"The dangers of life are infinite, and among them is safety." – Johann Wolfgang Goethe
Have you ever found yourself in an extreme situation? Did you learn something from that experience and apply that lesson to your personal or professional life, or both?
My childhood dream was to be an adventurer, discovering and exploring territories beyond the Swiss mountains where I grew up. And it’s who I am today.
Aged 21, I initiated ‘Run for Help’, a solo run across the Alps in less than five days to raise funds for homeless children in Romania.
Two years later, in 2001, I launched ‘Bike for Help’, a 10,000 km bicycle ride from India to Switzerland to help leprosy sufferers.
Crossing war zones and negotiating with rebels and army leaders, I cycled through some of the most inhospitable parts of the world, including the Taliban hub of Baluchistan and more than 4,000 km of desert.
Thanks to donations from around the world, the project financed hospitals, rehabilitation programmes and orphanages for leprosy patients. It was a project for and with people who needed help.
Clearly, few of us run or cycle across continents, but this doesn't mean that we don’t face “extremes” at some points in our personal and professional lives, whether that's making difficult decisions, motivating teams, or experiencing failure and success.
So when the unexpected happens, we need to be ready and able to make sound decisions.
In 2010, I was back on my bike crossing the Himalayas, cycling along the highest tracks in the world to raise funds and awareness for mentally ill and marginalized women. A rock-fall caught me by surprise and a stone hit me on the head. The impact was so severe it crushed my helmet.
To make matters worse, on the same trip I also had severe altitude sickness and crashed my bike several times. The award-winning documentary Alegría – A Humanitarian Expedition tells the story of this adventure.
As well as my expeditions, I worked for 10 years with the ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) and the UN in conflict zones in the Central African Republic, Colombia, Nepal, Israel and Palestine.
Facing personal and professional extremes, both with others and alone, has taught me invaluable lessons that I believe could be helpful in life and the workplace.
Here are seven things I've learned from my life on the edge:
Be driven by passion, purpose and humility
Working in war zones and cycling at altitudes of 8,000 m have taught me to focus on what's important. They're also humbling experiences.
Having passion for what I do and a sense of purpose are what keep me going in the face of exhaustion. There's no point doing something you're not passionate about.
Leave your comfort zone, and then go further
“It is only in adventure that some people succeed in knowing themselves.” – André Gide
I've learned to embrace the unknown and to be open to new cultures and people with different viewpoints. This is an essential quality in today's globalized world.
Never give up, but know when to turn back
“You're braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.” – A. A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh
Danger is a constant travel companion in high altitudes, where weather conditions can change in an instant. Every mountain pass becomes a judgement call, and you have to be prepared to turn back at a moment's notice. Easier said than done when your goal is within sight.
Sometimes, though, you stand to gain more by adjusting the goal posts, or turning around and trying a different approach.
Trust and be trusted
“The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.” – Ernest Hemingway
I've often been in situations where I've felt vulnerable and had to ask for help. The same applies when you're working in a team: don't be afraid to place your trust in others.
Although I was often alone on my expeditions, I had the backing of strong teams, including top executives from large companies. I learned from this that you can achieve much more through collaboration and teamwork.
“Stay hungry. Stay foolish.” – Steve Jobs
Adventurers are curious by nature. And this curiosity is like an addiction, increasing with every new discovery.
Pablo Picasso, an adventurer of a different kind, once said: “I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.”
In your personal and professional life, seek out opportunities to learn, and be open to learning from the experience and expertise of others.
Stop, think and then act
“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” – Albert Einstein
I'm always trying to drive change and hardly ever stop. But I've realized that decisions I've taken under pressure have not always led to a positive outcome.
Sometimes it helps to pause for a moment, to breathe and to contemplate before you act. Stepping away from a situation, even for just a moment, can give you the clarity you need to make a better decision.
Be optimistic and enjoy success
“A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” – Winston Churchill
Ten years ago, I was nearly killed in a violent ambush in the Central African Republic. In this and other awful situations, it can be difficult to remain optimistic. But I've learned that I have the power to keep a positive frame of mind.
Optimism helps you celebrate achievements, no matter how small. This is a quality that I've observed in many explorers, and it's part of their formula for success.