By Eric Mergens
We use beginnings and endings as trail markers along our lives to assess where we have come from, what we have accomplished, and perhaps most importantly to look at the map and make sure we are on the path we intended to travel. It’s also why we accompany graduations, weddings, and births with celebration and job losses, divorces, and deaths with a sense of reflection.
Perhaps it’s why New Year’s Day is such an anomaly of a holiday on our calendars. January 1st is not a tribute to a person, a religious celebration, or a celestial event, but simply a day marking the passing of what has been, and the ready anticipation of what will come. That is why we celebrate and reflect and make promises to ourselves to make the changes that will provide the alignment our ideals begging our realities to shift. We resolve to change.
Roz Savage may not be a household name, but she has accomplished something remarkable. It’s not just that she became the first woman to row solo across three oceans. She’s done that and the story is simply fascinating; but what is amazing, admirable, and worthy of duplication is that when challenged with the reflection of her life, she had the courage to make the changes necessary to ensure her life was tracing the same path her heart was.
Prior to taking 5 million oar strokes over 12 months and across 10,000 miles, Savage’s resume has the all the check-boxes adjacent to everything you’d expect. Graduation from a world-class university? Check. An influential management consulting career? Check. The material expressions of her success? Check.
Savage has also written her own obituary – twice.
“I knew I wasn’t happy in my old life,” Savage said. “I knew there was something wrong with this picture even though materially, I was doing okay. So I did this self-help exercise in which I wrote two versions of my own obituary, the one that I wanted and the one I was heading for if I carried on as I was. The obituary that I was actually heading for if I carried on as I was, was nice and safe but it was very ordinary, and I realized that wasn’t really what I wanted. ”
Changing her Internal Narrative
To understand the chronology of Savage’s shift from management consultant to solo rower and environmental activist, you have to first look back to the inner changes she was experiencing before you can understand the outer expression of those changes.
“There was a need for inner change because I was really unhappy with the way I was living my life,” Savage said. “It was when that change had already started to manifest in my decision to change into lots of things; it was at that very formative time that I had my environmental epiphany and really was just horrified with what we were doing to the earth and to ourselves and thought, I absolutely have to do something about this.”
Following the obituary exercise, Savage reflects on this part of her life as the changing of the stories she was telling herself. In a TED talk from 2010, she told of how her internal narrative underwent a 180-degree shift. She realized that she could in fact have an adventure, despite what she previously believed to be true.
“It was after that I was looking for the medium,” Savage said. “I was trying to think how I can be most of service? How can I be most effective as an environmental campaigner? It was after that, the idea to row across oceans and use that as my platform for campaigning. It hit me in one flash of inspiration that I had these different themes going on of personal development, environmental campaigning, and self-reliance. I also by that point had a journey around Peru and had done a bit of mountaineering and trekking, and was thinking, I quite like physical adventure. All of these things kind of collided.”
This would become the canvas for Savage’s future work; a calling for her life to make a tangible impact through being of service to the world.
“I suppose I tend to visualize what happened at that time, that process, like I had a big cooking pot or witch’s cauldron and I was sort of gathering these different ingredients of here’s something I really enjoy, here’s something that gives me purpose, here’s something I need to prove to myself. I am quite a believer in the power of the subconscious. Other people might call it an answer from the universe or an answer from God, or it depends on your particular worldview, but I do think when you’re asking big questions and you’re open to answers, I think that’s when some really quite amazing stuff can happen.”
The Person She Wanted to Be
What are the things you’d like to change in 2015? Where do the incongruences lie between where you are and where you see yourself? What are you going to change this year? Those are big questions, and are perhaps somewhat intimidating to approach. In order to get close to them you have to face them head-on.
“Nobody ever died making a radical life change,” said Savage about her choice to leave everything in order to row her first ocean alone.
Consider the alternative, however. A 2011 Gallup survey of American workers found that 71% of people are not actively engaged in their work. Translation: Too many of us are bored, unfulfilled and unchallenged. This is not the way we as humans are intended to live life.
