Reboot Podcast Episode #12 – The Journey After the Journey – with Polar Explorer Ben Saunders

The Reboot podcast showcases the heart and soul, the wins and losses, the ups and downs of startup leadership. On the show, Entrepreneurs, CEO’s, and Startup Leaders discuss with Jerry Colonna the emotional and psychological challenges they face daily as leaders.

Episode 12 // February 24, 2015

“Difficulties are just things to overcome, after all.”

– Sir. Ernest Shackleton


Ben Saunders

Ben Saunders

Polar Explorer

View Bio

Episode Description

Ben Saunders knows very well the ups and downs that come with attempting to do something extraordinary.  Like so many entrepreneurs, he struggled with the challenges of being an effective leader, and faced the pain of fundraising or not meeting payroll. But Ben’s end goal was a bit different.  He’ a polar explorer.  Between October 2013 and February 2014, he and his companion Tarka broke the record for the longest ever polar journey on foot. On their path to the South Pole, they faced temps of -50F and wind chills near -70F all while they covered nearly seventy marathons back-to-back on less than four hours of sleep a night.

This record-breaking journey was nearly ten years in the making for Ben, and truly was an amazing accomplishment, but despite all that he found the inner journey that followed even more challenging than what he faced out on the ice.  In this conversation, Ben and Jerry discuss his journey on and off the ice.

The Worst Journey In The World (book)  | Disappearing Into The Fire | Ben’s March 2014 Ted Talk | Ben Saunders on Twitter

Show Highlights

Key Takeaways

Jerry and Ben’s history

Jerry and Ben have worked together since 2008.

Jerry has always been struck by the similarities of Ben’s journey in achieving his goals, and that which he encounters with his more conventionally viewed entrepreneurs.

The similarities are for things such as fundraising, securing supplies, leading a team of people (sometimes well and sometimes not so well), dealing with disappointment, etc.

  • The only thing that may be different is that Ben had to face certain death if he failed.

If things went wrong it wasn’t just investors that would be let down.  The stakes were very high.

On Leadership

In so many ways Ben has become the CEO of this “weird business.”

  • In the summer of 2013, before he went to Antarctica, he received sponsorship deals and money.

There were eight people working for Ben at the time, which isn’t a big business but for Ben who likes living out of a backpack in the middle of nowhere – walking in to an office and seeing eight people with phones ringing, emails coming in, meetings, and conference calls he thought to himself, “How did this happen?”

Jerry mentioned that Ben has sat in on some of his workshops over the years, in particular, “Disappearing Into The Fire – Surviving The Startup Life.”

  • One of Jerry’s favorite Shakespearean quotes (which he includes in that workshop) is from Henry V in which the night before the Battle of Agincourt Henry speaks about the burden of leadership.
  • Henry says, “Upon the King! Let us our lives, our debts, our souls lay upon the King.”

Ben had this giant vision for many years on something that had never been done before of trying to complete this journey that had defeated two of the biggest icons of polar exploration in history – Sir Ernest Shackleton and Captain Robert Falcon Scott.

  • Both of these guys had tried and failed.  Captain Scott and his four team members died in the process, and no one had been able to finish the journey since.

This was a totally out there vision.  Ben had been working on this goal for so many years and believed so intensely that it was possible, that it made his team also believe it.

Setting this goal and saying, “I believe we can do this, and we are the team that is going to make it happen,” and then believing that with every fiber of his being was the easy part.

  • However, Ben felt pretty ill-equipped when it came to actually managing people and getting the most out of the team.

Looking back, Ben does not feel he was a great manager because he was also the product in a sense.

  • They weren’t selling a physical product, they were selling Ben’s ability to go out and complete this mission.
  • This resulted in a lot of pressure.

In 2008 (when the recession hit), they had really big challenges with a big sponsor pulling out, almost nothing in the bank, and were back to working in Ben’s spare bedroom.

  • They were basically back to square one and had to call people to raise money.

Andy Ward was Ben’s right-hand man for several years, and at that point, Ben didn’t have enough money to make payroll.

