It was the year 2000, I was 33 years old, and I seemed to have the perfect life. I had a decent job, a nice home, a little red sports car.
In theory, I should have been happy.
Fast forward to March 2006. I am 38, jobless, homeless, and alone in a tiny rowing boat in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. My last hot meal was two months ago, before my camping stove broke. My stereo is bust. I’ve had no human contact since my satellite phone stopped working several weeks ago. All four of my oars are broken and I’ve had to patch them up with duct tape and makeshift splints. I have tendonitis in my shoulders and saltwater sores on my backside.
I have battled twenty-foot waves, sleep deprivation, self-doubt and depression. But I have never been happier.
They said I was crazy. They said I wasn’t big enough, not tall enough, not strong enough.
But at last, after three thousand miles and 103 days at sea, I am about to accomplish my goal. I am proving that anybody can achieve the extraordinary, if only they have enough guts and determination and sheer bloody-mindedness to see it through.
I am realizing my dream, one stroke at a time.
Obviously I’d made a few changes in my life. You may be wondering why somebody who seemed to have it all would choose to throw it all away.
But did I really have it all?
I would sit on the commuter train on my way to the office, wondering if this was what life was all about. I wasn’t happy. I wasn’t fulfilled. I wasn’t being true to my values.
One day I sat down and wrote two versions of my obituary. The first was the one that I wanted to have. I thought of the obituaries that I enjoyed reading, the people that I admired. They were the adventurers and risk-takers, the people who seemed to have lived many lifetimes in one, the people who had tried lots of things, some of them successes, some of them spectacular failures, but at least they’d had the guts to try. They didn’t give a damn what anybody thought of them; their own opinion of themselves was all that mattered. They lived life with a greediness for new experiences, and gumption, and a gung-ho attitude that defied the attempts of naysayers and nigglers to pigeonhole them or put them down. These people really knew how to live.
The second version was the obituary that I was heading for – a conventional, ordinary life – pleasant and with its moments of excitement, but always within the safe confines of normality.
The difference between the two was startling. Clearly something was going to have to change.
But even then it was an evolution, not a revolution. One by one, I shed the trappings of my old life – the job, the home, the little red sports car. I moved house with increasing regularity, wherever I could find cheap or preferably free accommodation. I lived in a tiny cabin on a barge on the Thames, then a Dickensian garret in Richmond, then an office in Battersea. Every time I moved house I got rid of more stuff, the stuff that had been weighing me down, the stuff that I had allowed to own me rather than me owing it. I pared life down to the basics to find out what really mattered to me, to find out what was left when I was defined by what I was, not what I owned.
Little by little I began to realign my life, to put myself on track for the obituary I really wanted.
I learned that living life according to my values made me happier than a big income and lots of possessions.
I stopped being a compulsive planner and started taking a more flexible approach to life.
I stopped caring so much about what other people thought of me, and started caring more about what I thought of myself.
I accepted that mistakes are a fact of life, an inevitable consequence of being adventurous and trying new things.
I realized that it matters less whether something is a success or a failure, and matters more what I learn from the experience.
It became clear to me, intellectually and emotionally and intuitively, that we have to look after our planet if we want it to look after us.
I felt I was getting a few things figured out. But I was like a carpenter with a brand new set of tools, and no wood to work on. I needed a project. And so I decided to row the Atlantic.
Rowing the Atlantic was, without a doubt, the hardest thing I had ever done. I’d wanted to get out of my comfort zone, and that, by definition, is an uncomfortable place to be. Physically, it was tough, but psychologically it was even tougher. The ocean is scary and it’s daunting and most of the time I wanted to give up.
But no matter how hard it got, I always believed that the only thing worse than carrying on would be to quit.
I believe that if you don’t keep pushing the boundaries, keep expanding your comfort zone, your comfort zone actually gets smaller and smaller, until you’re shrink-wrapped in such a tiny comfort zone that you can’t move, you can’t achieve anything, you can’t grow. And so I keep pushing, keep developing, keep evolving. I keep showing what an ordinary person can do when they put their hearts and minds and souls into it.