I first met Sarah Outen in Oxford in 2006, when she came up to me after a talk I was giving about my Atlantic crossing, to discuss her plans to row solo across the Indian Ocean.
At that point she was sporting her “Baldilocks” look – suffering from patchy alopecia, she took the bold move and shaved her head completely bald. This boldness epitomises so much about Sarah’s approach to life.
In 2009, Sarah duly rowed the Indian Ocean 2009, becoming the youngest person and first woman to do so.
Moving on to even greater things, on 1st April 2011 she set out to travel from London 2 London – via the World. She successfully cycled and kayaked as far as Japan, then set out to row the North Pacific, which didn’t go quite as planned….
You’ll remember Sarah’s name has come up before on the podcast, more than once – Dave Cornthwaite, with whom she stand-up paddled together, and Geoff Holt, the quadriplegic sailor – Sarah was part of his support team.
It was such a delight to have Sarah on the show. She and I have become good friends over the course of many years and many, many gin and tonics. I hope you enjoy our conversation as much as I did.
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Choose Your Attitude
Few people have been through as many challenges – and emerged smiling – as Sarah Outen. It is not because she has an innate ability to cruise through problems, staying upbeat regardless. She feels things deeply, and her unstoppability is hard-earned.
She has coped with the loss of her beloved dad (to rheumatoid arthritis, while Sarah was still an undergraduate), loss of her hair (to alopecia, also while she was at Oxford), and the loss of her boat (Gulliver, lost when Sarah was hit by a typhoon 600 miles off the coast of Japan). She has battled with eczema, allergies, and depression.
In the podcast we talk about the difference between the challenges we choose (ocean rowing and other adventures) and the challenges that choose us. I get right up my own nose, sometimes, when I talk about my difficulties at sea as if they were a great hardship. Yes, they were hard, very hard, but I had chosen to be there, I chose to put myself in the way of danger and discomfort.
So many people don’t get to choose their challenges – bereavement, illness (physical or mental), looking after an ageing or sick relative, financial ruin, or any of the many other ways that life inflicts suffering on humans. Nor will they get to write books or give talks about their misfortunes, or have people come up to them and tell them how inspiring they are. They just have to get on with the pain and the drudgery, day after day, often with no end in sight.
How do we all get through it? When life seems solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short (per Thomas Hobbes), how do we persevere? Whether you have, or haven’t, chosen your challenge, there are some ideas that might help.
1. Remember that human beings are endlessly adaptable – once we accept a situation. It is only when you fight the existing reality that the friction and stress arises.
2. Seek the positive in any situation. There will always be something, even if it is only knowing that at some point it will be over.
3. Allow yourself to be miserable. There are times when misery, even fear, are perfectly rational responses to the situation. Don’t fight it. If you need to, allow yourself to wallow in misery until you have exorcised it from your system. And then you can go back to keeping on keeping on (as per Leon McCarron).
4. Think of someone who is having a worse time than you. There is always someone who is having a worse time than you – sicker, poorer, longer or harder suffering. It could always be worse. Feeling compassionate towards someone else’s plight will put yours into perspective.
5. It doesn’t have to be fun to be worthwhile. Often the worst trials and tribulations have the most to teach us.
Ultimately, we get to choose our attitude. As Doctor Briony told me (and Sarah too, no doubt), the one element of a situation we can always control is how we respond to it. Everything around us may be going to crap, but we always have a choice. Keep going, or don’t.
Viktor Frankl is my absolute hero when it comes to choosing your attitude. An Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist – and most significantly, an Auschwitz survivor – he never ceased to act with dignity and kindness even in the depths of the horror of the Holocaust. Here are some inspiring quotes from the great man.
“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
0:50 Get a free audiobook from our sponsors Audible.com, and check out Producer Vic’s recommendation: Jerusalem, by Simon Sebag Montefiori
3:50 Introducing Sarah Outen
6:45 How Sarah got into ocean rowing
8:25 Sarah dedicates her Indian row to her father’s memory after his early death from rheumatoid arthritis
9:20 Where did Sarah find her inner strength?
11:00 The psychological approach to ocean rowing, and how to keep going when the going gets tough
17:00 Happiness and the ocean rower
18:20 Failure, the fear of failure – and the warm-up lap of the Indian Ocean
22:45 London to London via the World
24:20 The joys of cycling
25:45 Sex and the single female cyclist
37:00 Financing an expedition
39:00 The North Pacific, the best and worst of times – typhoons and Sarah’s engagement to Lucy
42:30 Inventing a new Pacific route
46:45 On courage
49:00 Staying in touch with Sarah
The book: A Dip in the Ocean