Arctic Explorer and Adventure Guide Inge Solheim on Fighting Off Fear and Breaking Bad Habits
Inge Solheim is a free spirit, a new-age explorer, and a wilderness guide-guru whose sense of freedom hinges upon not caring, at all, about what other people think of him. Leading trips to the most remote places in the world with diverse groups—ranging from scientists, to private clients, to film crews, to people with disabilities—Solheim trains those who are with him to overcome extreme physical and psychological barriers. Among his most memorable expeditions are a trip to the South Pole with Mark Pollock, who had lost his eyesight nine years prior, and a North Pole expedition with an organization called Walking With The Wounded, accompanied by Prince Harry and a team of English wounded soldiers.
Born in Norway, he grew up in a rather dysfunctional family that left him mostly to his own devices. From a young age, he turned to nature, learning to appreciate solitude—and to be self-sufficient. At 14, Solheim started working at a pizza shop at which he would become a shareholder within a year. At 19, Solheim’s daughter, Marian, was born, and he transitioned into a nine-year “mundane” (his word) finance job, eventually becoming VP of a bank in Norway. While the career prestige was exhilarating in its own right, his passion led him to take on adventure traveling as a full-time profession.
A rare combination of old soul, hopeless romantic, and youthful pioneer, Solheim chases beauty and adventure, living peripatetically: He resides part-time in Oslo and finds himself gravitating toward Malibu, California, two to three months a year. Reaching the middle of his life, Solheim remains optimistic about almost everything—even climate change—and is currently working on sustainable tourism and travel business.
On this episode of Time Sensitive, Solheim and Andrew Zuckerman get philosophical about what it means to be an explorer at a time in which it’s practically never been easier to get anywhere in the world; confronting fear, anxiety, and pressure; trauma and its effect on our perceptions of time; and instant gratification and materialism.
Solheim discusses his upbringing in Norway, his early career in finance, his time in the military, and the birth of his daughter, Marian.
Solheim shares how he became an explorer and adventure guide and elucidates on some of the joys of the job.
Solheim talks about his intense training regimens, which push people to their physical limits and prepare them for challenging journeys.
Solheim philosophizes on time and gets into his thoughts on the climate crisis (he’s optimistic about our ability to find solutions).
Zuckerman and Solheim explore the “overview effect”—a cognitive shift that astronauts sometimes feel during spaceflight when viewing the earth from outer space—and how that connects to expedition perspectives.
ANDREW ZUCKERMAN: Today in the studio we have Inge Solheim, one of the world’s leading authorities on the polar regions, an explorer, a wilderness coach, and an ambassador for many initiatives. Inge, welcome to the studio.
INGE SOLHEIM: Thank you so much.
AZ: I’m so happy to sit here with you. You live a kind of nomadic life. At one moment you’re in full polar gear that protects you from serious elements, the next you’re in a custom suit in London, New York, Moscow… How do you manage and seamlessly traverse these worlds?
IS: I think there’s very little management involved. I just go with the flow, and I move toward the things that I like to do and move away from the things I don’t like. And I’m a very fortunate guy [to be able to] actually do that.
AZ: Yeah, has it always been that way, or is it something you’ve learned how to—
IS: It hasn’t always been like that. I’ve always been kind of a free spirit, but I have sometimes been forced into formats—either mentally or for practical reasons—forced into a format that is more normal, like working nine to five or more and having weekends off sometimes… There have been periods of my life where I haven’t been as free as I am now. But I feel that, in the core of me and my personality, freedom is an essential, very important part.
AZ: Did it take a long time to understand that?
IS: It took a long time to do the right things, over time, to make sure that I got into a position where I own my own time. Partly, it’s a mental thing. You have to really let go of some of the things you think you need. And partly, it’s a practical thing and a financial thing as well—financial freedom is important.
IS: And financial freedom for me is probably different from most people. I just need to have food and enough income to travel and take care of the people I love around me.
AZ: Do you live anywhere now?
IS: Yes, I live in Oslo. Part-time, I seem to be gravitating toward Malibu, two or three months a year. Apart from that, I’m quite nomadic, yeah.
AZ: So you’re not in England anymore, as much as you used to be.
IS: No, not in London anymore. I lived in London for seven, eight years, which was natural for me to do, because I was married there. And now that I’m not married there anymore, London doesn’t have that pull—too many people for me. [Laughs]
AZ: Yeah, yeah, more Malibu.
