A Life Well Lived
As part of our journey to Re-Define Wealth we are exploring what “A Life Well Lived” means: interviewing artists, entrepreneurs, explorers, and change-makers as they share some of their stories and ask “what is my life well lived?”.
Ed Stafford shot to fame after becoming the first person to walk the length of the Amazon River, a world record that took almost two and a half years to complete and saw him pick up awards from the National Geographic and even scoop the title of European Adventurer of the Year in 2011. His book “Walking the Amazon” has been sold in over 100 countries and he is currently filming his fourth series for Discovery Channel.
From walking the Amazon to being marooned on a pacific island with nothing but camera equipment for 60 days (not even so much as clothes on his back), Ed is the real deal. A real adventurer.
We were lucky enough to spend some time with him when he joined us at our Mayfair branch ahead of a Conde Nast Travellers Talk he was, much to his disbelief, the star of.
On a Life Well lived
“For me, having lived all sorts of different types of lives, I think the life that I’m leading now is good because it’s an honest life. Starting to do expeditions and survival stuff, I’ve realised that a lot of people overcomplicate their lives”
“When I started the amazon walk, along the way we had to cross the river in little boats and we’d end up drifting down the river slightly, [further than] where we’d set off… This really frustrated me on the day that it happened and I chatted to my local Peruvian guide (Cho) and I said look, we can’t let this happen again, and he said “no Ed, actually we need to go back and do the whole of today again, and every time we need to cross the river, we need to walk back, diametrically opposite to where we set off so we can prove that we’ve done the whole expedition, and we’ve walked the whole way.”
“And I think for me this was such a life lesson, because it wasn’t about what you could get away with or what people would know, it was about internally going yeah, that’s the right thing to do. And I think for me, a life well lived is doing the right thing. And then everything else is easy.”
“It’s almost a cliché it’s so obvious, but there is such a small-mindedness if you don’t travel .. I do think the most impressive people are the people who are the most travelled … if you don’t meet other cultures, if you don’t learn things, if you don’t have things confront you and go, am I doing this right? Is this the right way to live?”
“I am really pleased that I’ve had the opportunity to travel and therefore the people that inspire me are generally those people that have experienced a lot of life.”
Fulfilment and finding real purpose is something many people strive for their entire lives. Ed is quite literally living his dream, but is that where he finds his fulfilment? And across all of his adventures, is there one thing he would urge everyone to experience?
“I think the older I get, the less it is about attaining physical things and I think I feel most fulfilled when I’m giving. I’m an ambassador for the Scouts, and I work for a number of different youth development charities, and the most fulfilling thing is taking what I’ve done and taking, well, what I suppose on the face of it is the success of my career .. and saying “well what can we do with this now”. My profile is nowhere near as big as someone like Bear [Grylls], but I admire him for being Chief Scout and getting so many people in to Scouting which is now so oversubscribed. If there is anything positive in something that is inherently a bit inane, walking from A to B isn’t very complicated is it, but if I can use that to inspire other people to not just play video games all day long, get off the couch, get outdoors and go and do something unique, then that’s a real positive.”
On Home & Loved Ones
From the 60 days he spent marooned on an uninhabited Pacific island, to some of his most recent adventures which saw him survive completely unaided and alone for up to 10 days at a time in some of the world’s harshest environments, including the unforgiving coast of Western Australia to the African savannah. We wanted to know how Ed keeps all of this in balance, if there anything he would change to live a better life and as someone that travels so much and has experienced so many different places and cultures, what makes a home a home for him?
“I had a baby 13 weeks ago yesterday, I’ve just started a new family and so my focus at the moment I suppose is balance. I think that once you have responsibilities, it’s really important to be able to look after them. I know that I want the best for my child, I want the best for my wife, but I feel I have even more responsibility for my child and potentially for my children to come. Therefore I think in terms of what I can do to improve, is increase my security, increase my ability to provide for them, so that I can give them everything I can.”
“I’ve just moved back to my home village where I’ve probably got ten mates, five of whom I was at school with, five of whom I play rugby with. They’ve all got wives now and kids, and it’s old friends for me that makes a home, home. Clearly its where you feel comfortable, it’s where you gravitate to and I have just naturally gravitated back to this lovely little village in the middle of Leicestershire which, on the face of it doesn’t have anything to shout about, but it’s where my mates are, it’s where I feel safe, so yeah, that’s home.”
