Please enjoy this transcript of my conversation with Erling Kagge, famous Norwegian explorer and the first person to complete the Three Poles Challenge. We talk about his expeditions, his connection with nature, and the books that inspire him. For more, check out my notes and highlights from Erling's latest book Philosophy for Polar Explorers.
“I strongly believe that we are all born explorers. In the sense that when you're one year old you learn how to walk, you walk out of the house, and you start to wonder what's hidden between yourself and the horizon. And soon you will start to wonder, what's even beyond your horizon? So this spirit of exploration, that's something we all have. I kept it more than most people, but it never goes away. We all have it to a certain degree. Being an explorer is not something you begin being, but something you slowly stop being. You still have it until you die.” – Erling Kagge
In this episode of Outliers, I talk with famous Norwegian explorer Erling Kagge about his record-setting expeditions and the importance of exploration in life.
In 1990, Erling and his expedition partner Børge Ousland became the first people to ever reach the North Pole unsupported. Over the course of 58 days, they covered nearly 500 miles on skis, pulling hundreds of pounds of supplies behind them the entire way.
In 1993, Erling became the first person to make a solo, completely unsupported expedition to the South Pole. He covered over 800 miles in 50 days without any contact with the outside world during the entire expedition; this feat landed him on the cover of the International Edition of TIME magazine.
And in 1994, Erling summited Mount Everest, completing what's called the "Three Poles Challenge" by reaching the North and South poles as well as the summit of Everest, all on foot.
We discuss his philosophy on the importance of silence and walking, as well as a few of his favorite books (including how a classic like Frankenstein can be relevant to technology today).
The New York Times has described Erling as "a philosophical adventurer or perhaps an adventurous philosopher.” Erling is the author of several best-selling books, including Silence: In the Age of Noise, Walking: One Step At a Time, and Philosophy for Polar Explorers. He’s also the founder of Kagge Forlag, a Norwegian publishing company that publishes over 100 new titles each year. His writing has been featured in The New York Times and Financial Times.
Transcripts for other episodes can be found here.
Daniel Scrivner (00:00):
Erling, thank you so much for coming on the show. I'm so excited to chat with you. Thanks for coming on Outliers.
Erling Kagge (00:05):
Thank you. Thank you for inviting.
Daniel Scrivner (00:07):
So I wanted to first off, by just saying thank you, and the reason I wanted to have you on is your books have had a really profound impact on me. First Silence and then the latest book I've really been enjoying is Philosophy For Polar Explorers. So I wanted to see if we can just start by talking a little bit about Silence, which to me is just the whole concept. When I remember finding that book, when I originally stumbled across it on Amazon, and just thinking, "Wow, a whole book dedicated to the idea of silence." Can you talk a little bit about what led to you writing that book and what that books means to you?
Erling Kagge (00:41):
Just like five years ago I had Sunday dinner with my three daughters, and they were all teenagers and they were all connected, all looking at their phones, which was of course pissing me off. I start to see that they didn't know what silence is, they didn't relate to silence at all, and I mentioned silence to them and I said, "Silence is nothing. Nothing comes from nothing." To me that was, I wouldn't say shocking, but it was a huge surprise and I had spent so much of my life to venture into silence.
Erling Kagge (01:17):
I walked alone to the South Pole for 50 days and nights into this huge, white nothingness with no radio, no telephone, hardest [inaudible 00:01:26] myself. And that taught me a great lesson on the importance of silence surrounding you, but even more important, inner silence. So then I came up with three questions, what is silence? Where is silence? And why is it more important today than ever before? After two years, I came down to 33 answers.
Daniel Scrivner (01:49):
Which is quite a few answers there. And just to maybe expand on that, so silence, clearly there's the kind of audio definition of silence which I'm sure is what most people think of. Just you're not hearing anything. Your concept to me seems much more holistic than that, silence in terms of being with yourself, being alone, being with your thoughts.
Erling Kagge (02:07):
Yes. To me the opposite of silence is noise, not necessarily sounds. They could be sounds but all kinds of noises, all kinds of expectations that the telephone is going to ring. You can't look into a starry night with all these manmade lights. A car is passing, a radio is running. You are always interrupted because you're always available.
Erling Kagge (02:27):
All this is noise to me. So the silence I wanted to explore and sit on and write about, is more like this inner silence. The silence we all have within, the silence which is there waiting for us to be discovered, to be explored. And of course this silence is about yourself, noise is always about running away from yourself, it's always about trying to be someone else, while silence is trying to be yourself.
Daniel Scrivner (03:02):
Just comfortable with yourself, or at home with yourself, or-
Erling Kagge (03:05):
Yeah. But it can also be pretty uncomfortable because of course noise is always the easiest option in life, because then you don't have to really take anything that serious. While silence is quite often a little bit complicated, a little bit challenging, could be a little bit uncomfortable, but it's certainly worth it.
Daniel Scrivner (03:26):
Just to talk a little bit about that third question, and I'm sure part of the answer of why silence is more important than ever has to do with just how connected we are with technology. Especially the kids and teenagers, and anyone that's a parent definitely knows this and sees this. But can you talk a little bit about I guess your answer or your perspective on why it's more important than ever before?
Erling Kagge (03:44):
I think it always has been very important, but today because we live in a culture where we are always supposed to be available, we always have a phone with us. Some, quite a few thousands, of the brightest people on Earth, the best educated people on Earth, the best paid people on Earth are working day and night to get us addicted to our phones.
Erling Kagge (04:08):
So because we are disturbed, interrupted, spending like three or four hours every day on your phone, if you live until like 82, 83 years, like they do in the States and in Norway, they will spend around 13 years of our live looking onto a screen of a telephone. That's insane. So I just decided I really have to sit down and write a book for as many people as possible to read, not because I'm going to tell anyone what they're going to do, but just tell people about my own ideas about it and how crazy it has become, and about how rich life can be.