“The life that I wanted was about the person I wanted to be,” Savage said. “It wasn’t really about what I would do – it wasn’t about ocean rowing. I really was jumping out of the airplane and then starting to make my parachute, which is pretty scary but it’s quite invigorating; it totally focuses the mind. I think if people are scared about making a big change in their lives, they should really think deeply about what’s really keeping them there and if they can find enough reasons why they should move on rather than enough reasons why they should stay, then I think they’ll find that courage to make that step.”
Fighting the Mundane
Interestingly enough, despite Savage’s fear of an ordinary life, there was still the struggle with the mundane nature of her undertaking; undoubtedly a difficult prospect to reconcile given the immense change she had to go through to get out on the sea.
“There were a lot of incredibly ordinary moments,” Savage said. “On the one hand you’re in this amazing place. The skies are incredible and just being alone in nature like that is wonderful, but at the same time a lot of it is about bodily functions, and chores around the boat, and the mind crushing tedium of rowing for 11 or 12 hours a day.”
This is a simply fascinating point. Here, a woman has flipped the script on her life, is rowing across oceans, and yet escaping the mundane still proves itself to be a difficult task.
Theologian Oswald Chambers wrote, “Drudgery is one of the finest tests to determine the genuineness of our character. Drudgery is work that is far removed from anything we think of as ideal work. It is the utterly hard, menial, tiresome, and dirty work.”
This serves as proof that an outer change must be first driven by an internal recalibration.
Savage explains this process perfectly.
“Definitely having a higher purpose, the environmental mission really helped. I think if it was just about me, if it had just been an egotistical little whim of mine to row across oceans, I don’t think it would have been worth it. I don’t think that alone would have been enough to keep me going. When you’ve got this real sense of calling around it and you feel like it’s what you were born to do, and you just are quite literally whole-heartedly committed to something, then it’s amazing what you can get through.”
This whole-hearted commitment to a cause has allowed Savage to put her life on the path she wanted when she undertook the obituary exercise years ago. Through rowing, writing books, and speaking on her experiences through the lens of activism, she has achieved what she set out to do, and anticipates her biggest accomplishments are yet to come.
“In March 2014, my partner and I were approached by someone who invited us to join him in setting up a floating homes business,” Savage said. “We call it Econaut Developments because we wanted that environmental aspect to be enshrined in the name of the company. We’re looking at creating relatively sustainable homes on water. Some of them may look more like boats, some more like houses. I’m also becoming more fascinated by co-housing concept, which is where people share to a greater or lesser degree living arraignments. On lots of apartment blocks you have a shared laundry and a shared gym, but you can actually go a step further than that and have shared cooking and dining facilities, have a shared greenhouse where people can produce their own food. We are, in many ways, losing a sense of community. There are a shocking amount of people who don’t know their neighbors, they don’t have enough friends they can turn to in a crisis, particularly where you’ve got single parents and older people. So if we can setup this business to start addressing social, environmental and financial problems then to me that would be very exciting. It was really important to me to find a new challenge that was in line with my values.”
Getting the Ball Rolling
“I think one of the beauties of life is that you never know which bit is essential,” Savage said. “So if someone says to me, ‘Do you regret those 11 years working in the office?’ I go, ‘No I don’t.’ Because maybe I had to do those 11 years of hard time to reach a point that was so low, that I just hated it so much, to slingshot me out the other side and make me so certain that I could row across oceans.”
There is a comfort to this part of Savage’s story for those eager to mirror what she’s done. That growing tension that builds and builds can have a profound effect on how capable we are of deciding it’s time to start living the life we want. Here, relief is found knowing that if we’re not navigating the waters we’d like to be today, it won’t be wasted tomorrow.
“You never know, even the worst things that happen to us are an essential part of where we end up,” Savage said. “Taking that first step onto a different path is really challenging, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not worthwhile. The first bit is always the hardest, so if you can get through that it does get easier once you get the ball rolling in that different direction.”
Happy New Year and may 2015 be a slingshot to the changes you’d like to make in your life. You never know, you may just end up doing something remarkable.