For many of us, looking from the outside in at Ed’s career it might look like a dream job. Sure, there might be the occasional evenings spent sleeping on the jungle floor without a roof over your head or nothing but insects for dinner, but does it still feel like work? And when, in his own words he reaches his shelf life, is there anything else he’d like to try?
“I am always very aware that I am extraordinarily lucky to have a job where I’ve got my own survival programme on the Discovery Channel. It’s a dream job for many adventurers and a lot of people would cut their arm off, but I sometimes fall into the trap of, you know, when anything is work, you’re like “oh crikey, I’ve got to go to Thailand tomorrow”, or “I’ve got to go to the Darien Gap”, but actually it is such a privilege and I just have to remind myself that it doesn’t feel like work.”
“It’s all too easy to not appreciate everything you’ve got in life and I do have an extraordinarily lucky situation that I’ve got a job I enjoy doing, so I just have to keep reminding myself that yeah, I am that lucky”
“There is a certain window of opportunity, although [the explorer] Ranulph Fiennes seems to have pushed that up to quite an old age, that is available to you as an explorer in order to have a career and already I’m starting to set up businesses .. because it only takes one Discovery Channel commissioner to say look, the figures aren’t high enough this year, he’s out of here, and my whole career comes tumbling down.”
“I’m incredibly fortunate but it’s also quite fragile and I’m not blind to that so yeah, I’m starting businesses, looking at bush craft schools, all sorts of spin-offs to what I’m actually doing. It’s not outside of my knowledge base, but it something that becomes a business, something that becomes profitable beyond my own shelf-life, so I look at that all of the time.”
“I think legacy is a funny one. There are so many people on this planet they can’t all possibly leave a legacy. As long as I can lead a life that is good, I don’t need to change the world, I don’t need to become prime minister, I just figure if every decision is made from a conscious place, if every decision is positive and I’ve checked in with myself and gone ‘is this the right thing to do?’, then overall I would have had a positive impact on the world.”
“There are no illusions of grandeur, when I’m dead I’ll be forgotten, when I’m off the Discovery Channel I’m sure I’ll be forgotten very, very quickly. I’m not under any illusions about that, so I think as long as I’ve made the right choices throughout life and done the right thing, I’ll be happy.”
When you’re being dropped into the wilderness for weeks at a time, success is often simply getting out alive. There are no promotions to fight for or corporate ladders to climb, just the occasional tree in order to escape inquisitive (and dangerous) animals. So what does success look like and how does he measure it?
“I used to be a bit of a hippy in the fact that I used to work for a charity and got £50 a week; this was after being in the military, and doing all sorts of different jobs, but then I’d decided that life was about doing conservation work, and washing in rivers and stuff. But I didn’t have any money and coming back to London, and being with friends and family in the UK, it just doesn’t translate, it didn’t work, it was naive.”
“And so I think for me success does include a certain amount of economic stability certainly, I’m not envious of ridiculously, ridiculously wealthy people. I don’t need my own yacht that’s permanently parked in the Mediterranean or anything like that, but I do need an amount of money to look after the people around me”
“I think success is being able to choose your own path really, getting to a point where you don’t have to do things because you need the money … being in a position where you can wake up in the morning and say I choose to do this or I choose to do that, because that is what I really want to do, rather than being forced to do something … Success is being able to make your own decisions”
As somebody that takes so many genuine risks, that has lived so many lives and experienced so many places and different cultures, if Ed had just one week left on earth, where and how would he spend it?
“Crickey.. I think if I had a week left on earth, I’d spend it with my family. I’ve had a lot of good times with mates, I’ve gone out and got drunk and done extreme things and had extreme experiences, and I don’t think my last week on earth would include those at all.
Not because they’re not valuable, but because they’re not the core of what makes my life meaningful. My life is meaningful because I can come home. In fact somebody told me that they thought relationships, and I suppose this applies to family, are like a ship in a harbour. A ship is built in a harbour and it’s safest in harbour, but it’s not built to stay in harbour, it’s built to go out [to sea]. There is the draw back to family, my wife, my mum and my sister and I think if I had a week to live, crikey, actually no second thought, I’d spend it with them, I’d spend it with my family.”
And of course we had to ask an explorer, especially one that (as anyone who has watched his shows will know) is so partial to a cup of tea; is there anything that you couldn’t live without?
Three years ago I would have said there’s nothing I couldn’t live without, but I’d struggle without my wife and my little boy now.”