IS: We’re in New York, so maybe London isn’t that crowded anyway.
AZ: Yeah, it’s a different kind of crowded.
IS: Different kind of crowded.
AZ: So what is it like to be an explorer in 2019?
IS: First of all, I have to say that it’s difficult for me to understand what the concept of “explorer” is—what does that title mean? For me, it means Neil Armstrong, [Fridtjof] Nansen, Thor Heyerdahl, and the people I looked up to when I was a kid. So I don’t really fit that title. I don’t really feel that I live up to that reputation. So what I had to do is, I had to try and redefine exploration, exploring, for me. And one of my good friends—Shur—he said, “But Inge, you are an explorer. You’re a life explorer. You’re exploring your own potential, you’re exploring the human mind, physical potential. You’re seeing new places, seeing animals in their natural habitats. You’re definitely an explorer.” I thought, well, I can fit in that one—that box, I can fill.
AZ: It used to mean you went somewhere no one’s ever been.
IS: Yes, it did. That was what inspired me as a little kid—I read the books, and my grandfather told me stories about these great explorers who went into uncharted places on the map and ventured into nothingness and unpredictable futures, sometimes committing three to five years. And trying to get my head around that commitment and the sacrifice was … strange.
AZ: You grew up in Norway.
AZ: What was your childhood like? Did you play sports? Were you a regular kid? What was it like for you?
IS: I grew up in a valley surrounded by the most beautiful mountains in Norway. Maybe some of the most beautiful mountains in the world, I think. I was very fortunate to have nature around. What I did was I tried to make the best out of a relatively suboptimal childhood, where my family was a little bit dysfunctional. Not compared to many other families, but we didn’t have all the stuff that I felt we needed—a predictable and safe environment around us always. It was challenging to take care of myself and also help my other siblings, so I tried to live up to my own expectations for myself. I was doing exactly like I do today. I moved toward the things that I liked and wanted to become, and I moved away from things that I didn’t like—people or things or values that I didn’t like. And I was probably stricter to myself than any other person could have been. I made rules for myself—what I could do, what I couldn’t do, how to work at school…
AZ: What were some of these rules, when you were really little?
IS: Just waking up in the morning, for example, no matter what, and starting the day with a positive attitude. I wanted to eat healthy and become strong. I trained a lot, did a lot of physical fitness for myself. I trained in martial arts from the age of seven and shooting from the age of seven. So I did a lot of things like that. Because I wasn’t a pack animal. I was quite a loner; I went into the mountains. And I calibrated my courage and my physical fitness out there, testing myself, going on mountain hikes. Because no one was really paying attention to if I was home or not. So I was free already—
AZ: So this wasn’t like a family that went out in nature together.
IS: No, no. I was fortunate to have two grandfathers that were inspiring me to spend time in nature, go fishing, and stuff like that, but my father was mostly absent—working, absent. And my mother was relatively absent in her own way.
AZ: So you really had to find ways to bring yourself up.
IS: Yeah, I tried to find good role models around me. And I knew that we didn’t have the things that we needed—not the right food and clothes and stuff like that. So what I did was try to compensate by fixing things myself and started working at a very young age, so yeah.
AZ: Did you like school?
IS: I loved school. I was quite good in school. Didn’t do much homework, but I paid attention. I was present in school, even when I sometimes started the day without food. I still concentrated to be present at school and learn as much as possible. I had good grades.
AZ: And that kind of allowed you to sort of do everything else, because no one was watching.
IS: Yes, exactly.
AZ: What was your first job?
IS: [Laughs] It’s strange, I was working helping my aunt in a shopping mall—first job. Very early. After that, at the age of fourteen and a half, I started working in a pizza restaurant, and at the age of fifteen, I was a shareholder of that pizza restaurant, together with a friend of mine. We expanded and made it into a restaurant, a proper one.
AZ: Did you even like pizza?
IS: I loved pizza back then. Now, it’s really strange…
IS: I can’t even—I might get one or two slices down.
AZ: Yeah. And then at some point, you turned your nature walks into a job.
IS: Yes. I always continued that nature exploration thing for myself, and I also started guiding a little bit—rafting and caving and mountain guiding—at around the age of sixteen. But then, I was a father at the age of nineteen. And it sort of forced me to do normal jobs. I still had the pizza restaurant, but I also went into finance.