Daniel Scrivner (04:54):
Have you been surprised at how successful that book has been? Because it's a bestselling book, it's been translated into multiple different languages. And I'm curious, when you published it, did you know it was going to be successful? Or was its success a surprise to you?
Erling Kagge (05:06):
Not at all. I approached three agents and two turned me down. I think when you write a book you should not sit there think that, "This is going to be an enormous best seller. I'm going to sell so many books, I'm going to earn so much money." Because most books don't sell, so I think you need to have the opposite approach. You need to kind of feel that, "I have something really important to say." And in my case, I spent 18 months writing this quite thin book.
Erling Kagge (05:36):
I didn't actually expect anything. All I wanted to do was to write a great book. And since now it's translated into 39 languages, so sometimes you're surprised in a positive way.
Daniel Scrivner (05:46):
My thinking on that is I think it resonated for a lot of people, like it resonated with me. Where, I don't think everyone's interested in that message, but I think that a lot of people are at that point where they kind of need to hear or wanted to hear a book like that. One of the things that I wanted to talk a little bit about is your experience with silence, and clearly we're going to talk a lot about the expeditions you've been, the exploring work you've done. But it seems to me that probably the most powerful experience you had with silence is the 50 days and 50 nights that you spent alone by yourself on the South Pole.
Daniel Scrivner (06:16):
You mentioned that silence can be very uncomfortable. Can you talk a little bit about what your journey with silence and experience with silence was like through those 50 days?
Erling Kagge (06:25):
When you start out walking to the South Pole for the first couple of hours or couple of days, you have all this noise in your head. It's just like if you're going to sail across the ocean or climb a mountain, whatever you're going to do, to begin with. Or sit alone by yourself in a room doing nothing, you will have all this noise because you're thinking and thinking is about being in the past or being into the future, and to me that's also noise.
Erling Kagge (06:51):
So to begin with, I had all this noise in my head but after a few days I start to think less, I started to live, becoming a part of nature. I got into very good rhythm. Of course, the secret walking to the South Pole is to put one leg in front of the other enough times. But also it's a challenge also to try to have a good time while you're doing it. After a few weeks, I started to feel that my body didn't stop by my fingertips or didn't stop by my skin. It was extended into the ice, into the snow, into the horizon, and I became a part of nature. I started to have a dialog with the surroundings, sending some ideas out, getting all the thoughts back again.
Erling Kagge (07:40):
So you very much feel that you're present in your life, that future doesn't matter, the past doesn't matter. The only thing that matters is actually where you are there and then, and that again feels very meaningful. Of course I love life in Norway, I love to travel, I love to hang out with people, and expedition like this is not about turning your back to the world. It's more like opening up, it's seeing the Earth from different perspective, and it's about loving life even more.
Daniel Scrivner (08:11):
I imagine that that was a profound experience, and you talk a little bit about that, and even ending that expedition, and not really knowing all that you had learned, and I'm sure probably there's parts of you that's still processing that. But I'm curious, so you go and you go away, you have this experience by yourself, 50 days, 50 nights. Then you come back and reintegrate into life. Were there realizations you had? Or were there new practices that you started doing once you came back?
Erling Kagge (08:38):
Yeah. Obviously apart all that we have met. The thing is, you get home and after a few days your washing machine breaks down, you need to have it repaired and you need to earn some money to pay the guy who repairs your washing machine. So you get back to life pretty quickly, but still all these experiences still live with you. They never go away.
Erling Kagge (08:59):
For me to walk to the South Pole but also all the expeditions combined with running a business today, and also being a family man, really enlightened my kind of horizon about the importance of keeping your pleasures simple, to be the center in your life. Not in a egoistic way, but more like maybe more in a egocentric way, that we need to listen to yourself and also to be able to be good to all the people.
Daniel Scrivner (09:32):
So I want to change and go back in time a little bit, and talk about all of the different expeditions you've done. And I knew a little bit of that reading about some of your books, but I learned a lot more just in preparation for this interview. You crossed, I believe, the Pacific Ocean by a boat first, then you completed the Three Pole Challenge, first by, I believe, doing the North Pole, then the South Pole, then Everest, and that was within a really compressed period of time. And you've done many other things, but can you talk a little bit about just what drew you to wanting to go and have one of these kind of all consuming kind of expedition, explorer experiences in the first place?
Erling Kagge (10:07):
First of all, I strongly believe that we are all born explorers, in the sense that when you're one year old you learn how to walk, and you walk out of the house and you start to wonder what's hidden between yourself and the horizon. And soon you will start to wonder what's even beyond your horizon? So this spirit of exploration, that's something we all have, and of course I kept it more than most people, but it never goes away. We all have it to a certain degree.
Erling Kagge (10:38):
So to me, an explorer is not something you begin being, but something you slowly stop being. You still have it until you die. So for me, but also because I'm born in Norway so I'm used to be out the nature, I'm used to the cold, I'm used to the oceans, I'm used to go skiing, so I somehow kept that spirit. And I'm very much driven by curiosity and by wondering, just I've been wondering my whole life, and I think that's one of the sad things with new technology, that we wonder so much less.
Daniel Scrivner (11:13):
Because we don't want to go out anymore, it seems like everything just comes to us, or at least we can stay stationary in one place.
Erling Kagge (11:19):
It's true. [inaudible 00:11:20] because if you wonder the direction, we look at our phone, if you wonder what's 10 times 56, we just go onto our phone. Of course the IQ level is going down these days because we're not wondering anymore and we don't need to memorize [crosstalk 00:11:38]
Daniel Scrivner (11:38):
Come up with our own answers.
Erling Kagge (11:39):
It has many advantages, but it has some huge disadvantages too.
Daniel Scrivner (11:44):
I'd love to talk a little bit about kind of going through each of those expeditions you did, piece by piece, because even with that first one, was it crossing the Pacific Ocean? Am I getting that right?