  • Andy continued working for him and just picked up other part-time jobs to cover his bills.
  • The team wasn’t doing this because it was well paid.

The entire team had a lot of pride in the fact they were trying to do something that was pioneering in a very challenging niche.

On The Expedition

Ben suggested that Jerry read the book “The Worst Journey In The World,” which was written by Apsley Cherry-Garrard (the youngest member of Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s team at 23-years old).

  • The New York Times said that it was to travel writing what “War and Peace” is to novels.
  • Jerry remembers crying when he read this book because it broke his heart.
  • After reading the book Jerry thought about Ben, his team, and the notion of them going on this same journey.

At this time last ye, r Ben and his teammate were still out on the expedition (they completed the journey in mid-February).

Ben did a fantastic job of documenting the journey with his blog posts where he was writing from the ice every day.

It was wonderful being able to share that story in real time, and in terms of data they sent more back from a human-powered expedition than ever before.

  • However, having the ability for this communication didn’t necessarily make things easier.

Compared to Sir Shackleton a century ago, Ben and his teammate’s suffering was entirely optional and self-imposed.

  • If Ben and his teammate wanted to make it stop all they would have to do is dial a number and someone would come and get them 1-2 days later.

Also having a satellite phone does not always make things easier.

  • It is great to be able to speak to your loved ones, but in Ben’s case it can make you more homesick, or take you out of the tunnel vision focus that you often need to have.

The Biggest Decision During the Expedition

The intention was to ski the 1,800 miles without any re-supply of food or equipment.

This meant they were pulling everything themselves, which is a big difference to how Captain Scott and Sir Shackleton did it because they had massive support teams with them (dozens and dozens of people).

  • Ben and his teammate were traveling in a different fashion with just themselves, but they did have better technology, equipment, and clothing.

All of these tools actually allowed Ben and his teammate to push themselves (as humans and athletes) even harder.

  • Each of them was carrying 440 pounds, which is more than twice as much as Captain Scott and his men were each pulling.

The technology doesn’t necessarily make things easier; it just opens you up to different ways of doing it, and different opportunities.

  • For Ben, this meant he thought it would be possible to make this journey with no support.

Ben thought it would be possible for two guys to pull 105 – 110 days worth of food, and the same amount of fuel for their stove to melt snow for drinking water.

  • A lot of experts disagreed.  A lot of people said this is impossible.

Ben and his teammate left 10 cases of food throughout their path for the return journey.

  • In hindsight they misjudged the amount they needed, the weather, the equipment condition, and their energy levels.

They were exhausted, as they had already covered 35 marathons back-to-back in the coldest place on earth.

Ben realized they were going to start running out of food before reaching the cases they left.

  • They started rationing what food they did have to half-portion rations.

Ben had never been that hungry or debilitated in his entire life, they lost a lot of weight, were generally exhausted, and started becoming hypothermic.

It happens very quickly, and you don’t really notice it happening.  You feel comfortable and you don’t feel cold.  When this happens you know you are in a really dangerous position.

  • Ben had to put his teammate in to bed and make him a hot drink because he didn’t know where he was, and Ben was in a similar state.

Ben knew this was a huge risk because they only had half of one day’s food left between them, and still had two-days of travel to get to their food supply.

For Ben this was the crux of his leadership opportunity where he had to consider how much this goal meant to him, and if it meant his friend’s and his life.

The decision Ben made was to stop, put the tent up, eat the food they had, and call for a re-supply.

  • A ski plane then brought eight days worth of more food, and it cost about $100,000.

This decision comprised the intent Ben had with this expedition, but it meant they could carry on and continue the journey.

Ben really beat himself up about this after the fact wondering what they could have done differently.

On Self-Worth

Ben recently realized that he never actually congratulated himself in succeeding on this journey.

  • So often we just move on to the next thing, but very rarely do we sit back and appreciate what we have already done.

Jerry refers to this as “the journey after the journey.”

This is the notion of failure and success, and the consequences of each.