AZ: Were you married, or…?
IS: No, I wasn’t, no. My daughter was born outside of marriage. Beautiful little kid, Marian. She’s now twenty-six years old. Long time ago.
AZ: Amazing musician.
IS: Yeah, she’s a good musician, and many other things as well, yeah. But it forced me to think that I had to make more money, so I went into finance. I was eight years, nine years in finance.
AZ: Instead of going to college.
IS: Instead of going to college. I worked my way up from the most boring, mundane job in finance, and then, after eight years, I was vice president of the savings banks in Norway.
AZ: Oh, wow….
IS: Which was a very exciting job in the sense that it was prestigious and challenging, but it didn’t really inspire me much. I was also a stockbroker for a few years, but it didn’t inspire me as much as nature did. I wanted to reconnect with nature, so I quit one day and just left.
AZ: During those nine years, you’re raising a child. You were still a kid in a lot of ways—with kids.
IS: But I was more grown-up back then than I am now, because I had to force myself to be grown-up, because I had responsibilities, and also I wasn’t really that confident. So I wasn’t relaxed [enough] to enjoy life the way that I’m doing now. I was whipping myself every day to make more money, do better—
AZ: What were you doing with the money?
IS: Most of it I spent on my daughter and myself and just traveling. I travel a lot.
AZ: During that time?
IS: Yes, and even when I was in finance, I asked to have two months of extra vacation every year, which they for some strange reason allowed me to do. And I went on expeditions.So from 1999—before that, too—I went to the Arctic and Greenland and Iceland, places like that.
AZ: But in those early days, it’s not like you were sublimating unhappiness by buying things.
IS: No, no, I’ve never been into that.
IS: Never been into buying things. It hasn’t given me much.
AZ: So you leave the finance world—but at some point in there, you were in the military.
IS: Yes, I was.
AZ: A lot to talk about. How did you get into the military?
IS: Nothing special, really. I had a very interesting time in the military, and challenging, and I pushed myself there, as well. I loved it. But most Norwegian men have been in the military. For me, I learned a lot of new things—
AZ: What did you do?
IS: Nothing special, really. I was a soldier, an infantry soldier. I was in some other units with communication and (?)
AZ: Did you see any action?
IS: I’ve never been to war. I’m a lover, not a fighter.
AZ: [Laughs] So that brought you to leaving finance, and then you became something else, which put you into a very niche area…
AZ: I guess we could call it “adventure travel.”
IS: For the first eight to ten years, it was a struggle, because I quit finance maybe one or two years too early before I had a big buffer.
AZ: With a nine-year-old.
IS: Yeah. But I had to take on a lot of jobs that didn’t pay much, just to gain experience. But after ten or twelve years, I made as much doing my guiding job as I used to do in finance.It took ten, twelve years—I looked really stupid for a while—where I went from a really good, solid income to nothing. And I was struggling.
AZ: Was that hard on the relationship during that time?
IS: It was hard on many relationships. I didn’t have one relationship in that time. I had two, three, four girlfriends in that period.
AZ: And so you were co-parenting.
IS: Yeah, we had fifty-percent custody.
AZ: Which allowed you to leave and go on these adventures.
IS: Yeah, Marian’s mother was extremely flexible and easy to talk to, so when I needed longer—when I was away for longer—she was a great parent.
AZ: Very fortunate for that. And now, after all that climbing, you’ve found this very niche area. Tell me a little about what that is, what you do.
IS: Yeah. I used to define myself as a guide—guiding people from A to B, facilitating these nature experiences. And then, little by little, the philosophical part of my job got more important. So what I do today, is I guide expeditions to mostly remote places for scientists, organizations, film crews, private individuals—whoever wants to go into remote and inaccessible places. And I usually take on jobs that are challenging and difficult, with interesting projects. I say “no, thank you” to a lot of jobs. If projects are either pseudoscientific or it’s not the right kind of look and feel for what I want to do and spend my weeks doing.
AZ: Have you gotten better at smelling that early?
IS: I’m getting better at it. And the good thing about my job is that a lot of expeditions are very physical, so I have to test people and train them before we go. During that testing and training period, I get to know people, and I also qualify them that way. Sometimes I just choose not to go on trips with people.
