“Mother Nature is 4.54 billion years old. So it seems to me arrogant when we don't listen to nature and instead blindly place our trust in human invention.” – Erling Kagge
Erling Kagge was the first person in history to reach all of the Earth's poles by foot. He walked to the North Pole, trekked alone to the South Pole, and summited Mount Everest — all in just 5 years. His expeditions have taken him to the ends of the Earth and the limits of human endurance. On his trek to the South Pole, he spent more than 50 days completely alone and unsupported in one of the harshest environments on Earth.
In Philosophy for Polar Explorers, he shares what he's learned from a lifetime of exploration, including what the most extreme conditions can teach us about how to lead a meaningful life — no matter where we might be headed.
For more, listen to my full interview with Erling Kagge on my podcast Outliers with Daniel Scrivner. It's free.
16 Powerful Lessons
“One of the things I have learned as an explorer is that, every so often along the journey, you have to stop and recalibrate. To take stock of unexpected events or changes in the weather. This book is a recalibration of sorts.” – Erling Kagge
Philosophy for Polar Explorers contains sixteen powerful lessons:
- Set Your Own Compass
- Get Up Early
- Train Yourself in Optimism
- Don't Fear Your Own Greatness
- Don't Mistake Probability for Possibility
- Don't Take Stupid Risks
- Have Something to Lose
- Don't Chase Happiness, Let It Chase You
- Learn to Be Alone
- Enjoy Small Helpings
- Accept Failure
- Find Freedom in Responsibility
- Make Flexibility a Habit
- Don't Leave Luck to Chance
- Allow Your Goal to Pursue You
- Reset Your Compass
If I tried to recap each lesson, I would surely fail. My copy of the book has passages and quotes underlined on nearly every single page. While I can't unpack all of the lessons, I highly recommend reading the book yourself, I'll share some of my favorite passages below.
My Favorite Passages
Like any great book, you really only scratch the surface of Philosophy for Polar Explorers by reading it once. I think of the best books as voices, preserved in time, that you can revisit any time they beckon to you again.
This is why I order hardcover books — so that I can underline passages, makes notes in the margins, and dog-ear pages, making it easy to pick them up at any time to reflect on my favorite passages.
Here are a few of my favorites from Erling's book.
From Get Up Early on page 12:
What I know of discipline I learned above the treeline (the highest point at which trees can still grow in the mountains). If it's cold, it's tempting to stop walking earlier than planned, and if you're very hungry it's all too easy to nibble at a bit of tomorrow's ration. Out there I suffered the immediate consequences when I procrastinated.
From Train Yourself in Optimism on pages 16, 19, and 22-23:
'The struggle lies between the ears, not in the feet,' I wrote after the journey to the North Pole. If the body's able but we can't convince the head, it isn't easy to get anywhere.
The American psychologist Martin Seligman advocates what he calls 'flexible optimism,' which factors in risks, rather than blind belief in positive outcomes. When the cost of miscalculating threatens to be severe, then it is time to be decidedly pessimistic in your estimation of how things will go. But when there's little to lose by being gung-ho and optimistic, then go for it.
One of my childhood heroes was the Englishman Daley Thompson, the world's best decathlon athlete for ten years. Thompson usually trained three times a day because he reckoned the other competitors would be content with twice, and that would put him ahead of the field. But it wasn't just his body he was training. He was also cultivating a mindset of self-belief informed by his physical exercise. … Most importantly, he believed defeats to be temporary setbacks. 'I'm good at it until proved otherwise.' According to Thompson he was competing first and foremost against himself.
From Don't Fear Your Own Greatness on pages 25, 26, and 33:
I've travelled to more than 100 countries and have met quite a few people, and I'm in no doubt that the majority of us undervalue ourselves. It seems that many of us have a fear of our own greatness, and so make ourselves less than we are.
Greatness is relative. What I have in mind when I talk about greatness is the potential of each and every individual to overcome obstacles. Small ones and, at times, great ones.
One of the advantages of not fearing our own greatness is that we will cease to fear it in others.
From Don't Mistake Probability for Possibility on page 37:
'We have to differentiate between what is completely impossible and what is merely improbable,' writes the Norwegian philosopher and mountaineer Arne Næess. Nothing is completely impossible, he insists—just less and less probable. All eventualities while you are alive have a possibility meter that goes from 0.1 to 99.99 percent certainty. On expeditions, as well as in daily life, I find Næess's logic very helpful.
From Don't Take Stupid Risks on pages 47-48 and 49:
Over the years I have thought a lot about courage and have concluded that it isn't a concrete quality that one is either born with or not. It's something that develops, something that is fostered or represented at different times. Courage comes in different forms.
It's no shame to turn back; that's rule number eight of the Norwegian Mountaineering Code. Now and again I've asked myself if one of the reasons why I've seldom turned back may be that I have not had the courage to do so. It can be a jolly sight more tempting to expose oneself to extra danger than to be the object of disapproval or mockery.
From Have Something to Lose on pages 63, 64, and 68:
For any undertaking to be truly challenging you have to stand to lose something. This applies in great things as in small.
My experience is that on those occasions when I, of my own volition, have risked something in my actions or my speech—chosen the narrow way—life has been given extra meaning.
Danger is minimized before and during an expedition. But if it's absent then there's no gamble whatsoever.
From Enjoy Small Helpings on pages 100 and 101:
I remember as a child how a small piece of cake tasted better than a big piece, but I never drew any conclusions from that. Each new spoonful tasted less good than the one before, and if I ate enough I felt sick. That's what economists call the law of diminishing returns.