In the months since Antarctica was over there have been some really dark times for Ben.

There was a brief blip of media interest, but there wasn’t massive public acclaim.  Ben expected a little more recognition, but this didn’t happen.

  • If you only play for the applause then you are putting your happiness in someone else’s hands.

Ben realized while he was waiting for public accolades that the general public has no idea, and just can’t relate to what they did.

  • The coldest temperatures were -50 degrees, and with the wind chill it was -60 degree to -70 degrees below zero.
  • They covered 1,800 miles, which is equivalent to 70 marathons back-to-back.
  • They were averaging 4.5 hours of sleep per night, and they were there for 105 days.
  • They were outside on their feet for 13 hours per day, and pulling over 400 pounds each.

Not many people can relate to these circumstances.

Jerry and Ben have talked a lot about mindfulness and being in the present, but in many respects Ben spent many years living in the future planning this expedition.

  • You cross the finish line that you have been aiming at for more than a decade, and nothing happens.

So often we think things are bad now, but they will be better in the future when you close your round of investment, IPO, etc.

  • After those things happen then you will be happy.

The biggest lesson Ben learned was decoupling personal self-worth from external validation (praise, criticism, etc.).

  • Self worth is inherent. We are all worthy people.
  • We are also too complex as human beings for it to be boiled down to how good we are at business, leading expeditions, or how much money you have in the bank.
  • It is impossible to objectively judge someone as good or bad.

This has really only sunk in for Ben in the last few months.

If you hang your self-worth on your achievements, work, and what other people say about you it will never lead to fulfillment, contentment, and happiness.

  • Happiness isn’t a finish line that you get to one day.  It is either here right now or it’s not, and that is up to you.

Jerry admires the way in which Ben has pieced together these existential thoughts that are enabling a recovery.

A few people had told Ben that what he was experiencing looks and sounds like post-traumatic stress disorder.

Ben was in a deep hole physically and mentally.  He had given everything he had to this journey, and he was absolutely exhausted.

  • Not just the 3.5-month journey, but also the 10 years leading up to it.

Jerry mentioned Ben had given everything he had not only in achieving the goal, but also in the external affirmation of self-worth.

Getting Out of a Hole

Academically, Ben was aware of athletes who had major accomplishments and then had fallen in to a hole afterwards, but he hadn’t really thought of what would happen when he crossed his finish line.

  • There was definitely a hole afterwards for him.

One thing that helped Ben was talking to people who had been through similar things.

Ben spoke at Ted in March, which was incredibly hard because it was only 5 weeks after his expedition ended.

  • This was the big main stage Ted, and it was the 30th anniversary with people like Bill Gates and Sting.

Ben was more unprepared than anyone there.  It was very stressful, and he was still shell-shocked from the expedition.

  • It was a talk he was making up as he went on.  It was totally raw.  He was so ashamed of this talk that he couldn’t bring himself to watch it for the entire rest of the year.

Looking back he thinks the talk works because it is the antithesis of the modern day Ted talk that is polished and rehearsed.  Ben’s talk was unrehearsed and raw.

  • The story was about the journey after the journey.  It was amazing the response it got.

People said they felt exactly the same way when the sold their first business, made their first million, got their first platinum album, Grammy, etc.

  • Ben connected with a lot of people who had gone through similar experiences.

Jerry mentioned when we attach our sense of self-worth and self-esteem to a goal, we may in effect fear completion.

  • There may be a sense of death associated with completion.

Jerry experienced this personally when he was 38 and had everything he ever wanted professionally, but still felt hollow.

Ben is proud of himself for getting to the point where he realized that achieving his goal doesn’t really matter in terms of how he sees his self-worth.

It was a fun project, people were inspired, and money was raised for charities but Ben’s self-worth is not made up of only this.

  • This has been the biggest lesson.

Jerry mentioned from a Buddhist perspective we are inherently worthwhile, and the evidence of that is having been born human because only human beings have the potential for enlightenment.

  • Self-worth is a birthright.  Not something that has to be earned.