In March of 2006, I found myself, at 38, divorced, homeless, and alone in a tiny rowing boat in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. I hadn’t eaten a hot meal in two months since my camping stove broke. My stereo was bust. I’d had no human contact for weeks because my satellite phone had stopped working. All four of my oars were broken, patched up with duct tape and splints. I had tendinitis in my shoulders and saltwater sores on my backside.
Yet I couldn’t have been happier.
After 3,000 miles and 103 days at sea, I was about to accomplish my goal of having rowed alone across the Atlantic Ocean. I had wanted to take on a challenge that would stretch me to my limits, to find out just what I was capable of when I put my mind to something. And now all my hard work was about to come to fruition.
No doubt many of my friends thought I was suffering an early mid-life crisis. If so, I believe everybody should have one.
Five years earlier, I had been a management consultant, based in London but traveling all over the world. After getting my law degree from Oxford in 1989, I hadn’t known what I wanted to do for a living, but I was sure I wanted to make money, and lots of it. I’d grown up in a low-income family – both my parents were preachers – so materialism was my way of rebelling. I thought that money would make me happy.
After 11 years, this theory appeared to be failing, and the clue was that I was profoundly miserable. It seemed increasingly clear that money was not leading to happiness.
Desperate to figure out what I should do, I turned to personal development books. One evening, after a particularly bad day at the office, I sat down and did an exercise I had found in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, under Habit 2: Begin with the end in mind. The exercise was to write two versions of my obituary. The first was the one that I wanted, the second was what I was heading for if I carried on as I was. The two were very different, and I realised that I needed to make some big changes. As it turned out, I didn’t want to be remembered for having a big house and designer clothes. I wanted to be remembered for having a fascinating life and hopefully making the world a better place.
I wish I could tell you I strode into the office the next day and told my boss what to do with his job. In real life, it took a bit longer than that, but the writing was on the wall from that moment on.
One by one, I shed the trappings of my old life. I pared life down to the basics to find out what really mattered to me, to find out what was left when I was defined by who I was, not what I owned or who I was with.
I was letting go of everything that had represented security – my job, my husband, my home, my possessions. It might sound self-indulgent to send such shock-waves through my social circle while I tried to find myself, but I had reached such a low point that I knew I had to go through this process if I hoped to find a better way.
It was around this time that I undertook my first adventure: three months backpacking around Peru. During an expedition in the Andes, my Peruvian companions told me that every year they have to trek a bit further to get to the glacier, because it was receding. My curiosity piqued, when I got home to Britain I did some research, and found out not just about climate change, but about all the other ways in which we’re pushing our ecosystem beyond liveable boundaries. My environmental awakening may have been belated, but it was huge. I became powerfully motivated to do something to raise awareness, but what? I was just a burned-out management consultant – not a very compelling platform.
For months I tried to figure out a way to help. Then one fateful day, inspiration struck. I knew that a few crazy people rowed across oceans. I had even met one of them. But it had never struck me as something that I wanted to do. Yet the idea must have been tucked away somewhere at the back of my mind. As I was on a long drive north to see my mother, a few thoughtwaves bumped into each other in my head, and a lightbulb went on. I would row around the world, and use that as my platform to raise environmental awareness.
My first thought was, 'That’s perfect!' My second thought was, 'That’s impossible!' I spent a week trying to talk myself out of it, but each day I would wake up and think of more reasons why this was the perfect project.
Rowing my first ocean, the Atlantic, was the hardest thing I had ever done. Physically, it was tough, but psychologically it was even tougher. The ocean is scary and it’s daunting and most of the time I wanted to give up.
But I didn’t. And so much of success is simply not giving up. Somehow, eventually, one oar-stroke at a time, I made it to the other side.
I went on to row across the Pacific in three stages: San Francisco to Hawaii, to Kiribati, to Papua New Guinea. Then the Indian Ocean, which was the longest single voyage – five months alone at sea. I became the first woman to complete the 'Big Three' oceans.
Today I travel the world as a speaker, thought leader, and environmental advocate, doing work that I love. I look back to that pivotal moment when I sat down to write the two obituaries, and I thank my lucky stars that I found the courage to put my life back on track for the version that I wanted.
Roz Savage is a world record-holding ocean rower. She is also an author and an international speaker on leadership, courage, resilience and sustainability.
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