Erling Kagge (11:52):
That was the second one. The first one was to sail back and forth the Atlantic when I was 20 years old together with three other guys. We rented a boat, sailed from Lisbon down to West Africa, to Caribbean and back to Norway. 10 months or nine months. We were just about sinking in the Atlantic and it was pretty brutal or steep learning curve. Then I sailed from New York through Panama, a couple of years later down to Antarctica, around Cape Horn in a Bermudan boat called Warbaby. Then I decided to try to, as you said, be the first to walk to the North Pole unsupported with this Norwegian guy called Berga Oslan, and then I want to walk alone to the South Pole as the first in history. Then I want to be the first in the world to reach North Pole, South Pole, top Everest on foot.
Erling Kagge (12:47):
So having said that, I think many people would have been able to do the same, but somehow they didn't try. Or a few tried and failed, but-
Daniel Scrivner (12:56):
Yeah, didn't try again, or didn't keep at it. So your latest book, I believe which is one I've been really enjoying over the weekend just reading through again, is Philosophy For Polar Explorers which is a wonderful book. Again, keeps with the theme of it's a very compact book, but it's filled with a lot of really wonderful ideas and it's really wonderfully written.
Daniel Scrivner (13:16):
But one of the things you talk about in the book, you have a passage about failure and how failure is part and parcel of trying, and you have other passages about kind of allowing your goals to pursue you. I'm curious, just going back to that very first expedition you did with a few friends, it sounds pretty traumatic. You end up taking on a bunch of water at one point, it's felt like you were on the verge of sinking, and I'm curious, if you could, one, talk through a little bit about all the challenges you saw in that particular experience? But, two, a lot of people would probably go through that, get to the end of it and think, "Wow, that was really difficult. Maybe I shouldn't do this or I shouldn't go do any more exploring or go on any more adventures." So if you could just talk a little bit about that expedition in itself? And then talk a little bit about why that wasn't the end of exploring for you and why you were still so interested in curious to continue.
Erling Kagge (14:10):
It turned out being quite dangerous, that expedition of sailing across the Atlantic. But I learned a lesson, I learned a lesson about importance of preparations. We were lousy prepared and that was the reason we almost sank in the middle of the Atlantic. This Norwegian explorer, Amundsen, the first guy to the South Pole, he wrote something which I had taken with me in my heart until today. Also as a family man and as a publisher, entrepreneur. He wrote that, I'll just translate into English, it's something like, "Victory awaits the one who has everything in order, people calls it good luck. While failure always follows bad preparations, people call it bad luck."
Erling Kagge (14:59):
So since then, since that expedition I really started to do my homework. I know about myself, that I'm not physically stronger than everybody else, but I have been good with my preparations. So those two crossings of the Atlantic is a reminder that experience is the best education you can have, but it's very costly.
Daniel Scrivner (15:23):
Which is another great quote.
Erling Kagge (15:25):
But it was also a great trip. Four guys, sailing the Caribbean, ready for partying, swimming all day over there, windsurfing, being a part of nature, really enjoying life, and also that it's a little bit dangerous is also important. Because if it isn't difficult, and if it isn't dangerous then someone else can do it.
Daniel Scrivner (15:49):
And so going from there and talking a little bit about transitioning to the next expedition you went on with your fellow Norwegian, can you talk a little bit about that trip and the preparation for that and just how that went?
Erling Kagge (16:01):
For the North Pole?
Daniel Scrivner (16:02):
Erling Kagge (16:03):
That was a different story because then we prepared for two years, and of course at the time, late 80s, National Geographic which was a magazine we all read at the time, they said in an article that, "Maybe the last great challenge in the Arctic is to walk to the North Pole unsupported." We read it and we thought, "This is something we're going to do." The three guys, we got together and we prepared for two years.
Erling Kagge (16:36):
When you prepare you need to of course raise sponsorships, which is the most humiliating part of it all, but you have to do it. And I think it's healthy to be humiliated sometimes. Then you need to prepare the food, you eat the same food every day. Fats, mashed potatoes, dried meat, oats, chocolate, extra fat, formula milk. Of course this food doesn't taste so good when you start on an expedition, but after the days and weeks pass by it start to taste like true gourmet food.
Erling Kagge (17:07):
Then you need to train physical-wise, so I went skiing, cross country skiing, hiking with a heavy backpack. When we were with no snow in Oslo I took roller skis and dragged tractor tires up the hills outside Oslo to simulate dragging a sled. Of course when you do that you look absolutely stupid, so when people ask me, "What are you up to?" And I said, "I'm going to walk to the North Pole." And nobody believed me, so [crosstalk 00:17:37] a bachelor party.
Daniel Scrivner (17:39):
Yeah, on roller skates dragging a tire, it seems a little-
Erling Kagge (17:43):
And everybody believed me when I said it was a bachelor party.
Daniel Scrivner (17:46):
How heavy is the sled that you end up dragging when you go on one of those expeditions?
Erling Kagge (17:49):
It's about 220 kilos. It's like 260, 270 pounds, and it's about one kilo of food and fuel every day, so it gets one kilo lighter every day. But of course the snow in the Arctic and also in the Antarctic is quite tough because there's so much friction, it's really heavy to drag. That's why most people fail because to walk to North Pole, it goes down to -54 degrees.
Erling Kagge (18:20):
The Arctic is an ocean circumnavigated by continents as an opposite to Antarctica, which is a continent circumnavigated by oceans. So to walk to the North Pole you actually have walk on drifting ice and sometimes the ice breaks apart. It can be very windy, as I said, super cold, and you are even attacked by a Polar Bear. So it is dangerous, but I wouldn't say it's super dangerous, but it's dangerous.
Erling Kagge (18:49):
But also, as I said, it has to be dangerous, it has to be difficult, it has to be super cold. You've got to have all those frostbites. You need to almost cry when you go to have a pee or a shit because it's so cold. If it had been freed, I wouldn't have done it because that's kind of the meaning in... that's what gives an expedition meaning, it's that you are challenging yourself, that you are suffering and not giving up.
Daniel Scrivner (19:19):
And it's what you learn in that suffering or what you learn from overcoming that suffering I'm guessing.
