“How do you eat an Elephant?”
I remember exactly where I was when I first heard that question. It was at 87 degrees South…….or in other words, some 180 nautical miles from the South Pole.
After a day long trek, hauling heavy sledges over hard blue ice, high on the polar plateau, we are pitching our tents and making camp, looking forward to the long anticipated mug of cocoa. It is a well-practiced routine. We are 40 days in to a trek from the edge of Antarctica to the South Pole. 850 kilometres down, 300 to go. The temperature is a bracing minus 35 degrees celcius and the wind is picking up. We unload the equipment required for our eight hour break, from our sledges. Shovels, petrol cookers, rations, sleeping bags and tents. The wind is harsh, relentless and mischievous. Mike Barry, my Irish companion, turns his back on a folded tent that he has removed from his sledge and laid on the ice. A moment later an invisible finger has lifted, unfolded and carried the olive green tent some ten yards down wind. I yell to Mike and we both set off after it, but it has already taken off again, spinning, lifting, billowing and sailing in to the azure blue sky. Now we have a problem. Losing your only form of shelter in a freezing high altitude ice desert many miles from anywhere is not a winning formula. As the lightweight fabric takes on the aerodynamics of an untethered kite, we have no option but to give chase.
It is a desperate battle. Our legs and lungs are in a bitter struggle with the wind and the tent. After five hundred metres we are both gasping and stumbling in our heavy ski boots. We pause and look at each other in despair. And then one of those miraculous moments. The wind drops away to a whisper and then silence. The tent tumbles to the ice and rolls itself briefly around a mound of frozen snow, fifty metres away. We race towards it and dive, before the gale can return to claim it again. We roll on our backs, fighting for air to feed our burning lungs, and after several minutes our tortured gasps turn to painful laughter. We lie there hooting away, savouring a moment of relief fuelled camaraderie. Not for the first time, I ask myself why on earth I thought this was a good idea? What possesses people to take on enormous projects of this nature and what gives them the right to succeed?
50 year old Mike, from Kerry in Sothern Ireland, is as tough as old boots. He had undertaken a successful Everest expedition in 1993 and in 1997 he had re enacted Shackletons’ remarkable 800 mile open boat voyage from Elephant Island to South Georgia. He is also a successful businessman.
As we trudged back towards our companions, tent tucked under our arms, he explained his philosophy.
“How do you eat an elephant, Alex?”
To be honest, I had never considered the prospect and I wasn’t sure where he was heading with the question. I said as much. He smiled:
“One bite at a time”
I have often reflected on this advice since that day high on the polar plateau. I now recognize it as a fundamental key when approaching a project of any size, be it in business or on expedition.
Launching any worthwhile enterprise is fraught with challenge. Framing the concept, articulating it to stakeholders, raising finance, developing process, communicating intentions, assembling resources, managing relationships and controlling the execution of the plan in a constantly changing environment are all part of the mix. And that’s for starters.
The most effective way to avoid overload and consequent overwhelm is to stop looking at the whole project. Break it down in to its constituent parts and then prioritise the need to address each piece. If you remain overawed by the task here are some other tips. Find someone who has successfully eaten a similar elephant and get their advice. Or find others who are prepared to help you eat it. And if no one has ever tried eating your particular elephant before, consider very carefully why they haven’t, before you sit down to dinner.
Two weeks later, Mike and our companions finished the job and arrived at 90 degrees south. The bottom of the world, where all lines of longitude meet, above 9,000 feet of ice.
We have all moved on of course, leaving behind us a trail of lessons hard learned and extraordinary memories….. mostly cherished. Like chasing across a barren icy plateau after a flying tent in the middle of nowhere late one sunny polar afternoon. We have all found new projects – in my case building adventure parks for others to explore their limits. You never stop making mistakes. You never stop learning. That’s why we do it. That’s the fun of it all. Just remember….one bite at a time.
Anyone for elephant?! ………