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.