AZ: Do you feel some sort of added pressure [or] responsibility when you have these high-networth, powerful people you’re taking?
IS: Not at all. I don’t have more responsibility than the average bus driver, driving—or I have lessresponsibility than a bus driver driving schoolchildren to school in the morning. There’s no difference between a rich person, royal, celebrity, and anyone else, like parents and kids. Everyone has equal value, and I take the responsibility of caring and protecting people seriously, no matter what. If someone falls on the street here in New York, I will rush over and try to help. And my job is more about predicting things and preparing people than actually solving problems.
AZ: So, when you do take certain individuals or are asked to do certain things, how do you navigate those projects? Because it’s not just the individual—it’s all the people around them.
IS: [Laughs] Yes. I’ve been fortunate to get a lot of cool and prestigious jobs, with TV productions and organizations that want me to do very interesting, cool things. The projects that have had the most publicity haven’t always been the most important projects for me, personally, but they have made it possible for me to do bigger, better things, because the publicity has, sort of, elevated my profile a little bit. But these projects are, as you say, they are complex, because there are other considerations than just safety, food, and practicalities. There are egos, there are formalities—with, for example, royalty—you have to navigate that space. I think the experience for whoever I’m taking is very similar. I try to find out where they are today and how to bridge the gap between that and where they have to be to be successful at what we’re planning to do.
AZ: One that comes to mind is the Mark Pollock trip to the South Pole.
AZ: Can you tell me a little bit about that story? What happened?
IS: That is probably not the most well-known expedition, but it’s probably one of the most important expeditions I’ve done with other people. We organized a race to the South Pole with six teams. And during the preparation and training of teams—because I had the responsibility of organizing the expedition and preparing the teams and training them—during that process, I found that Mark Pollock and his teammate needed a third person to facilitate and help them.
AZ: Did you know Mark Pollock before?
IS: I didn’t, and then, he was nine years into losing his eyesight, and he was going to celebrate the year after by skiing a thousand kilometers to the South Pole. And I volunteered to guide his trip and take part in that race, myself. So I moved from being an organizer to [being on] one of the teams. It was an amazing experience, because Mark is an extraordinary person, and his teammate was also extraordinary. It was a challenging and beautiful experience. Mark fell—he was attached to my pack and was skiing behind me—and of the thousand kilometers of the training and race, he probably fell a thousand, two thousand times, stood up again, and went on. The dedication and his hard work impressed me. Mark is still a very impressive person, a very selfless and beautiful person.
The next year, after reaching the South Pole, he sailed around Britain. And then he was a guest at the Henley Regatta. And one night, one very warm night at Henley that year, someone had left a window open, and he accidentally fell out of the window and broke his back. So Mark is now paralyzed from the belly-button down, and has had to learn how to get out of bed, overcoming terrible infections and all sorts of things. And now he works very hard with the Christopher [& Dana] Reeve Foundation to try and cure paralysis. He had worked so hard to improve exoskeletons and things like that. He’s still the most impressive person I’ve met, probably, in many ways, and he’s still very inspirational. He has radio shows and stuff and does very good talks.
AZ: What was it like when you guys reached the pole together?
IS: It was beautiful. It was hard work. I know that Mark and his teammate were close to giving up and actually not making it a couple of times. And we pushed through. Actually, a couple of times I was doubting it as well, because self-admin was poor—people were getting frostbite and not taking care of themselves. So we still pushed through, and we decided together to finish the race and to work hard. And it took everything that they had. And when we reached the South Pole, with the little energy they had left, Mark pulled out a flag with two hundred pictures. A silk flag where he had printed pictures of two hundred people that had been there for him on his journey, from when he was a kid until now. It was such a beautiful, symbolic act, where he was celebrating other people rather than himself, his country, a logo, or a company, or something. He was celebrating people that had been there for him. That was a great experience. I’m a very soft person when it comes to beautiful things like that—I tear up immediately. [Laughs]
AZ: Yeah, you are very romantic.
IS: I am. [Laughs]
AZ: What do you find most interesting about these expeditions—is it the physical achievements, is it the mental achievements? Where’s the stuff?