Architects, of course, made this discovering long ago. 'Less is more' is a principle attributed to the German architect Mies van der Rohe. He showed that more of a good thing in architecture—as elsewhere in life—doesn't necessarily reap the most rewards. What is functional and beautiful in an object should be revealed by the omission of certain elements. Its strength as a whole will be increased by using less of something. With buildings one tiny little excess really can ruin the work.
From Accept Failure on page 109:
One of South America's foremost climbers, Rodrigo Jordan, told me that he has made 350 attempts to reach the summit of various mountains. About 120 of these attempts have been successful (of those, three were different routes up Everest). Those 230 other times he gave up. 'That's why I'm still alive,' he concluded. I was positively surprised by his relaxed attitude to the failed attempts. Of course, I don't doubt that some of those had been, and continue to be, both demoralizing and embarrassing. But it's not often I meet someone who understands that success and failure aren't necessarily mutually exclusive. Quite the opposite; one is reliant upon the other, and both are a natural result of risking a little more.
From Find Freedom in Responsibility on page 121:
One of the reasons why I have dismissed the idea of living a life with few responsibilities is that I have realized responsibility is the key to a freer life. If I choose the path of least resistance, I am not free. If I avoid responsibility, I will always choose the easiest path when I come to any crossroad.
From Make Flexibility a Habit on page 133:
The most exciting artists are almost all bound by routine, at least during those time when they're producing artistic work, though not quite to the extent that they live as I do prior to an expedition, with early mornings and a strict timetable. The stereotypical artist, the wine-swigging or drug-taking artistic soul who has no sense of work routines or adaptability whatsoever exists too—but isn't as common as we are led to believe. And it's at least my experience that they seldom create great art during such periods of 'escape.' The Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson generally arrives at his studio every day at the same time—half past eight in the morning. He does half an hour of archery to take his mind off everything else, before working solidly for the remainder of the day. The energy he saves by being systematic he employs in being creative.
From Don't Leave Luck to Chance on pages 142 and 143:
Preparations are all about foreseeing difficulties. Alex Honnold tries to visualize all possibilities before he climbs because he does not want to climb halfway up and suddenly be surprised: 'Whoa, it never occurred to me that I would die if I fell here.' That is wise, but then once I'm underway I don't fear problematic situations until I actually encounter them. There's so much that can go wrong that it's just frustrating to worry about things beforehand. And more often than not the problem that crops up isn't one I'd been fearing anyway. If I start fretting over every eventuality, knowing I can't do anything more to prevent them, then the chances are I'll start making excuses not to set off in the first place.
For me, thinking positively is part of my preparations. I've simply made up my mind not to think negatively about something once I've begun: 'This is something I'm going for. With heart and head, until it's proved undoable.' This applies as much to big things as to small.
From Allow Your Goal to Pursue You on page 147:
It is absurd to climb Everest, just as it is absurd to walk to the Poles, and that makes it pretty difficult to fully explain the drive in a rational way. As philosopher and mountaineer Arne Næss replied when a journalist asked him why he had started climbing: 'Why did you stop?'
From Reset Your Compass on page 165:
Of all the rules I've set myself over the years, there are two that I consistently try to stand by: 1) Be kind. Every day. Even on a solo expedition you are depending on dozens of others—the ones who make your boots, tent, sleeping bag and anorak, the nutritionist, sponsors—and kindness is met by helpfulness. To be nice is one of the most sensible things to be, and when your life may depend on those people, it is actually utterly stupid not to treat everybody well. 2) The second is an unwritten rule of the mountains and forests in Norway, namely that you should always leave the site of your camp as it was before you came, or in a better shape. I think that is the best rule we have in Norway. The only thing you should leave behind is a sense of gratitude.
If you enjoy the ideas and perspectives in this book, here's a list of related books and articles — some are even referenced in Philosophy for Polar Explorers.
- Snow: A Scientific and Cultural Exploration by Giles Whittell
- Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing and Nathaniel Philbrick
- Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life by Martin Seligman
- The Arctic Grail: The Quest for the North West Passage and the North Pole 1818-1909 by Pierre Berton
- The Mystery of Courage by William Ian Miller
- Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankel
- The Science of Well-Being by Felicia Huppert, Nick Baylis, and Barry Keverne
- On the Shortness of Life: Life Is Long if You Know How to Use It by Seneca
- The Way to Win: Strategies for Success in Business and Sport by Robert Heller and Will Carling
- Happiness Paradox by Ziyad Marar
- The Consolations of the Forest: Alone in a Cabin on the Siberian Taiga by Sylvain Tesson
- A Philosophy of Boredom by Lars Svedsen
- The Story of the First Sherpa to Climb to the Top of Mt. Everest | Christopher Rand for The New Yorker
- Alex Honnold Documentary ‘Free Solo’ Is as Extreme as the Man | Peter Travers for Rolling Stone
- How Meditation Changes Your Brain—and Your Life | Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson for Lion's Roar
- Strategic Intensity: A Conversation with World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov | Gerry Kasparov and Diane L. Coutu for Harvard Business Review
- David Foster Wallace, in his own words | Featured in 1843 Magazine for The Economist
For more, listen to my interview with Erling Kagge on Outliers with Daniel Scrivner. It's free.
Excerpted from Philosophy for Polar Explorers by Erling Kagge. Copyright © 2020 Kagge Forlag AS. Some minor edits have been made for clarity. Excerpted by permission of Viking, a division of Penguin Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.