Memento mori – Remember death
The Ancients were acutely, inescapably aware of the temporary nature of life. It’s this sobering reality that has driven Vistage Chair and Speaker Paula Reid from the Great Wall of China to Buckingham Palace, via the Arctic Circle, Inca Trail, Bermuda Triangle and Great Barrier Reef.
There have been tigers, sharks, cannibals and Cambodian policemen; deserts, bogs, mountains, underwater caves and rivers – not to mention a 35,000 mile round-the-world yacht race.
Drawing on her experiences, Paula has coined a field – Adventure Psychology – that can benefit executives of all types. We sat down with the four-time author to find out how venturing into the unknown boosts business leadership performance.
[Vistage] Paula, could you introduce yourself and the work you do?
[Paula Reid] Yes, so I’m an adventure psychologist. The other work I do comes under leadership development: I’m a Vistage Chair and Speaker with a background in training, coaching and workshops on leadership and performance.
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I, personally, believe we have one life and it’s a gift and we should live it as interestingly as possible. That means you need rich, broad and varied experiences. I have a list of things I want to do before I die, and don’t want to be lying on my deathbed worrying about all the things I haven’t done.
[VS] It’s an impressive list. Can you give us a flavour for the adventures you’ve had, including the most recent one?
[PR] My adventures range from the ridiculous – like bog snorkelling or zorbing – to the really quite extreme and testing. The two biggest ones I’ve ever done are skiing the full distance to the South Pole, which took 46 days, and competing in a ten-month round-the-world yacht race, The Global Challenge. They were massive.
My current adventure is called 50 Good Turns, and it’s about cycling across all 50 European countries and doing 50 good turns along the way – one in each country. I’ve just finished cycling through Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg and in a couple of weeks plan to cycle across Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
[VS] Thinking broadly, what key lessons does adventure psychology have for business leaders?
[PR] First of all, I’d like to position adventure psychology because it doesn’t exist yet!
I recently finished a Masters in positive psychology, and my dissertation scoped, named and launched adventure psychology as a new discipline. Most people will know and understand sports psychology to some extent, which is focused on attaining maximum performance in peak fitness in fixed conditions. In business, I think we’ve learned a lot from sports psychology about setting goals, incremental gains, efficiency and focus. In comparison, I think adventure psychology is more realistic and relevant to today’s world, centred as it is on enduring performance in unknown and tough conditions.
There’s a lot of talk currently about living in a VUCA world – one that’s Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. It’s difficult for us to navigate and to survive and thrive in these conditions. For me, this represents an adventure landscape. Going on an adventure is a volatile experience, where there’s lots of uncertainty when we don’t know what’s around the corner.
There are often a complex set of conditions going on and a lot of ambiguity, which makes decision-making difficult. Adventure psychology means performing in that uncertain and ambiguous world, but still performing well: sustaining reasonable and realistic performance over time, and having to survive and thrive in these conditions.
There’s a fascinating tension in what I call ‘going knowingly into the unknown’. Going knowingly means choosing to go, but also being as prepared as you can with circumstances and conditions. Then, of course, there’s the into the unknown bit, which is where you have to take that leap and go, with curiosity and courage, into the uncertain future.
That tension or juxtaposition is fascinating because beyond knowing what you can know and being as prepared as you can be, it’s all about agility, flexibility and resilience in order to cope with the unknown condition.
There’s a field called the psychology of possibility, which ties in with the growth mindset. If you think you know everything, it closes you down. On the other hand, if you explore and discover and step into unknown territories, you’re much more open to receive information, learn, be creative, grow and give things a go.
If we can take adventure psychology into business, we’d be much more creative and courageous and open – exploring, growing and learning, instead of thinking we know it all. That’s a massive concept to grapple with in business. Then, you’ve got the proactive coping, motivation, resilience, agility, and so on. That ties in with this adventure of life and business.
[VS] And you’ve published on this topic?
[PR] I am looking to publish my ‘Adventure Psychology’ dissertation as a paper in a journal soon, but I’ve written four books.
[VS] What stops many businesses from taking a known leap into the unknown?
[PR] I think it’s the paralysing power of the templates, if you like.
There’s so much, You must do this and, This is the right way of doing things, and all that data and functionality that we talk about.
There are known fixed targets and known routes to these targets. This is limiting, so that we might be on autopilot or automatically doing what has been done in the past.
