What Tony Robbins, Antarctica and my dog taught me about getting started

Updated to Business, Productivity on January 3, 2023.

I was in a car the other day with a radiologist and a neurosurgeon talking about hypertension. 

This conversation is actually not as unusual as it might sound. I volunteer for a local society that does trail clearing in a popular hiking and mountain bike park and many of the volunteers happen to be recently retired doctors. 

Back in the car, one of the doctors happened to mention that recently his medical partner, who is in his early 60’s, had a mild stroke. As we wound our way further up the dirt road to our work site my education continued. 

I learned that strokes are the second biggest cause of mortality worldwide and the third most common cause of disability. The scary statistics get worse. As you age your chance of a stroke doubles every 10 years after 55

There’s a checklist of health conditions that make you more susceptible to a stroke, like obesity, high cholesterol, and diabetes. But the biggest culprit – six times out of ten – is hypertension or high blood pressure. In my books, that’s worth paying attention to.

What’s interesting is that stress, in itself, is not the direct cause of high blood pressure. It’s what we do when under stress that leads to nasty results. We eat too much, drink too much, and move too little. Basically, we deal with stress by making unhealthy choices.

For me, stress starts with worry.

Ngoc Son Temple, Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam

I’ve had a lot of worries

There is a world of problems you can worry about – take your pick. You can worry that Ukraine will be pummeled into a tiny province of rubble, or that we’ve passed the tipping point with global warming, or the tiny spot on your chin is cancer. 

Or not.

“I’ve had a lot of worries,” quipped Mark Twain “most of which never happened.” Our mind loves a good worry. Like a dog chewing a bone, we want to turn our worry around, looking from all angles, poking and prodding until it swells up into something bigger than it really is.

I used to worry incessantly before every keynote speech. I’d worry I’d miss my flight or wasn’t prepared enough, or I would be greeted by the “audience from hell.” Trust me, when you have 60 minutes to educate, entertain, inspire, motivate, and get laughs from an audience you’ve never met before, any sane person would invent a long list of worries.

It was at one of those events when a fellow speaker opened an exit door for my worries. He suggested that audiences don’t want you to fail – in fact, they want you to succeed. “They want to see you having fun—enjoying yourself. That way,” he explained, “they can enjoy the ride with you.”

When I accepted the long list of what I could never control – my flights, the audience, the speaker before me going overtime – I was free to focus on what I could control.

Enjoying the moment. 

What your life will have been

In her book, Comfortable with Uncertainty, Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön tells the story of delighting in the preciousness of every single moment.

A woman is running from lions. She runs and she runs, and the lions are getting closer. She comes to the edge of a cliff. She sees a vine there, so she climbs down and holds onto it. Then she looks down and sees that there are lions below her as well. At the same time, she notices a little mouse gnawing away at the vine to which she is clinging. She also sees a beautiful little bunch of strawberries emerging from a nearby clump of grass. She looks up, she looks down, and she looks a the mouse. Then she picks a strawberry, pops it in her mouth, and enjoys it thoroughly.

Learning what to focus on, and what to ignore, seems to be the ultimate secret to living a healthy, stress-free life. “Whatever compelled your attention from moment to moment,” writes Oliver Burkeman in Four Thousand Weeks (a must-read for anyone over 50), “is simply what your life will have been.”

So, what are you focussing on?

What to focus on

You can learn a lot when you’re the dumbest one in a car full of doctors. I learned that strokes are a silent pandemic. And that hypertension is the leading cause of that pandemic. And I learned the leading cause of hypertension is stress. 

I was also reminded that stress is a choice.

We all have lions and tigers in our life. Maybe even a mouse or two gnawing away at something we value. Meanwhile, we have the moment.

Choosing what to focus on (and what not to) might just be the healthiest choice you can make.

Got this far? You might also like these posts:

Photo of eggs by Nik on Unsplash
Photo of Ngoc Son Temple by author
Photo of tigers by author

For over three hours we sat uncomfortably on the shag carpet of a West Vancouver home listening to a giant of a man berate us about mindset, attitude and “awakening the giant within.” He didn’t seem aware of the time or the numbness in our butt – he was fired up and in no hurry to move to the final experience of the night – the fire walk.

The man was Tony Robbins and this is how he started – thirteen people, three hours of lecture, followed by the slightly-bizarre fire walk ritual. And then he was off to the next city and the next group.