IS: I think it goes hand-in-hand. Hardship brings out certain things in you. If you physically have to struggle, you suffer pain, monotony, fear. All sorts of things qualify you to a deeper insight into yourself—you see new sides of yourself and other people. I think that’s become the most fascinating part of my job—that psychological, mental challenge and what it does to people. And just like [in] meditation, pushing yourself through these things and forcing yourself to do certain things or depriving yourself of something brings you into a deeper state of mind, and you go into the core of being a human being. It peels off all the layers, and I find that extremely fascinating. I love that part of my job—to see myself and other people being human.
AZ: Which of course, you don’t just practice on the Pole.
IS: No, these borders become very diluted. I try to facilitate things like this every day. I try to bring out the best in people and myself. I try to move more toward things and values and people and things that I like or respect, and try to challenge myself intellectually and physically every day.
AZ: So the Pole, which you mentioned as a sort of symbol of hardship, there’s that Norwegian saying—what do they call the Poles…?
IS: Devil’s dancefloor?
AZ: Yeah, exactly. [Laughs]
IS: [Laughs]As the old explorers in Norway used to say, North Pole, South Pole, Himalayas, [they are] just symbols of hardship. They’re symbols that people understand. They’re like, “Yeah, that’s not a free lunch.” But there are other things in life, people with social anxiety, people with physical or mental injuries, that go up and conquer Everests or North Poles every day. And those are my heroes, you know? Among my role models and heroes are very few or no celebrities. No famous people. They are everyday champions and warriors or caretakers and good people. There are no polar explorers among my heroes. [Laughs]
AZ: Really? How do you go about training for that kind of hardship, though, for going to the Pole?
IS: It’s a process, you know? Today, a lot of people can buy a trip to Everest or the North Pole as a tourist. And that makes it accessible to people. But easy access doesn’t mean that you get the benefits, or you get the lessons or the learning, that you could’ve had if you had pushed yourself a little bit.There’s a good saying that there’s no shortcut to any place worth going. One of the major reasons I haven’t done Everest yet—or haven’t attempted Everest yet—you can’t just doEverest, it’s still hard. But it’s an arena where the amateurs are celebrated more than the professionals, really. Where someone who buys a trip to Everest and takes the shortcuts, with oxygen or whatever, gets more credibility—or more praise—than the people who are actually really good at it and professional about it. So I don’t want to be part of that tourism industry, in that sense. And when people ask me to make it easier for them to reach the North Pole, I say, “Well, I have friends who organize expeditions like that. I don’t want to do expeditions like that because I think I would be missing out on good things, good experiences, and I wouldn’t be able to give you—”
AZ: So if I wanted to go to the North Pole…
AZ: …and I told you today, what’s the progress to getting there?
IS: Well, I would try to inspire you to do a really good and hard and long expedition, because I know that you’re physically able to do so. If not today, after a few months of training, you would be. I would work on your mental preparations and put you in the right frame of mind. Not to be like a superhuman or something—it’s just so that you are awake and you really know why you want it. You have deep inner motivation for doing it. And then you use this unique opportunity to go on a journey, to learn about yourself. And that’s the beauty of this.
AZ: What are the mechanics of the mental preparation? That’s what I’m interested in. Do you become, sort of, a therapist? How do you get people there?
IS: I have respect for professional therapists. It’s tempting, sometimes, to dispense advice to people and try to heal people, but I’m not a professional. I try to be there and teach people things that I have benefitted from, things that I’ve learned, and I try to help people visualize what they’re going to do and what feelings and pains or aches they will encounter. And this preparation and hard training—I push people really hard during the training, because it qualifies them, and it makes them land on the ice with confidence and determination. Or they de-select during the process, and that’s okay, too—if it’s not for them. But if I don’t push them hard during the training, they will not have the confidence, when they land on the ice, that they’re prepared. When I look people in the eye and say, “Now you’re ready,” people believe that.
AZ: There’s a certain amount of risk assessment.
IS: Yeah. Risk assessments are very important.
AZ: Tell me about that.
IS: Well, risk is a very interesting concept. People relate to it in very different ways. We have perceived risk and real risk. We have comfort zones and irrational fears, and we have all sorts of things that people relate to. I try to stay very fact-oriented, and my risk analyses are weird for some people, because climbing or sleeping on a rock face for two, three days in a blizzard can have a lower risk than riding a BMX bicycle. I relate to the real risk. In the rock face, we have backups and safety solutions. We have ropes that can take twenty times the weight of what we can push. We know everything—we’re controlling the risk and all the factors involved, so it has a lower risk. So riding a BMX bicycle in the forest or a terrain bicycle or riding a bicycle on the street of New York is much more risky. It’s all the asymmetric risk of the factors you can’t control. So I have to explain my risk assessment sometimes.
