An Ocean Rower’s Top Tips for Happiness and Meaning

Categories:Careers, Motivation

Yes, I know this is a business blog, so why am I writing about fluffy stuff like happiness and meaning? Well, actually, happiness and meaning DO matter, in all kinds of contexts, and that Happiness includes business.

Want to grow a great business?

Give it meaning. Understand WHY you are doing it. That authenticity and sense of purpose will ripple out through every aspect of what you do. If you haven’t already seen it at least 5 times, watch Simon Sinek’s TED Talk: Start With Why. 

In my experience, it really helps to have

  • An internal Why (your personal quest for self-improvement, for example)
  • An external Why (the reason that the world needs you to do what you do).

At different times you’ll need to draw more heavily on one Why than the other to keep your motivation going.

But what about happiness?

First of all, let me clarify. I am using happiness as defined by Harvard’s Tal Ben Shahar, which is about feeling positive in the present and positive about the future, i.e. embracing goals that we deem valuable while enjoying the journey.

So this is not about hedonism, it’s about agency, mastery, and autonomy – all those good things that neuroscientists tell us are conducive to real and long-lasting happiness and wellbeing. (Here’s a short video introduction to Tal Ben Shahar’s model  or check out his Happiness 101 lecture here. . I’d also highly recommend Your Brain At Work by David Rock  for a clear and practical guide to getting the most out of your brain.)

Hopefully by now I’ve convinced you that happiness and meaning are not just nice to have – they are crucial to success in life and in business. So how to create more of both? Here are my top tips, evolved during my transition from office worker to ocean rower, and refined during a total of520 days spent alone at sea.

An Ocean Rower’s Top Tips for Happiness and Meaning

1. Take time out to think about your “why”. Ask yourself: what would make me proud of my life? What unique contribution can I make to the world? And how can I weave that into the fabric of my working life?

2. Create your own definition of success. It’s easy to be lazy about this, to adopt a definitionfrom parents, teachers, peers, spouse, boss, corporate culture or even advertisers. But it’s your life – live it according to your own criteria.

3. Keep expanding your comfort zone. Your comfort zone never stays static – it is always growing or contracting. By default, it tries to contract, so you have to take deliberate action if you want to expand it. How do you do that? Get uncomfortable. Do something that challenges you in a slightly nervous-making way. As Denholm Elliot said, “surprise yourself every day with your own courage”. It’s incredibly rewarding.

4. No matter how daunting the challenge, you can achieve almost anything if you take it oneoarstroke at a time. Keep a clear vision of your goal, but don’t allow yourself to think of all the things that could go wrong between where you are now and where you want to be. That kills motivation. Just keep doing what you need to do today to get a little bit closer. Winds might blow you sideways or even backwards, but keep the faith in your goal, and you will get there eventually.

5. When the going gets tough, remember that the bigger the challenge, the greater the sense of achievement. As Captain Webb (first man to swim the English Channel) had engraved on his headstone, “Nothing great is ever easy”. So keep going, knowing that the blood, sweat and tears will all be worth it in the end. The Atlantic crossing – my first – was 103 days of hell, enduringinjury, equipment failures, and battles with psychological demons. But the feeling of relief, joy, even euphoria, when I finally set foot on dry land in Antigua made it all more than worthwhile. It was like finishing a marathon, getting out of jail, and winning an Oscar all rolled into one. Now THAT is happiness!

I asked Roz Savage who holds four world records for ocean rowing, including first woman to row solo across three oceans: the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian, to share these thoughts with us. She has rowed over 15,000 miles, taken around 5 million oarstrokes, and spent cumulatively over 500 days of her life at sea in a 23-foot rowboat.

She spent the first 11 years of her adult life as a management consultant, before she did a self-help exercise that changed her life: she wrote two versions of her own obituary – the one she wanted, and the one she was heading for if she carried on as she was.

The dramatic difference between the two revealed to her that she needed to make some big changes. Her second book, Stop Drifting, Start Rowing: One Woman's Search for Happiness and Meaning Alone on the Pacific was published on 15th October this year.

Anna has spent over 20 years as a Board Director at several global brands. She now runs her own company The Engaging Brand which supports business leaders who want to transition to the new social business model. She is also a speaker, writer and radio show presenter on social business, indeed her podcast The Engaging Brand has been nominated 6 years running as Best Business Podcast at the Podcast Awards. She brings an unusual mix of experience to business - she has a 1st Class Law Degree, MBA in marketing and is a qualified Chartered Accountant. This unusual mix means not just explaining the why of being social but how to turn social into a measurable business tactic to grow your bottom line. Her blog is recognised as one of the leading UK marketing blogs.

One Comment

    November 15, 2013 at 7:48 pm

    Hi Anna,
    This is a timely post and really well written, thanks.

    The most important question is as you say Why but it is also the hardest to answer. The reason is perhaps that it is really hard to test the answer. Scientists for example almost neve address the Why question but break it down into What, Where, How, When etc. When the answers are added together you can get close to a Why. However, sometimes we have to be brave especially when we are considering our purpose in life or the purpose for our organisation. Then Why cannot be avoided.
    The correct course of action is then to work out what our non-negotiable core values are. Once done we can ask any Why question and use our core values as the yardstick for our answer.

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