There are also classic limiting beliefs: ‘Can we?’, ‘Should we?’, ‘Are we able to?’.
I would link that to me skiing to the South Pole, or Roger Bannister’s Four-Minute Mile. In the past, gnarly, bearded old men skied to the South Pole and that was it. As a young-ish female, I thought, ‘No, that’s not possible. That’s not on my radar, that’s not in my world.’ Actually, once you get past that mental barrier and realise that you can, then it’s about that going knowingly, getting ready, getting prepared, seeking the best advice from experts, training for it, getting fit for it, getting the right kit on board and then taking that leap into the unknown, which is massive.
It’s about disruption rather than continuous improvement and exploring without that paralysing fear of failure.
[VS] What value can business leaders take from performing in tough conditions, as you’ve done?
[PR] I think tough conditions are peak experiences. It’s been proven that humans work best through experiential learning and, of course, the tougher, the more peak those experiences, then the more you’re going to learn. Rather than just bumbling along with small learnings, which could be from successes or failures, these bigger experiences, tough conditions, even failing or having to cope, offer so much more.
They accelerate growth. If you can deal with tough conditions and learn from them and cope, then you’re going to come out the other side bigger, tougher, more capable, more experienced, more wise as a result. Wisdom is classed as having learned from experience, so you’re going to get wisdom as an organisation, as a leader, or as a team of employees.
The alternative to post-traumatic stress disorder is post-traumatic growth. This means having learned, having gained a new perspective and become better connected with what really matters. Wisdom, growth and transcendence all come from these tougher conditions.
[VS] And in the work environment, this translates into improved confidence and better decision-making?
[PR] Absolutely. It’s then in your DNA, in your capabilities – a confidence to go forth and do even bigger stuff next time. More capabilities and skills and knowledge means greater wisdom within the team or organisation, where you’ve learned, matured and self-actualised – enabling you to transcend onto bigger and better things.
[VS] Those tough conditions don’t have to mean skiing to the South Pole for example, do they? They can include the grind of business in the marketplace.
[PR] Yes, it translates across, and includes any tough time. Life is much more interesting when we’re going through tough times, too. Although it’s difficult at the time, there’s a phrase: ‘Pain is temporary, pride is forever.’ It’s more interesting, it’s more taxing. As long as you can cope with the stress, which is a big situation, of course, then it’s character-building and business-building stuff. As Nietzsche said: “What doesn’t kill us, make us stronger.”
[VS] In Principles, Ray Dalio uses the phrase ‘Pain + Reflection = Progress’; every time you’re uncomfortable or in pain, lean into it and embrace it as a learning opportunity.
[PR] Which is a bit like, ‘Embrace the fear.’ And I have another phrase, which is ‘embrace the mess.’
Life is messy; business is messy, and there will be pain and challenge, and it doesn’t necessarily feel nice at the time, but boy, does it make life more interesting. It’s about living life to the full and learning from it. At least we’re experiencing stuff and not just flat-lining.
[VS] On the Vistage blog, we’ve sought to support business leaders who don’t see themselves as leaders. What insights, based on your experiences, do you have for those people?
[PR] It’s imposter syndrome, isn’t it? I’ve experienced it several times in my life at various points, including skiing to the South Pole and sailing around the world. I found myself asking: ‘Really? Have I really got what it takes to do this massive thing?’
I think if you have your own, personal purpose – which can include a vision for yourself, your goals or your mission, – this will really drive you and offer the motivation and energy and determination to do it.
I think it’s about playing to your strengths. We all have strengths which motivate and energise us and, if everyone knew their own strengths, then it’s about using the top five, if you like, and putting them into best use.
There’s the, ‘Embrace the fear,’ idea, which – if we’re feeling a bit shaky or uncertain – is our body physiologically gearing us up to be strong and deal with difficulty. I think it’s about enjoying or leaning in to the experience, as you said before. Leaning into the feelings of fear and uncertainty and trepidation because it’s just our bodies psychologically and physiologically preparing us to be ready and to be strong and able. The blood’s up and the brain’s working properly. Don’t worry about those feelings; they’re serving you well and providing positive support.
I’ve just completed a Masters in positive psychology and there’s a lot of work around the importance of community, and being connected to people. Vistage provide a fantastic platform of support with constructive, peer-to-peer collaboration and support.
I think it’s about surrounding yourself with people who can help; who can motivate and boost you to be the best version of yourself.