AZ: It’s interesting, because when people experience anxiety—
AZ: —they don’t think it, they feel it. You don’t think danger.
AZ: You feel danger.
AZ: So how do you create feelings for people that are incompatible with danger? How do you get someone out of an anxious space?
IS: Partly, it’s training. Partly, it’s helping their inner dialogue to become positive and to try to avoid those automated negative thoughts. Some of them are learned, and some of them are in our personality, or DNA. Some fears are rational, and some fears are not. I try to make people interested in the process—what’s happening in your brain when you feel fear, when you feel anxiety and pressure. What’s happening inside you, and how can we divert that thought process and those automated negative thoughts into a more solution-oriented, creative, positive, forward-leaning approach to life in general or specific tasks.
AZ: Whenever I think about you out there and what you do, I think, you basically exist in the arena of the limbic system. Like you’re basically dealing with that, for the people you’re with. That’s not something we can often—I know I’m repeating myself, but that’s not something we can think out of. When someone’s in a scary movie and you walk in and say, “It’s a movie; it’s projected. Why are you scared?” they’re not going to stop being scared.
IS: Well, it is possible to put your brain into a different frame and activate other parts of the brain that are not reactive or trigger the limbic system—is it the limbic system? Yeah. Anyway. I don’t know these words in English. [Laughs] So it’s possible to change that, your reaction pattern. And I try to help people to do that with training and to make them curious about what’s happening inside them. And curiosity is halfway there. If you’re curious about what’s happening around you, you’re actually activating your executive mindset. It’s impossible for us to have two thought processes at the same time. That means, if I can activate your executive mindset, you don’t have any time to be scared or irrational, because you’re analytical. You’re problem-solving; you’re on top of things.
AZ: So you’re able to, sort of, help people turn the channel.
IS: Yeah. I tweak the channels a little bit for them. And then you don’t change people’s habit or thought or behavior patterns overnight. I give them the technique, I show the examples, I push them hard and stress them, and then I show them how it’s possible to override those fight, flight, and freeze mechanisms that they’re used to dealing with. For some people, they get really interested and they see it’s possible, and then they start working on it. And it takes from three months to three years to change people’s habits and reaction patterns.
AZ: So interesting because, you know, if you were an explorer a hundred and fifty years ago, it was about getting to a mountain peak. But now it seems like the greatest exploration is within the human psyche—is inside.
IS: I think that for a little part of human society, that that’s become very important. And people are searching for answers and meaning and improving themselves and all sorts of things. I like that space. I find that interesting. Hence the “life explorer” thing, exploring life, and myself, and human potential. But, unfortunately, most people are not that interested. They are stuck in thought and behavior patterns—they are influenced way too much from external factors and social pressure, invented pressure in themselves, all sorts of things that are distracting them. And there’s no space for learning when you’re in that mode, in that frame of mind.
AZ: And, in a way, time has become weaponized.
AZ: The speed of things doesn’t allow us to slow down enough to work on these—
IS: I have been in jobs and situations where I cannot afford to take time off and invest in myself. I understand that most people are under that pressure, but also, I understand that a lot of this pressure that we are under, we put ourselves into.The way we organize our lives, where we choose to live, what kind of job we choose to have, our ambition for income, the partners we choose—all these things influence our time and how we can prioritize our time.And fear, actually, is a more limiting factor than time, for most people. And fear influences your priorities of time—your fear of not making enough money, not being popular, your fear of social risk, or fear of failure—there’s a lot of fear. And that limits people more than time constraints.
AZ: And when you push yourself to extremes in the situations you’re in, even not on the Poles—in New York City. When you push yourself to extremes, your relationship to time and your perception of it changes, right? Like when you’re uncomfortable, time goes on forever.
IS: It’s very strange how you perceive time differently in different situations. I’ve been doing martial arts since I was a kid, and that is my comfort zone, so in a stressful situation, if something happens, time slows down.Exactly the same [as] in a critical situation—in a blizzard or on a mountain face or something else—if I come first to a car accident, I experience that time slows down because I activate different parts of my brain, and I produce different endorphins, and I interpret them differently. I interpret my reaction differently than many other people. It actually feels like time is slowing down.