Erling Kagge (19:25):
I think it's important to learn, you learn it in life that life is hard, life gets rough. As Johnny Cash said, "If man got to make it, he got to be tough." No, but for me I have a little dyslexia, so I didn't learn how to read or write and I couldn't even pronounce my own name before I was 10 years old. Of course that kind of experiences are very sad, very frustrating, but it also taught me not to trust authorities because there was nothing wrong with my teachers, but what they told me didn't work for me.
Erling Kagge (19:59):
It's also taught me that I had to find my own way to my goal, to find a solution, because what worked for the others in my class didn't work out for me. And surely, it also taught me how brutal life can be and how it is to feel insecure, how it is to be bullied, how it is to be a loser. So I won't romanticize about being dyslexic or having a hardship early life, but for me it has certainly also been very important experience in a positive way.
Daniel Scrivner (20:33):
I wasn't aware of that, that you had dyslexia and that you weren't able to pronounce your name by the age of 10, and that obviously is somewhat insane knowing now that you're professionally a publisher and you've written multiple bestselling books. Which I'm sure if you were to rewind back to that point in your time, I'm sure you probably never thought that that was going to be a possibility.
Daniel Scrivner (20:52):
Were you always interested in writing, in reading, in publishing? Or can you talk a little bit about that fascination?
Erling Kagge (20:59):
As soon as I learn how to read when I was around 10, I start to read a lot because that's a great way to learn of course and to entertain. But also kind of live your life through other people's lives, and to dream, to come with ambitions, to come up with new challenges, ideas. So I loved reading, as I learned how to do it, and before then my parents was reading a little bit for me in the evenings, so I always loved a great story.
Erling Kagge (21:28):
But of course I never believed I was going to write bestsellers, as I said, or start my own book publishing company, and nobody else believed it either. I'm sure [inaudible 00:21:38] my teachers at that time. But that's the beauty of life, that quite often you do things despite of and not because of.
Daniel Scrivner (21:46):
As a reaction to almost the things you've experienced or the things you've done.
Erling Kagge (21:46):
Yeah, but also the people in my class, the other pupils were nice people, and of course if you are super good looking, bright enough to get good results at school, the teacher is treating you nicer than he or she does to the other pupils. Everybody falls in love with you and you have friends all the time, then you don't have anything more to fight for when they get 15 and 20 years old. So it's kind of to say it in a cliché like way, we end up getting a life that a wife that reminds you about your mother and they get they their house in the same flat, in the same neighborhood as you grew up. And there's nothing wrong with it, but the alternative is pretty good too.
Daniel Scrivner (22:33):
Thinking back, you talk about once you were able to read just being absorbed by it, when you think back to your childhood were there books that you think of still as being very formative? And I'm curious, part of that is were you reading about explorers or were you reading Endurance, or any books like that? Or was it more just getting lost in just fascinating stories?
Erling Kagge (22:57):
I remember the first book I read was a biography on this German guy called Albert Schweitzer, who later won a Nobel Prize, Peace Prize because of his humanitarian work and especially in Africa. He was also kind of a philosopher about importance of life and kind of respect your own life but also respect every life on Earth, like small plants, insects and of course most important, humans. So being 10 years old, reading the book, this was a book with big letters, easy read, but I still remember that book as very inspiring. I actually still have the book. And the second book was Papillon, do you remember Papillon? The French book?
Daniel Scrivner (23:32):
Erling Kagge (23:35):
This guy, was super famous book, this guy, French guy convicted for murder, made innocently, sent to this little island, Devil's Island outside South America. It's his story about him escaping. I read that book twice in a row, I just loved it. And of course I identified with him, I was dreaming about him, I lived my life through his story for several months.
Daniel Scrivner (23:59):
Yeah, I think there was a movie about that recently. I think just a couple of years ago.
Erling Kagge (24:03):
Some years ago, yeah, and great film. I think Steve McQueen played the... I think it was Steve McQueen. I can't remember. A great movie.
Daniel Scrivner (24:10):
You end up going on all of these expeditions, then you go and actually study philosophy and then most of the books that you've published I think are very philosophical. I don't know if you'd call them philosophy books, they definitely talk about a very unique, very thoughtful perspective on life, perspective on topics like silence. But when were you first fascinated with philosophy and what led you to ultimately wanting to study that?
Erling Kagge (24:32):
I think I've been fascinated by philosophy my whole life, but I didn't hear about philosophy until I was way into my teenage years. I liked philosophy in the send of thinking about important matters, thinking about ideas, thinking about what's right, what's wrong. I think that's something I've been doing for almost my whole life, but to sit down and read proper philosophy? Maybe my late teenage years that I start to see that I could kind of understand myself much better by reading philosophy, understand the world and understand why people are doing as they're doing, and also being better at kind of predicting what's going to happen next.
Erling Kagge (25:15):
Then also taking pleasures reading as such, not as a means to something else, but just like a great pleasure. So then I kind of kept on reading philosophy and I became a close friend to a philosopher and to me it helped me to develop my relationship to nature, taught me about listening to Mother Earth. It's four and a half billion years old, so kind of naïve today that we hardly listen to Mother Earth anymore. And it also made me, I think, a better publisher. Also believe and I hope that it made me into a better human being.
Daniel Scrivner (25:52):
And are there philosophers that you really admire, who's works you really enjoy?
Erling Kagge (25:56):
Many. This Baruch Spinoza, mid 17th century Dutch philosopher, I read his main work, The Ethics, twice and I kind of understood less the second time than the first time. So it's complicated, but as I said, I believe in making life more difficult than it has to be so I don't mind reading books I really don't understand properly. I think it's healthy to try to listen to music and reading books that you don't really understand.
Daniel Scrivner (26:26):
How closely was your interest in exploring with your interest in philosophy? How linked?
Erling Kagge (26:31):
I don't separate.
