in that assessment and succeeded beyond my wildest dreams.
The same is true of the risks involved in adventure travel. The risks of death are extremely small. I think what people really fear is the discomfort they will face. It is true, you will face discomfort, but in return you will get a sense of accomplishment through grit and tenacity that is unparalleled in modern-day life.
3. Gratitude practice
People appreciate most what they have when they are at risk of losing it. I am built profoundly grateful, but every time I come back from a week of camping, I become so appreciative of all the little things we take for granted. I am truly in awe of the magic of modern life. I marvel at a light turning on at the flick of a button, at the ability to have hot water come out of a tap, not to mention the convenience of indoor plumbing. I also become infinitely grateful for the culinary delights available in modern society where every combination of flavor and taste is seemingly possible.
And do not get me started on the magic of modern-day communications and travel. We essentially all have access to the sum total of humanity’s knowledge in our pockets in a device that doubles as a free wireless video communications system. We can be in touch with countless people from all around the world. On top of that we have the means to go see them on the other side of the world in less than 24 hours. Those are feats that would have been not only impossible, but essentially inconceivable in the past. They are so extraordinary that they feel like actual magic!
4. An openness to serendipity
On my polar expedition training, I ended up sharing a tent Dr. Jack Kreindler for several nights. That magical combination of both spending an extended period of time and facing adversity together, where we truly depended on each other for survival, led us to become fast friends. I came to love his intellect, personal mission, directness, foul-mouthed sense of humor, and lust for adventure.
However, the true magic was that this was completely unplanned. Had he reached out to me saying that I sounded interesting, and we should go camping together to get to know each other, I would have said no. I lead a busy life. However, such is the serendipity that happens when you say yes to the opportunities that present themselves to you and I am sure we will be friends for years to come.
5. New learnings
There is something beautiful about learning something new. Putting yourself in new, unfamiliar environments is an amazing way to learn new skills, create new neural connections and keep yourself young.
I have done a lot of warm weather camping in my life but had never done cold weather camping other than the night I was accidentally caught in a freak August blizzard in Yellowstone utterly unprepared and improperly equipped. Likewise, while I am a great downhill skier, I had never cross country skied.
I had to learn so many things during the last week: how to set the tent in a way that it’s not blown away by the Antarctic winds; how to cross-country ski pulling a 130-pound pulk; how to melt snow for water and cooking inside a tent; how to stay warm throughout it all; and so much more.
I also discovered that Finse is the snow kiting capital of the world, so I decided to extend my stay to learn snow kiting. As a result, I am thinking of extending my Antarctic trip. I am supposed to ski the last degree to the South Pole next January. Now, I am thinking I should kite back from the South Pole to Hercules station as well.
6. Clarity of thought
Taking yourself out of your daily routine is an amazing way to be thoughtful and reflective. We often have thoughts weighing on us which warrant a decision. However, the busyness of modern-day life and the emotions of being caught in the moment make it difficult to go beyond our reptilian brain and to activate clear, dispassionate thinking.
Adventure travel takes you out of your normal environment, and the seeming risks involved help you enter a hypnogenic state where solutions seemingly come out of nowhere. You can see problems in a new light and find the rational solution to the problems you are facing providing you with a plan of action and course to take.
7. Staying Grounded
Achieving success can sometimes mean losing sight of the difference between needs and wants. Experiences like polar arctic training can recrystallize the difference and remind us that we really have very few needs — health, water, food, basic shelter, and companionship.
This is what life is. A patchwork quilt of experiences that we curate or fall into with our family and friends, and relive with the broader community in our retelling, the memories of which keeps our hearts and minds alive.
The biggest risk is not taking one. Provided you have the basics covered in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, say yes to adventure, opportunities and seemingly risky endeavors. They are less risky than they appear, and you will feel more alive, enter magical flow states, get a profound sense of purpose, learn gratitude, and have new magical encounters and learnings while clearing your mind.
As a new parent, I am already encouraging positive risk taking in my son. He loves being taken on all the adventures. I put him in a sling, and he screams in delight as the world flies by while we are biking, skiing and generally running around like crazy. As we speak, I am holding him by his fingers as he attempts to take his first steps.
Go out there and live!