AZ: In a way that you’ve been able to overcome fear in certain situations, and change your behavior and your response to things, have you felt like that, after practicing in this space for so long, you’ve been able to compress and expand your perception of time?
AZ: I mean specifically like, if you’re out there and it just sucks, and time’s really slow, are you able to shift that cadence?
IS: I think I subconsciously do these things. I haven’t managed to control it, but I think I do it instinctively, sometimes. When things stop happening on the outside, I get a really vivid inner life—fantasy and daydreaming, and stuff like that. And I think, in many ways, what was my dream situation or the thing that I really wanted to learn when I was a kid has now become my reality. Because I was like every other kid—I was anxious about what other people thought about me, I was afraid of bigger, stronger guys… There were so many things growing up that I had normal responses to, where I find myself having very strange responses to these things today. I don’t give a … what do you—do you have beeps?
AZ: You don’t give a fuck.
IS: I don’t give a flying fuck what other people think about me these days.If the friends around me that are important, if people I look up to like me and respect me, I’m happy. If someone I don’t know or don’t respect, if they don’t like me, that’s okay.
AZ: It’s interesting. There’s a great power in that, isn’t there?
IS: It’s freedom. It’s freedom, and it means that a lot of the noise that people are hearing, that are distracting them away from improving their life or feeling better or spending more time with good people, all the noise of fear and anxiety and noise of social pressure or beauty or whatever is distracting them, can go away. That distraction. And when you’re not distracted, you feel things more strongly. I feel when the barometric pressure is going higher or lower. I feel people’s mood and their frame of mind…I feel it without really talking to them. And I sense animals differently, when I take away all the distractions and noise.
AZ: Well, that’s another thing, actually, about time and distraction that I was curious about. When you’re in, especially, Arctic landscapes, where it could be days on end where it basically looks the same, and there are no visual markers, how does that change your perception of time?
IS: I think that’s super fascinating, how time flies in that space and when I don’t have any visual stimulants—especially in the Arctic and Antarctic, you have many days with whiteouts, or you have white-on-white or white or just some blue sky and a horizon—and, like a sailor looking into the horizon, [that] makes you actually look more into yourself. And that journey is super-exciting. Some people fear that silence or the feeling of coming too close to yourself and your own feelings… I love it. I long for that—when I haven’t been out on a long expedition for a while—and I long for that space and that frame of mind. And the monotony is like meditation. I feel that I’m entering a different dimension, and I can see what I call “the matrix.”I can see it from the outside. I’m sort of leaving this normality in the matrix, and out there, I see myself and the world in a different way.
AZ: Is this what people say—that expeditions change them? They come out differently?
IS: I think transformative experiences… It can be an expedition, it can be a crisis in your life, it can be strong inspiration or love. Human beings often fall into thought and behavior patterns. I think it’s extremely important to embrace change and to open up for change in your life and change in the way you feel and the way you think, and break patterns as often as possible.I think that is important. It’s actually been very valuable for me to do so.
AZ: And expeditions become the most efficient way to do that.
IS: Expeditions are an efficient way, but there are other ways, like, people change under extreme inspiration or desperation. Most of my male friends change their ways when they either mess up in a relationship and feel sorry about themselves or they have a medical crisis. Other people, they find inspiration somewhere, and that triggers change in them, and growth. I’ve tried to do both. [Laughs] Some things have just been thrown at me, in my face and knocked me down, that has changed me. Other things I’ve been seeking for and searching for inspiration, and that has changed me.
AZ: Well, these moments of trauma, this before-and-after moment. What have you learned—by going through that a few times—of these moments that take time to recover from… What have you learned from that process?
IS: I think that one time I was here, we sat down and talked, and I talked about—I’d had a heartache one time I visited your office. It was a beautiful day. And that took some time to get over. I think it’s valuable to allow yourself time to heal. Sometimes it needs help from other people. Other times… Different situations require different methods or different medicine. And in my job, one of the most important parts of it is to identify what people need to push through or to excel or to bring out the best in them. Some people need—I need to massage their ego; other people need to get a kick in the butt, like, “Get out of here. Stand up and stop feeling sorry for yourself.” And different people—different situations—require different methods. I do both for myself. I kick myself, sometimes.