Daniel Scrivner (26:33):
Erling Kagge (26:34):
For me, it's a lifestyle. As a publisher, explorer, art collector, keen reader, it's all the same to me. It's not like I think, "No, I've finished working so now I'm going to do something else." It's all a part of the one I am and I'm sure it's nice to kind of feel that you work from 9:00 in the morning until 5:00 in the afternoon, and then they can go home and do something else. That's not my life, and I think entrepreneurs, I think it's really hard to separate private life from professional life. And I enjoy it, I enjoy that it's all a lifestyle.
Daniel Scrivner (27:09):
It's all integrated. I want to talk a little bit about your publishing work. Clearly that's linked, I'm sure that interest is linked with your interest and passion with writing. But what led you to become a publisher? And I guess what excites you about that work today?
Erling Kagge (27:23):
First of all, it's great in the sense that you need to think about intellectual matters and commercial challenges all day. If you're a publisher, only think about the money, you're going to go bankrupt, and if you're a publisher only thinking about emotional, sensitive, kind of intellectual matters you will also go bankrupt. So you need the combination and I'm interested in both, and in '95 I live in Cambridge in England, and my girlfriend got pregnant. I thought I should go home to Norway, I should change my life a little bit, do less expeditions, I should able to earn some money so I can buy a home, and try to be a good father. And then I thought what should I do?
Erling Kagge (28:08):
I looked at different options and I decided on book publishing. One reason was because it was an old fashioned, stuffy, very conservative business which as good for me. Secondly because I thought it's interesting. I can probably have a great time being a publisher, I can publish. I didn't think at the time, but I also understood I can start to publish important books. Important books that can change people's lives to a certain degree.
Erling Kagge (28:38):
So I think as all jobs, I think it's best job I could have. And then I've published three books, it went well, and then I published 13 books and still went well. Today we are the biggest non fiction publisher in Norway and it's still fun. Of course sometimes it's not so fun, if you've [inaudible 00:28:59] but in general I think it's exciting and I think for every entrepreneur of course it's nice to earn money and blah, blah, blah. But I think the most important for most entrepreneurs is you really feel that you're succeeding with what you're doing, you're creating good stuff. Also as a publisher, of course we can't change the whole world but everybody can change the world. You can change a little bit, a little part of the world, and as a publisher I feel that I change the world a little bit for the better.
Daniel Scrivner (29:30):
You talked about there that it was an old, stuffy kind of business or world, which was good for you. I'm guessing it's good for you in the sense that you wanted to go in and do something very different. Is that true?
Erling Kagge (29:40):
Yeah. In Norwegian we have this saying that, "If people in the business you're going to venture into has a lot of hair in the nose, you have a huge opportunity to succeed." I don't think I translated properly, but something like this.
Daniel Scrivner (29:55):
No, that's a great... I mean I appreciated that translation. That's great.
Erling Kagge (29:58):
Yes, exactly. Because I think in general after traveling to more than 100 countries, talk to thousands of people, my impression is that most people underestimate themself and their own possibilities in life. But of course some people are always betting on themselves, and certainly Norwegian publishers at the time, they were... thought too good about themselves. So I saw a window of opportunity, work hard and publish some great books from day one, and of course the world is unfair but it's not only unfair, so if you work hard, publish some good books you have a okay chance to succeed.
Daniel Scrivner (30:38):
What are some of the books you're most proud of that you've published?
Erling Kagge (30:41):
From the States, we published like Colson Whitehead, Railroad Underground, and several kind of famous books, and they're selling really well also in Norwegian. But then again, we had many books that we are developing the ideas ourselves, then we publish them in Norwegian and then they are sold to many translations throughout the whole world and that's something I'm really, really proud of.
Erling Kagge (31:07):
In my company you're not allowed to say, "It was my idea, I had the idea first." I think that's very bad. I think it's a collective thing, it's a good thing that they develop ideas together. And it's like sitting around a fireplace late in the evening just before you're going to go to sleep in a tent or just under open skies and everybody sitting around the same fire and they develop ideas and try to make great book. And we publish around 100 new titles every year. It's fantastic.
Erling Kagge (31:39):
Just a few years ago we had this book on Norwegian wood culture, how to chop wood, how to stack wood. We are 5,000,000 people in this country and it sold 170,000 copies. We didn't expect it to export, but then it became a best seller in Germany, in England and many other countries. And it also became a kind of important book for many people because the reason people chop wood, I think one of the reasons is because you would like to get away from your family for an hour. But then also it's nice to do it, because it's physical, you don't think about anything else, you don't have any noise in your head and eventually the wood you chop can heat up the house you live in, maybe with your family. And that also gives you a great experience, so I think people really need to get away.
Erling Kagge (32:32):
Also, I think that's one reason we sell so many books on knitting, because like to knit because then you're not disturbed so you get some silence in your life. That's also I think why also books brewing beer, because that's another way to get away and doing something sensible, something meaningful, but not being disturbed by your telephone or by anyone else.
Daniel Scrivner (32:56):
It sounds really similar to the idea of a flow state or doing an activity to kind of... I don't know, you lose track of all sense of time. To your point, you stop thinking about the future, you stop thinking about the past and you're just in the moment.
Erling Kagge (33:08):
It's suddenly present in your life, as I also write about in my books, I think the challenge for many of us is that we're doing the same things every day. I'm not against routines, I think routines are very important in life. But eventually everything turns into a routine. As I said early on, if you spend three or four hours every day looking into a screen to explore the world, not explore yourself, then you will soon have the impression that life is very short.
Erling Kagge (33:38):
That impression will just grow on you as the years pass by and then you are as old as me, 57 years old, you start to go to 60th, 70th, 80th birthday parties and every party someone is talking about life being short. And I didn't really understand that all these days, weeks and years, that was life. That's a little bit sad because you have this huge opportunity to have a rich life and then you're kind of wasting it by never breaking free.
Erling Kagge (34:12):
I'm not saying that we should walk to the South Pole like I did, but somehow you need to find your own South Poles, and as I said early on, I think most people are underestimating themselves in terms of the possibilities.
