Hailed as “truly extraordinary” by Sir Ranulph Fiennes and “Britain’s most intrepid hero since Scott of the Antarctic” , adventurer Ed Stafford hit the record books after becoming the first man to walk the Amazon. The deadly journey took two and half years and, now a Discovery Channel documentary, ignited a career in solo adventure. Ed continues to travel and film all over the world, surviving in some of the most hostile environments on earth, for TV shows Naked and Marooned and Left For Dead to his upcoming series First Man Out.
This is Ed Stafford’s Flash Pack column, written once a month from somewhere remote and halfway across the planet. Probably. Enjoy the read…
I think it’s fairly common to think that you’re constantly at your peak of life wisdom. In my 20s, as a young platoon commander, I thought I could take on the world. When I turned 30, I looked back on my twenty-something-year-old self and cringed at his manner and his decisions. What a complete prat. In my 40s, I guess I’m still a way off being my very own Yoda but I guess I have more life experience than ever before, especially with a career in adventure. Whether 40 is the new 30s is still up for debate, but here’s what I’ve learned so far; my 10 life lessons to excel in your 40s.
I’d be naive to think I won’t continue to grow and that they won’t have changed in a decade…
1. Always wear sunscreen
Just kidding – in-fact the age-old adage is not much more than a salesman’s con.
Sunscreen just encourages extended exposure to the sun. I personally think there is little more healing than a good bout of sunshine, and if you feel you’re even slightly at risk of burning then cover up or get out of the sun!
2. Don’t sweat the small stuff
After years of having “attention to detail” drummed into me in the military this is a hard one to let go of.
But, as much as I used to love the fact that I was anally retentive with regards to precision and took pride in my professionalism, I now find that (like many of my ex-military colleagues) I just need to chill out a bit.
When someone causes me to be late for a party and I feel my blood begin to boil, I just breathe deeply and smile. Does it really matter in the grand scheme of things? No it doesn’t. Be late and be proud of your new-found nonchalance.
No one likes an uptight stress-monger.
3. Don’t fixate on the goal
Okay, so, yes, blinkered stubbornness has got me a long way in life (and I certainly wouldn’t want to discredit being focussed and determined) but to do so at the expense of everything else creates lots of problems.
The main one is that everything becomes a mere stepping stone to achieving your goals – whether that be a person or event. If all you care about is arriving, then they are either helping (reduced to a means to an end) or they are hindering (and so have to be removed or destroyed).
Of course, we all want to excel in life – but by simply stepping back and enjoying the journey (people and experiences) you diffuse the bomb and the tension goes away.
4. Which leads me neatly onto: Don’t try and fix everything and everyone
My definition of stress is the gap between how you want the world to be and how it actually is.
And stress is a killer – so to be constantly thinking that “everything will be better if only X happens” is to resign yourself to a life where you will be in a tense and restless state until X happens.
The older I get, the more I try to just accept things as they are. That doesn’t mean that you can’t have goals or want change. But it does mean that you have to accept fully the world the way it is right now before you try and positively influence it.
5. You are what you eat
Anyone joining me embark on the trudge through the foothills of this seasoned decade may agree that you can’t “get away with it” any more.
Youth is full of forgiveness and your elastic body would spring back into shape time and time again even after poor food choices.
Recently, I had a blood test and it would appear those choices are catching up with me and punching me in the stomach. From heart attacks to cancer – the risks are getting higher with age but it’s not too late to have a massive impact on those likelihoods.
Supplements aside, the single most significant thing that one can do to stave off chronic illness (aside from shedding the stress above) is to eat healthily. So, fill your plate with colourful veg and choose your meat wisely as you really do have the ability to heal yourself from the inside.
6. Practice “progressive overload”
If you don’t intervene, post-thirty, the older you get, the weaker you become. Fact.
Just look at all the old-age-pensioners in the Olympics – exactly – there aren’t any. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Ross Edgely’s amazing book ‘The World’s Fittest’ describes a simple theory of “progressive overload”.
Basically, if you do the same old exercise or run every day for the next five years you’ll stagnate. Obviously if you decrease your training you’ll get weaker and fatter. But if you make tiny, incremental improvements (in weight, repetitions or speed) in your training EVERY time you train then, even in your 40s, you will continue to get fitter, leaner and stronger.
And, at a time when all your mates are growing Dad-bellies, who doesn’t want that?
7. Don’t wait to enjoy your retirement
My Dad died at 56. My next two best mate’s fathers died at similar ages. Granted they had to endure a lifetime of processed food and meditation hadn’t been reinvented then, but it could, literally, all be over tomorrow.
My Dad was from an era when men were dutiful. He forced himself into the office day after day, month after month, year after year. He died in his mid-fifties of lung cancer, leaving his wife and us two kids in our early twenties.
He never smoked a cigarette in his life. Plan if you want. Invest in pensions if you want. Organise your retirement home if you really have to (you nerd) but please don’t do any of it at the expense of living life to the full today. Being too tired when you come home from work to play with the kids isn’t acceptable. Sort it out.
8. Retain your identity
“We’ve got really into ‘I’m a Celebrity…’ this year and we’ve started to cut out dairy products.”
If this is you – please collectively walk off a cliff whilst holding hands. If you find yourself starting more sentences with “We” than with “I” you’ve lost yourself and you need help. I’m not anti-strong, lifelong relationships – quite the opposite – but they weaken when people loose themselves and become dull as dishwater.
If your partner doesn’t like you spending time doing the things that you love to do then ask yourself does he/she have your best interests at heart? The best analogy I’ve heard of a marriage is that its like a harbour. A ship is safest in harbour, and returns to harbour for refuelling and repairs, but a ship is built to sail.
Don’t feel guilty if your passion takes you away for a bit, your relationship and the people you care about should support and nourish you, not restrict you.
9. Wife/husband before kids
As a somewhat crass young man the saying ‘chicks before mates’ would get hurled around the changing rooms if someone had their priorities confused.
And, at the time, such loyalty to male friends was appropriate and thus formed very strong lifelong friendships. But in a world so stained by divorce and split families I think it’s all too easy to slip into loving your kids more than your other half.
On an instinctual level, you start saying things like, “my life feels more meaningful now” or “everything revolves around the children” but if this is happening I think you may have trouble ahead.
Neglect your partner at your own peril. As a man in the UK, loose her and you might as well say goodbye to your children (weekends if you’re lucky) and your house. So make the shift away from the changing room taunt before it’s too late.
Hold onto yourself of course (see point eight), but the most important relationship always has to be that between you and your spouse. And for that to last the years – you have to also be passionate.
10. Keep laughing
Humour never undermined anything in my opinion. You could take the gravest scenario in the world and I’d argue that humour had a place.
The sick jokes that crawl out of the woodwork far too quickly after someone famous dies are just a public display of resolve and of (as the Royal Marines would say) “cheerfulness in the face of adversity”.
I find the moment when I loose my sense of humour is a signal that I’ve lost composure and am worrying to a detrimental degree. Step back, laugh at the situation or at yourself, and absorb fully that life without laughter is not a full and happy life.