Of course we all know about his best-selling books, sold-out, multi-day live extravaganzas, schmoozing with world leaders and top athletes, and the island in Fiji. All nice toppings on the cake – I’m more interested in how he got started.

And he did it one step at a time.

In this post (which coincidentally is being published at the start of the new year) I’m going to be your “Tony Robbins” (sans fire walk) and challenge you to get started.

It could be your marriage is stalled (been there),

your work or entrepreneurial enterprise has gone stale (been there too),

your body has divorced you for Häagen-Dazs,

or you’ve simply lost faith.

Here’s what I learned in Antarctica that changed the course of my life.

What I learned in Antarctica

On our way to the Antarctic Peninsula

When I stepped off our supply ship (in truth, a retire shrimp boat) onto the glacier in Jones Sound, just inside the Antarctic Circle (66° S), I knew something magical had occurred. Just three months prior I was in a office crammed with ice axes, skiis, large blue plastic drums (I would learn later these were for packing food) and meeting with two of my future partners: Pat Morrow (first Canadian to summit Mt. Everest) and Martyn Williams (first person to walk to both poles).

How did we, three months later, have a ship, volunteer crew from three countries, 400 drums of JP1 airplane fuel and the start of what would become (and still is) the world’s only private airline, tour company and guiding service in Antartica?

We took the first step.

We can all plan, but inertia is what gets results. Whether you buy into BJ Fogg’s start-flossing-just-one-tooth tiny habits advice or research that proves we love to complete what we start, it should be self-evident that to overcome Newton’s first law of motion (a body at rest tends to stay at rest), we need to get started.

What I learned from my dog

Every day in rain, snow, or glorious sunshine, I walk my dog, Riley. And, unless we ran that morning, he gets an evening walk to boot. Riley is a mild-tempered (with the exception of pugs – apologies to my neighbour 6 doors up) Golden Doodle my wife said we should get in memory of an angelic young man she treated for many year for Muscular Dystrophy.

Riley in the moment.

And so, one August, with two very very happy young daughters in the back seat, we returned home with two very cuddly puppies: one for us and one for the boy’s parents.

And now I walk Riley.

Somedays I’m in a funk – thinking about work that’s piling up, or feeling rushed. Somedays I feel great – my morning writing had gone well and I’m feeling on top of my game. None of that matters to Riley.

You see, Riley is in the moment.

Sniff, sniff, lift a leg, pee.

You won’t catch Riley first conferring with a list or going to his InBox hoping to be distracted from the work at hand. No sir. Lift a leg and pee.

Work done, he’s happily trotting alongside me again.

We can all learn from Riley.

And here’s what I know about life.

What I know about life

Let’s be blunt. Nobody gives a flip what you did yesterday. Nobody.

All they care about is what you’re doing today. That’s it: done, finito, kaput.

When I said “Yes” and set about finding a ship to cross the Drake Passage I was creating my future.

I could have spend my energy worrying that I’ve never (caution: this is a very long list):

  • been to Antarctica
  • rented a ship
  • sold trips to the South Pole
  • rented airplanes
  • raised $1 million in pre-sales
  • hired doctors, radio engineers, mountain climbers or any of our nefarious crew

If I’d invested my energy worrying about what I HADN’T DONE I would have run away screaming.

If you know what you need to do, but are still on the start line, here’s what I recommend.

What it takes to get started

I don’t know what’s your biggest burning goal for this year, but I do know it won’t happen until you get started. Here’s a formula that never fails to give me a kick in the momentum:

  1. List everything you want to do. Next decide what are 1-3 big goals you must do and cross out the rest (this year I am only working on 1) speaking, 2) BOSS and 3) SOS.) This is perhaps the hardest and most important – don’t move on until you do this.
  2. For each of the “must do” goals, define them in as much detail as possible (see SMART goals). That’s the picture that drives you on. For our business in Antarctica, we knew each year exactly the outcomes we needed to create.
  3. Now it’s time for milestones. In our business we build a Campaign Calendar to map out projects and product launches. Even if we aren’t certain about Q4, we can plot out the first three quarters – that’s a start.
  4. Finally it’s Flight Plan time – dial down your big goals to this week and get those actions on your Flight Plan.

Get started

Tony Robbins was in that living room in West Vancouver because he got started. Three years after saying “Yes” I was able to sell my equity in Adventure Network, move to where I live now, and buy a house all because I got started.

And my dog Riley? He’s still happily lifting his leg and…well, you know the rest.

So, what are you doing to get started?