Daniel Scrivner (34:25):
And when you say people find their own South Poles, is that taking on challenges that's going to bring out the best in the and it's really going to, I don't know, kind of make them either succeed or fail? Or how do you think about that?
Erling Kagge (34:35):
I don't like to failure, but failure's kind of a part of everything. So I think more like, yeah, bringing out the best but also doing things a little bit differently, like you are not doing exactly the same. You go to bed in the evening, you lay down on exactly the same place in the bed and throughout the whole day, next day, you doing kind of exactly the same. You have to break free.
Erling Kagge (35:01):
Practical wise, as you have seen in my books, I'm not trying to give any people advices, I just tell them about what I find important and then you need to find your own ways. But just practical wise, if you take away some apps from your phone, like just take away Facebook from your phone and just leave it on your PC at home or at work so you can congratulate people their birthdays. Just that is small change, not a great change, but an important change. So I think you just need some variety in life.
Daniel Scrivner (35:33):
I want to ask one more thing about your publishing which is you mentioned that you focused just on non fiction, which is really interesting. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Erling Kagge (35:41):
We also have some fiction, like the Colson Whitehead and a few others, and Brettis Nellis. But it's because in Norwegian publishing, but also I think in US most places, fiction is the most prestigious. That's kind of the high end in publishing in general. That's kind of considered the coolest, highest status. So I think that's a very good reason for publishing non fiction, because I didn't start in publishing to get a medal. I started, as I said, to have a job, to do a good job publishing great books, have hopefully a very good business. So I just believe that you don't need to go against all the trends all the time, but I think sometimes you need to again find your own path, and people think it gives them the most prestige to do something? You should do something else.
Erling Kagge (36:35):
On a personal level, I think quite often reality is so much more exciting than people manage to come up with while they write fiction. I mean reality is just insane, crazy, super entertaining, challenging, great reads. So that's also another reason I like non fiction books and to do publishing.
Daniel Scrivner (36:57):
And you talked a little bit about how within the company, no one can say that they had an idea first and how your focused as much on coming up with your own ideas and working as a group. Can you share a little bit about what that process looks like? Even for a book I guess like the book you mentioned about chopping and stacking wood. Does coming up with ideas mean first finding an interesting topic, then trying to find the right person to write on it, and are you really just spinning up these books and ideas from scratch? Or what does that look like?
Erling Kagge (37:23):
Could be almost from scratch or maybe I read or heard something, but then this particular idea, someone said, "Why not try to do something on the culture? About all these guys, it's mostly guys, who's chopping wood in the evenings, Sundays, Saturdays, just chop wood." This phenomena, of course Norway is a very... lots of forests. What is it all about? Why do they do it? Why do they look so happy and content while they're doing it?
Erling Kagge (37:53):
This idea developed over a couple of years, talked to some people about writing it. They didn't really get it, and then eventually after two or three years we found a guy who wanted to write it. He again spent almost two years to write it and he did a great job and it turned into a super bestseller. So the idea as such was not a great idea, but it end up being a great idea because everything came together in a very, very good way.
Daniel Scrivner (38:22):
And that project sounds like it was probably, what? Four or five years in the making?
Erling Kagge (38:26):
Daniel Scrivner (38:26):
Is it difficult? It seems very similar I guess to just putting one foot in front of the other.
Erling Kagge (38:31):
Daniel Scrivner (38:33):
Like on your expeditions, so it just seems like you're constantly kind of overcoming those hurdles. Is that demotivating at all? And is that demotivating for people on your team? Or how do you guys think about that internally?
Erling Kagge (38:43):
The good thing is that most people give up. They don't want to put one leg in front of the other enough times, so they give up. So I think for me, it just... I have a real high threshold for giving up anything. I think sometimes you have to give up, you have to take the loss, and maybe it's not even a loss, maybe it's kind of a, as I said, is a great education, you learn a lot and you move on. And other times the defeat is just awful and has hardly anything good with it. But in general, I know by myself that most people will give up. They don't have the stamina, or they just... other things are too tempting. It's just too tempting to explore the world while looking into a screen on your device, rather than be out in nature walking.
Erling Kagge (39:29):
Or you don't want to get up early in the morning because you need to work, you don't want to cold sweat during the night because you're worried about projects going really bad. So as I said, I believe in making life more difficult than it has to be and many people disagree.
Daniel Scrivner (39:47):
You clearly have a very high threshold, as you mentioned there, for just pain and for what it would take for you to give up. And certainly it sounds like overall that's been a really good force. But I imagine that could lead you to pursue things that probably don't make sense. Or where you do end up at some point having to say, "You know what? I think now we need to stop." So I'm curious, it feels to me like a really smart default to just always put one foot in front of the other, but do you have a criteria in your mind for when you... or a way of thinking about when you just have to say no and decide that it's a failure or decide that you should stop pursuing it?
Erling Kagge (40:20):
I think it's very important to be aware of your own limitations and remember that you have your limitations, and also that there's so many other smart people out there. So you need to narrow in your scope. Like I have been asked many times if I want to do other kinds of businesses than book publishing, but I don't.
Erling Kagge (40:41):
I also like book publishing because it's not trendy. When I started book publishing, everyone wanted to go into internet stuff in the mid 90s, and I thought if all the clever people want to do internet startups, I should do something else. When I was, I think I write about it in Philosophy For Polar Explorers, when I was quite young, around my 20s, I start to speculate on stocks because I thought I can earn a lot of money without doing any huge effort. And for a short while I earned good money and then I lost it all and more.
Erling Kagge (41:16):
That also taught me a lesson that just don't think you're that clever, smart, better than other people. It's so much more about hard work, and also to be, what's the word in English? Vulnerable of course, but also to be totally aware that you can always lose, something can go wrong at any moment. One of the oldest advices in the world, the history of the world, is this, "Remember that you're going to die."
Erling Kagge (41:45):
Of course that's dramatic, but it's really important to keep in the back of your head that you're going to die. I don't think it's healthy think about your own death too much because then it's hard to be a free human being if you think about your death all the time. But to be aware that you have this opportunity, as I said, and you can be hit by the bus tomorrow morning. You'd rather try to do a good job today.
