04 December 2023

The Monday Briefing: Incredible

The Monday Briefing: Incredible

Though the phrase ‘to boldly go where no man has gone before’ became renowned largely due to its’ having been prominent in the title sequence of the incredibly popular 1960s sci-fi show Star Trek, the origins of the phrase go back far further.

The phrase "where no man has gone before" was first used by the noted Portuguese poet Luís de Camões in his epic poem The Lusiads, published in 1572.  The poem celebrates the Portuguese nation and its discovery of the sea route to India by Vasco da Gama.

Following an early expedition to Newfoundland, Captain James Cook declared that he intended to go not only "... farther than any man has been before me, but as far as I think it is possible for a man to go.” Cook's most famous ship, the Endeavour, lent its name to the last-produced NASA Space Shuttle.

In a US Government booklet published in 1958, entitled ‘Introduction to Outer Space’, produced to garner support for a national space program in the wake of the Soviet Sputnik flight the year before, it read on page 1:

The first of these factors is the compelling urge of man to explore and to discover, the thrust of curiosity that leads men to try to go where no one has gone before. Most of the surface of the earth has now been explored and men now turn to the exploration of outer space as their next objective.

Perhaps those in the White House were rather hasty to suggest that pushing limits on planet Earth had reached saturation point.

Given the brief of making an apt speech for pupils at Reddiford School at their awards events in the summer amongst the grand surroundings of Merchant Taylors’ School, I chose to explain to children the incredible exploits of Levison Wood, who attempted to become the first person to walk the length of the Nile in 2013. He was tremendously close to doing so, experiencing tragic loss, narrowly avoiding death in a civil war, and displaying amazing resilience in traversing parts of the Sahara desert. Perhaps the most impressive compliment one can pay Wood is that he followed this up by successfully completing further expeditions through the Himalayas, Central America and a circumnavigation of the Arabian peninsula. I own all of his books, and each inspires me never to impose limits on what I can do personally.

Combining this spirit of exploration with another of my passions, running, Russ Cook is another inspiring individual who has sought to smash glass ceilings through physical and mental fortitude. Having become the first person to run from Asia to London in 2019, completing 71 marathons in 66 days as he travelled from Istanbul in Turkey, to his home town of Worthing in Surrey passing through a total of 11 countries. Cook has also completed a marathon on crutches and ran a marathon while drinking a beer after each mile. Cook, who calls himself the ‘hardest geezer’ is now 225 days into an incredible quest to run 15,000 miles from the southernmost point in South Africa, to the northernmost part of the continent, in Tunisia. He has been robbed at gunpoint, struggled with illness and injury several times, defied doctors orders to take a rest, and yet still he drives on until the end, pounding the African tarmac with his ‘ones and twos’.

Whilst these two individuals are certainly incredible in terms of their achievements to date, I had the honour of spending a few hours with someone who would not be out of place in their company. 

Back in 2022, I had the great fortune of being part of the audience to hear Darren Edwards speak about overcoming adversity at the Independent Schools Association Heads’ Conference at the Lake District. Within minutes of hearing his presentation, I knew that I had to do everything I could to bring his message of resilience, dedication and commitment to making the most of oneself to the College. I knew that he would inspire our students - that he would make them understand that no matter what life throws at you, there is a way to succeed in fulfilling your goals.

The word inspiring is often used too freely. 

Whilst some can bring a temporary shift in mindset with their words, Edwards presentations, and I have now seen him three times, are truly memorable. He speaks from the heart, with a grounded, genuine nature which connects with students. Our students find his experiences absorbing, and there is good reason for this.

After I saw him for the first time, I wrote about his affecting speech in a previous edition of the Monday Briefing:

Early on the first day, the former mountaineer and Army reservist Darren Edwards delivered an incredibly thought provoking speech in which he described his journey since having undergone a life changing accident which left him paralysed from the waist down. For someone who previously had Mount Everest in his sights, his life ambition was close to being realised. One moment climbing in Wales changed all of that, and it is testament to Darren’s incredible spirit that he has adapted to find new goals and ambitions to pursue and overcome. Last year, he led a record breaking kayaking group to travel the coastal waters of Britain, and now he has set for himself the challenge of taking on seven marathons in seven continents in seven days. The word inspirational is often overused, but Darren’s presentation really spoke to all in attendance: that life can throw a huge amount at you - and that through the continual reinforcement of building one’s own resilience, incredible feats can be achieved.

As with Wood and Cook, Edwards’ most inspiring quality is his relentless willingness to continuously push the boundaries in order to reach higher, going beyond the limits and expectations, either imposed by themselves or by others. For him, success breeds success.

Since I first saw him speak, Darren has gone on to become the first person to complete seven marathons in seven days across seven continents in a wheelchair as part of the World Marathon Challenge in 2023, the first person with a Spinal Cord Injury to row across the English Channel in 2022. He led the first all-disabled team to ski across Europe’s largest glacier, the Vatnajokull in Iceland earlier this year, and will follow that up by leading a ground-breaking expedition to the South Pole in December 2024. Beyond all of those tremendous achievements, he also celebrated his wedding this year, something of which he is probably most proud.

In many ways, he encapsulates the incredible power of setting oneself challenging goals, seemingly beyond the realms of possibility, and striving, through ingenuity, grit, determination, stubbornness and a refusal to give in to make it happen. And that’s why he, and his message, was so pitch perfect for the students at the College.

We have students at Ealing who may not have experienced the physical trauma of Edwards, but many of them have to demonstrate tremendous fortitude on a daily basis to overcome the mental trauma they have had to endure as part of their past schooling. They have their own adversity to overcome. Having a tangible example to follow is the crucial ingredient that some of them require to join the dots.

Darren made powerful points in his first talk about making a distinction between ‘bouncing back’ and the concept of ‘bouncing forward’. Not merely returning to the person you were after a setback, but becoming something different, something better. I think that this point particularly resonated with the students, and his encouraging style built on that further this time around. And his return, with more great feats to reveal, carried with it the best message: to never settle for doing well once; to prevail and continue prevailing; to seek continuous improvement, even as the challenges become more and more gruelling.

I was delighted to see him again - to see that in the most important respect, he has not changed: his unshakable drive to go beyond his comfort zone; his unbending will to overcome problems; his infectiously welcoming openness in sharing his thoughts with those in the audience as though he were chatting to a friend in the pub.

I’d heartily recommend him to take on the task of successfully inspiring those he presents to. His emotive delivery certainly captured the imaginations of staff and students at EIC.

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