A Lesson on Perception and Perseverance from a Polar Explorer and Social Psychologist

Our minds can be our most powerful tool, or our most overpowering enemy.  The lens we view our daily lives through shapes our experience of life, and to a profound degree. 

In Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s national bestseller, Flow, he writes,

“How we feel about ourselves, the joy we get from living, ultimately depends directly on how the mind filters and interprets everyday experiences.”

Many of us experience this. We execute a project soundly, but then our inner critic tears our efforts apart and compromises the joy of that accomplishment. Or, we base our feelings of self-worth on external praise, allowing that exterior voice to dictate our ambitions.

A person’s degree of motivation changes the perceptual experience of a goal. Those highly motivated to achieve a goal actually see the finish line as closer.

Our daily perceptions and mindset have implications on the goals we set for ourselves and also on the ease by which we can achieve these goals, which social psychologist Emily Balcetis has dedicated considerable research to exploring. In her recent TED Talk, Why Some People Find Exercise Harder than Others, Balcetis speaks about her studies on motivation and references a specific experiment she conducted where participants’ waist-to-hip ratio was measured and then were asked to walk to a finish line in a race while holding a weight. Before the race, the participants were asked to estimate the distance to the finish line. In her findings, “Waist-to-hip ratio predicted perceptions of distance. People who were out of shape and unfit actually saw the distance to the finish line as significantly greater than people who were in better shape.” The physical state of someone’s body changed how they perceived their environment and the challenges ahead.

Our minds can equally change how we perceive our environment, she explains, “Our bodies and our mind work in tandem to change how we see the world around us.” Balcetis next examined how motivation impacts perceptual experience and found that a person’s degree of motivation changed the perceptual experience of a goal. Those highly motivated to achieve a goal actually saw the finish line as closer.

Ben Saunders, Polar Explorer, recently displayed the power of motivation when, earlier this year, he broke the world record for the longest human-powered polar journey on foot, along with teammate Tarka L’Herpiniere. 

The trek, known as The Scott Expedition, was a 1,800-mile four-month round-trip expedition from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole and back. The two become the first people to complete Captain Scott's unfinished British Terra Nova expedition of 1912, where the entire team died during the trip due to starvation and exhaustion.

“This was a trial of human endurance and endeavor in the harshest climates, a story about giving everything you have to achieve something that has not been done before.”

Only 5 weeks after returning, Saunders gave a TED Talk, To the South Pole and back – the hardest 105 days of my life, which he opens with a frank assertion, “This was a trial of human endurance and endeavor in the harshest climates—a story about giving everything you have to achieve something that has not been done before.” Saunders paints a picture of the extreme magnitude of the climate, “Antarctica is the coldest, windiest, driest, highest-altitude continent on earth.” At the start of the trek, Saunders and L’Herpiniere were each pulling 440 pound sleds and had buried pre-positioned food depots for resupply. They selected the locations based on their estimated daily mileage and were carrying a food supply consistent with this aggressive schedule.

This was a challenge Saunders had been preparing for a decade to begin and one that he was steadfast on completing. The second arm of the trip, however, seriously questioned whether that goal would be achieved. On the return trip, their exhaustion held them back from completing their carefully planned daily mileage so they began eating half rations for six days while trying to make it to their next food depot at a slower pace. Their bodies became depleted of nutrition, they were sleep deprived, and both were experiencing bouts of incapacitating hypothermia. They had pushed the delicate threshold of human endurance to an extreme and made the difficult choice to call for an airdropped resupply on day 70 of the expedition. But after refueling and rest, they packed up and hiked onward to the finish line. 

“Onwards” is in fact the last word Saunders writes in his blog entry from day 70 when they called for support. Calling for support was not in the original plan, but they adapted in order to continue with their goal, and in turn, they persevered. That is vision; vision that allows one to overcome adversity rather than allowing it to defeat dreams.  

Saunders and L’Herpiniere had a team of trainers and coaches, and among the mix was Jerry Colonna, a professional coach specializing in executive and performance coaching. The entire expedition required psychological preparation and the second leg of the expedition tested their mental toughness to an extreme. Even while writing this, I struggle to truly grasp this fortitude.    

Human capacity is immense. We can develop and harness the power of mental fitness to empower us to realize our dreams. This is accessible even without hiking 1,800 miles through Antarctica (though I remain a large proponent of outdoor expeditions for activating personal transformation). We can work on training our minds daily to be focused on vision, to be resilient, and to be adaptable. Allowing an internal dialogue to spiral into a negative deluge can make our most important goals in life feel unattainable. The good news is that gaining control of our perceptions and of that inner voice is something we can coach ourselves on. We can learn to reframe large challenges so that we persevere regardless of circumstances, similar to the recent triumphs of Saunders and L’Herpiniere. In this new mindset, “failures” shift to necessary lessons on our paths to greatness.  

Our minds can be our most powerful tool, or our most overpowering enemy; fortunately, how we choose to wield their facility is up to us, and us alone.

Posted on December 24, 2014 .