Daniel Scrivner (42:08):
That idea really resonates with me of being totally okay with people that are off pursuing the hot, really interesting thing and following instead just what makes a lot of sense to you. But it's also something it feels like it's going out of style, or that it's becoming less and less popular over time. Today I do feel like in all aspects of life, people always want to choose the fastest option, the way to bypass the most things and get there because I think in a lot of our minds it's like, "Well, I'm trying to get from Point A to Point B, all that matters is getting to Point B, so why not get there as fast as possible?"
Daniel Scrivner (42:41):
And clearly there's a bunch of things that are lost in that, so I guess what would you say to somebody, or how would you answer that question of why someone should take the slower approach when they have the chance of going somewhere faster?
Erling Kagge (42:53):
I think it's another of the huge misunderstandings in today's society, is this idea that we're better off if we have a high speed. Of course the government, school system, every commercial business almost, they'll all tell you, "You have to speed up because you're going to build Gross National Product and you're going to be a great consumer, that's why you need to have speed."
Erling Kagge (43:19):
But my experience is kind of the opposite. So of course sometimes you need to have a good speed, but by slowing down, like for instance walking instead of driving all the time, you experience so much more. And of course when you walk you become more creative. The reason why people like from Socrates in Athens 2,400 years ago, or Steve Jobs in California until recently, the reason they all kept on walking was of course because it was good for the creativity. They were thinking, then wandering, and they were coming up with bright ideas.
Erling Kagge (43:56):
Also walking is good for your intelligence I think, and it's also good for your memory because somehow if you walk slowly I think your memory works so much better. And I also think it's good for your emotional life, that if you sit in a chair, so little things are happening in your mind. While if you walk it's even in our language, if you move, you're being moved. You're emotion in motion.
Erling Kagge (44:22):
So that's just some of the examples why walking is important, but also I'll try to say this in English, it's also about time in the sense that let's say you're going 10 miles down the street and you drive that distance and it takes you a few minutes. Then nothing is happening while driving. You don't see anything, you don't hear anything, you're not thinking about anything. It's kind of nothing to write home about.
Erling Kagge (44:52):
Then if you walk the same distance, you probably use maybe three hours, and you feel the air, you're smelling what's going on, you are seeing, watching to the faces of people. If it's on nature, you see the grass, you see the trees, and you're seeing your fellow citizens if you're in a city, which is very important if you don't have respect for the people. You need to see them.
Erling Kagge (45:16):
You have all these small experiences. Nothing great probably, but all these small experiences. Then time is stretching out, is opening up, and the world is opening up because instead of just passing everything in the high speed, you see it.
Daniel Scrivner (45:31):
You interact with it.
Erling Kagge (45:32):
You get experiences. So then also the world is stretching out, is opening up. That again makes your life so much richer. So I don't think you should walk all the time, I have a car, but we should walk more, we should accept sometimes just slow down. As I said, being the center of our own lives, not live our life on the conditions of everybody else because walking is very much about freedom. I think that speed up is about the opposite of freedoms, it's unfreedom because it's other people, the government, as I said education system, distances that decide how you're going to live your life. Not all the time, but sometimes you should break free.
Daniel Scrivner (46:13):
It's a great answer, it's a lot to think about there. So many good points.
Erling Kagge (46:17):
One more thing, remember every great revolution in the history of the world has started by people walking the streets.
Daniel Scrivner (46:25):
Which is very timely.
Erling Kagge (46:26):
Daniel Scrivner (46:27):
There's a lot of that going on in 2020. So just moving on to some closing questions, one of the ones I wanted to ask you was... We've talked a little bit about all the different exploring and expeditions that you've done and I highly encourage people to read your books where you go into a lot more depth into things like running into that Polar Bear and having to kil this Polar Bear when you were in the North Pole. That's just one small element of one of those stories. We could talk for hours about those stories.
Daniel Scrivner (46:50):
But I'm curious, when you think back on those, is there one of those expeditions that you just hold onto the most dearly or that still resonates with you the most strongly, of the things that you've done?
Erling Kagge (47:01):
I think to walk alone to the South Pole, that was the greatest for me because I was alone. I consider myself a very social human being, but I was alone, and I had to leave my own ideas and thoughts for I didn't know for how long. And then being so close to the ice and the snow and the wind and the sun, that was the most important in my life because it taught me this lesson on silence, it taught me a lesson, as I said, about hardship. Also a lesson about how to succeed, how to survive. So for me that expedition to the South Pole was more an expedition into myself.
Daniel Scrivner (47:46):
So one of the questions I want to ask as well too is for any book recommendations you might share with the audience. For people that are listening, they're clearly not seeing this but Erling at the beginning of his interview was in his library which is stacked literally floor to ceiling with books. You've clearly read plenty of books, I'm curious, do you have recommendations you would give people for... The most interesting would be any amazing stories of explorers that you really enjoy or books that they've written or books about them. And then, two, are there books that you refer to people, that you recommend to people, that you give out to people, that you think are really meaningful?
Erling Kagge (48:19):
The book I gave away a few copies just recently was Pete Matthiessen The Snow Leopard. Have you heard about it?
Daniel Scrivner (48:26):
No, I haven't heard about that book.
Erling Kagge (48:27):
Pete Matthiessen, he was a editor of Paris Revue. He did this hike in the Himalayas, his wife had died, his son he left with some other people, and then he went to Himalayas to search for the Snow Leopard. It's a beautiful, thoughtful book.
Erling Kagge (48:47):
I also was reading Roland Huntford yesterday about his books on famous polar explorers. He's a great writer. You don't need to agree with everything, but he's really, really a great writer. And then again, I think I just read this Girl, Woman, Other. It's on the Booker Prize or something like this last year. I think that's was a great... it's a novel, it's just about all main characters are black women, which is original. And then I just also read Josh Sanders' 10th of September, short stories.
