Monthly Archive: April 2012

Alone: the awesome lesson of Charles Lindbergh

There are things that men used to know about themselves which have largely been forgotten in a world where office-based desk jobs are more common than opportunities to explore.

To me, the most fascinating, and possibly the most crucial is that of knowing how to go it alone. Knowing how to trust your own instincts and abilities and having the steely-minded determination to see things through even when your more childlike instincts are begging you to run away.

It’s less about courage than appropriate, learned, self-belief; the knowledge that you’re up to the challenge before you, even though you’ve never faced anything like it, because you’re highly aware of what you can and cannot do.

I recall a story about Charles Lindbergh, the first man to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, non-stop from New York to Paris, in 1927. I forget the name of the book it was in, but it was about the psychological impact, both good and bad, on people who have spent either protracted or significant (or both) periods of time totally alone.

Lindbergh’s flight was historic, and he was feted in the years that followed. But the 33.5-hour flight itself included hours upon hours over the hostile wastes of the icy ocean, some of those under cover of total darkness, with no means of communication and no hope of rescue should anything go wrong, fighting fatigue, discomfort and uncertainty.

Mostly what intrigued me however was how things changed once he crossed the halfway mark.

Up until that point, he always had the option of turning back. Beyond that point however, his choice was made. He was committed. It was only forward. From that moment on, the slightest change in the throb of the engine, the position of the needle on the oil pressure gauge, the fuel meter, the wind or the weather might provide a sudden and final warning that his adventure was up. It was a matter of hanging on through clenched teeth and sheer bloody-mindedness. By the time he crossed the coast of Ireland he had been awake for 48 hours, 24 of those airborne.

Once he crossed halfway, it was just him and the machine, and he had to be able to completely trust both.

In that famous flight, Lindbergh revealed two important things:

1) You can stretch. And then you can streeeeeetch. And you can really throw as many ‘ee’s into that as you want to drive the point home. For years, Lindbergh had been a mail pilot, and the mail was usually flown solo through the night skies over the United States. Flying across the Atlantic was just a matter of applying what he knew, to a bigger stage. He knew that he knew how to do it. He just had to stretch what he knew to wrap it around the bigger task at hand.

2) If you believe in yourself, you can go all-in. Lindbergh didn’t take a co-pilot though the prize for which he was competing didn’t specify he needed to fly solo. He also didn’t take a radio though it would have given him at least some opportunity to signal his whereabouts should something go wrong. He chose to forgo those things because it would let him swap the weight of a second human and of a radio, for extra fuel. He knew his capabilities wouldn’t be the inhibitor to his success because they were sufficient. A lack of gas might though. When you know your abilities well enough, you can upsize your risks.

But as darkness fell over the mid-Atlantic, the solo airman proved what for me is the most important thing of all: with appropriate self-belief and self-understanding, there’s little limit to the scope of the adventures you can have.

I run fast so I can spend more time standing still

I’ve just completed an interesting exercise for Don Packett at 21Tanks which made me investigate the core of my decision making in a way that I haven’t done enough of.

I don’t want to give too much of his project away, but it’s probably okay to say that I was invited to submit content for a book 21Tanks is producing and since in real life I tend to very closely resemble the guy on the left in the image above, it took me a while to get to grips with the whole thing.

I’ve realised something profound in the process. I know I’m pretty introverted. Anyone who knows me well will readily confirm that, because it’s probably the most obvious thing about me. What I hadn’t fully realised however is how much that introversion influences my every decision, even subliminally.

The good news (for me) is that apparently I belong to a group that numbers some 33% to 50% of the population according to this very compelling TED talk by Susan Cain, so as much as I may be an oddball, I am an oddball with a fairly sizeable posse. That honestly surprised me.

In my case specifically though, if I had to identify two of the most urgent things that have always driven me, I’d say without a doubt they would be impatience and the fear that I am not quite at the game no matter how hard I am pushing.

The first one may, oddly, be the hallmark of an extrovert; those members of the talk it up and get it done crowd. But the second is definitely a hallmark of the introvert; the over-analyser who frets endlessly that no matter how much he knows, there is always more that he doesn’t know … and the missing knowledge may be what actually matters.

What I realised this weekend however is that in terms of my self-appointed mission, those things are not paradoxical.

My impatience to get ahead as fast as I can has never been about more money, more things or more status. I’ve always known that. The people around me have changed their cars several times over the past ten years, but my own car is pushing 12  years old. It’s not the sort of thing that matters to me.

But what I have realised, bothers me a little. It occurs to me after this period of questioning that my sense of urgency in creating progress may have always been about nothing more than creating space for myself beyond scrutiny where I can get on with the introspection that truly consumes me. Basically, I run fast so that I have more time to stand still later.

I truly don’t know what that says about me …

It’s how you deal with the in-between times that matters most of all

Without getting all misty-eyed about it, I’ve been thinking a little lately about the way things end. And about how others begin too, I must hasten to add. But mostly I’ve been thinking – with a degree of gratitude actually – about the times in-between.

Get to my age and you know that things will end. I’ve had careers that did that; in some cases with a spectacular explosion. I’ve had friendships that did so too, some of them with great subsequent soul-searching as I tried to work out how the hell we’d got to where we’d got. Multiply that by 1000 for my marriage.

But I also know that new things are born from those. I know this because I’m still here and aside from bouts of manic bipolarity, generally very optimistic about what’s still got to come. My life today has been solidly rebooted from a fairly dramatic system crash in 2010 and the march continues, but with a little added pace and an extra dash of collected wisdom. I know now that what seemed like the end wasn’t, and that in fact, was just the beginning of something potentially even better.

I know that. So do we all, really. And if you don’t know it by now, there will come a time when you will, I am both sorry and delighted for you, to say.

What’s consuming my thoughts lately however is the in-between times. When one thing ends, another does not just begin. You don’t go from a company failure, the collapse of a marriage, the loss of your driving-force idea or anything so spiritually eviscerating and just pick yourself up again.

There is fall-out to deal with and with that comes lost focus, misdirected energy, casual self-destruction thinly-disguised as ego-rebuilding, anger, sorrow, and the dramatic sharpening of the sardonic vein of your humour. Or at least you’ll have a version of that, in miniature or on a very broad scale, depending on the scope of the drama that engulfed you.

But today, firmly on the upswing once again, I know this for certain: the in-between times are the most important ones you’ll ever know.

During the up times, you may be too busy revelling in the momentum and doing what you can to juice it for you to pay much attention to anything else. We’re mostly very good at our own versions of ‘if-it-ain’t-broke’ when there are things to protect.

During the down times, you’re too busy fighting to care about where you ultimately land. You make decisions about what you’ll figuratively (and perhaps actually) die for, and what you’ll allow to slide as you constantly re-adjust.

But it’s during the in-between times that you reset the rules by which you will live during the next phase. And I believe it’s only because we do that, that we have a next phase at all. Because once you get to the point of saying ‘I’ll never allow that to happen again’, you’re mentally starting the jog back up the hill.

The in-between times are edifying. They’re concentrated periods of massively raised self-awareness. And though by definition they have to be preceded by something bad, as I race out of such a period now, I am reminded once again – as I have been before – why I am grateful to experience them.