Erling Kagge (49:20):
I actually read yesterday Josh Sanders said that with short stories it's like cracking jokes. It has to be good all the way. I think that's a good point because quite often with novels I think you read two thirds and then when the author is going to wrap it all up it kind of get a little bit boring. I quite often stop reading the book because I cannot feel [inaudible 00:49:43] but with short stories, great short stories you have to read the whole way.
Erling Kagge (49:48):
But having said that, finally a book that really made a huge impression was Tolstoy's War And Peace. It's a 1,300 page book. I avoided reading it because it's so long, a year and a half ago I decide to read it with two friends. And I mean it's tough going but then I came to like page 1,150, it was so good I stopped reading, I took a few months break because I just wanted to live with the story for a few more months and let it develop in my head and live with the characters. I didn't want to let them go. And then I read the final part.
Daniel Scrivner (50:28):
That's incredible. Do you have any other favorite philosophy books or books from philosophers that you really enjoy and that you'd recommend?
Erling Kagge (50:35):
I just like a philosophical novel, I was just thinking I'm going to reread is Frankenstein, the classic from 1815, 1820. I think that book really relates to the time we're living in. Not only with AI but also with AI, but also many other things like Frankenstein of course was a doctor, he invented this being that eventually turned into a Monster. But when you just read about it like this, it's not so fascinating, but of course the Monster has emotions, the Monster falls in love, the Monster does beautiful things, it does awful things. But somehow you also identify with the Monster, and Frankenstein's Monster. So I was just thinking I should read it again and it's also a very, very philosophical book.
Erling Kagge (51:25):
In terms of philosophy, I could just recommend two Norwegian philosophers. Lars Svendsen, S-V-E-N-D-S-E-N, who wrote this Philosophy Of Boredom, Philosophy On Work, Philosophy On Different Subjects, and now his next book was just published and it's Philosophy Of Lies. Very interesting book. And then Arne Naess, Naess, N-A-E-S-S, the father of deep ecology. I think he's almost forgotten today but I think he also has great things to say about respecting life, all kinds of life.
Daniel Scrivner (52:03):
Is that book very nature centric? Or is it just life centric?
Erling Kagge (52:07):
It's very nature centric, yeah. This is Norway.
Daniel Scrivner (52:11):
Yeah, it's going to be.
Erling Kagge (52:12):
Huge country and few people, so you're quite nature centric.
Daniel Scrivner (52:16):
One of the questions I was super curious to ask you is do you have any rituals, any things that you do every single day that help you put these things that you've learned into practice? So that could be something like taking time to reflect during the day, making sure that you're going out and walking during the day. For anyone listening that is just fascinated by your kind of ideas, can you share a little bit about what you do each day to live those?
Erling Kagge (52:41):
As I said early on, I believe in routines because there's so many decisions to do during one day and so many things to think about. So if your heart is routines you have so much more surplus to venture into that kind of matters. So I try to get up around the same time every morning. I eat oat porridge almost every morning, like four or five mornings a week, and I have blueberries that my brother who has a lot of spare time pick in the summer and then I freeze it, in the porridge every day. Then I usually try to walk to my office. Now, with corona we have a home office, but usually I try to walk either to my office or back from my office, or both.
Daniel Scrivner (53:22):
How far is that?
Erling Kagge (53:24):
It's like 35 mins.
Daniel Scrivner (53:26):
So just a quick walk.
Erling Kagge (53:27):
I have some meetings, but I try to avoid too many meetings. Then I walk home, I try to cook every day. If I eat in restaurant or travel, but if I'm at home, even if I'm by myself I try to cook little, simple, good food every day. I think that's very important. Some of the greatest pleasures in life is to eat good food with great people, but it's pretty good to do it by yourself too.
Erling Kagge (53:50):
Then I try to go to bed more or less the same time every evening. In the evenings I read manuscripts, I read papers and I read literature. And then when the winter is approaching though, I go cross country skiing quite often late in the evenings, maybe for just one hour, an hour and a half. I love close to the forest. And in the weekends I go on long trips. Kind of routiney, which little bit like a polar explorer too.
Daniel Scrivner (54:20):
Yeah, the same porridge. Is it the same porridge that you eat when you're out on?
Erling Kagge (54:23):
I have proper milk. No, I don't have formula milk.
Daniel Scrivner (54:26):
That's probably a good change when you're at home. This has been an amazing discussion, I was looking forward to this for so long. So I just have to ask you one more question and then we can wrap up, and that's we ask every guest just if they can share a person or experience that had a really profound impact on them and just share a little bit about that with the audience.
Erling Kagge (54:44):
For sure, my mother and father. As you know, every son has a problematic relationship to his father, so had I, I think that today we have a very good relationship. But I think it was important. But one person is Arne Naess, the philosopher I mentioned who was like 50, 60 years older than me. He taught me, for instance, about the importance of keeping your pleasures simple. That has been very important to me.
Erling Kagge (55:15):
Of course I also learn it on expeditions, and I know that people have said it for thousands of years, and I think any advice that has lasted for more than 1,000 years you could take really seriously. But having Arne saying it to me, and we went on trips together, spent time in the mountains together, living really simple lives, and see how he lived his own philosophy, I'm very, very grateful for that. Life changing.
Daniel Scrivner (55:44):
That's amazing. Well, thank you so much. This has been an amazing conversation, Erling.
Erling Kagge (55:48):
Thank you. [Norwegian 00:55:50] as we say in Norwegian. Thank you for inviting. [crosstalk 00:55:51]
Daniel Scrivner (55:51):
Okay, thank you.
Erling Kagge (55:54):
All the best.
On Outliers, Daniel Scrivner explores the tactics, routines, and habits of world-class performers working at the edge—in business, investing, entertainment, and more. In each episode, he decodes what they've mastered and what they've learned along the way. Start learning from the world’s best today. Explore all episodes of Outliers, be the first to hear about new episodes, and subscribe on your favorite podcast platform.
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