AZ: But time seems to be the one that we really need. I mean, I heard someone say once that it takes two years after an event to even understand that it’s real, that it happened.
IS: Well, I think that it’s different for different experiences. The processing time is very dependent on your frame of mind when you experience something.What is your frame of mind when you’re going through something? Whether it is a breakup, or a childhood, or a traumatic experience—in war, for example—or any traumatic experience, your frame of mind is extremely important. And some of that frame of mind is determined by your upbringing, some is your personality, some is the people you go through things with—how they deal with it.
So, there’s not one answer on how do to do it, but I think the core of all of this experience of your life[is that] curiosity is key to processing things in a good way. Being curious about, Why do I react this way? Why does this person have this impact on me? And, What is heartache? What is pain? And to try to understand it for yourself—what does it mean to you? What effect do I have on myself, what effect do other people have on me? And what effect do I have on other people?All those curious questions. If we can bake that in and ask more questions than we answer, I think we are processing good and bad things in a better way.
AZ: And you spend a fair amount of time solo.
IS: I do, I try to have a lot of solo alone time.
AZ: Right. Because this is when that work happens.
IS: Sometimes, you have important lessons and insight from being alone. Other times, you learn from relating to other people and doing things with other people. Teamwork; team dynamics. That is also quite meaningful, sometimes. We’re not isolated, you know, we can’t learn everything on a deserted island. And we have to relate to other people and the world sometimes, and that is also important.
AZ: How do you think about your larger priorities in terms of time, like in years now? How do you think about that?
IS: I have certain things that I want to experience: places to go, people to spend more time with, or meet. I want to get better at many different things. I move towards those things and try to align them with my values as well, because a lot of the things you want are not always the right things to do. And I’ve been there. I’ve done stupid things; I’ve done things like, “That wasn’t valuable, and it didn’t do anything good for me or the world.” I try to test some of the ambitions and the things that I want to do. Like, Is this important? Is this meaningful? And the strange thing is that, the more conscious you become about how you spend your time, and who you spend it with, it’s quite clear—if you take the noise away, of course—it’s very clear and instinctive what you should do.
AZ: Yeah. The answer’s all there.
IS: The answer’s all there. It’s just that we’re distracted by so many other considerations and fear and pressure that we and society put on us, so we’re not always listening. There was moral before there was religion. There was ethics before religion and rules. And we instinctively know what is right. Most of us. Most of the time.
AZ: Do you feel like we’re running out of time?
IS: I don’t think so. I’m time-optimistic. [Laughs] That means I sometimes have to put in buffers… My optimism thinks that I’m going to do something in a certain time, and, knowing myself, I’m probably too optimistic, and I have to put a buffer between meetings—I had a half an hour buffer getting here, and I got here exactly on time, because I was too optimistic about things. [Laughs]
AZ: Our planet’s in crisis.
IS: Yes, in many ways it is, yes. I’m quite optimistic about our planet, as well.
AZ: Which I want to get into. But this is still up for debate, that even our planet is changing, which is absurd. You spend a lot of time in nature, and you see these changes and shifts firsthand. Do you think that that part—part of our problem is our distance from the natural world? That we’re not feeling it, on a general basis, that we’re, sort of, data-driven, thinking about it?
IS: I think we have to have both—we have to have science, data, statistics. We have to measure things to make decisions, priorities that are based on data and science. And unfortunately, a lot of people are moving away from science and data, and they’re emotion-driven. On both sides of the fence, both the people that want to do better and more for the planet, and corporations and governments and people who want to destroy our planet. I think we have to do both—we have to listen to our hearts, we have to feel ourself and understand our connection.We are nature. We are all interconnected. Our existence is dependent on everything from fungus in and on our body to whales in the ocean and the air we breathe.It’s all interdependent and interconnected. Understanding that is key. We have to focus on the values and what’s right to do, because we are distracted by profit, by convenience, by invented needs, and all sorts of things that are distracting us away from the answer. And the answer is stop polluting and destroying our planet.
AZ: Well, we protect what we love. So is it a question of what we love?
IS: Yeah, Jacques Cousteau said that many years ago, and that has been adopted by a lot of other people later. And it is true. It’s just that, in love, there’s a lot of distractions, you know. Not all love is real, either. So appreciating, understanding the balance, understanding the interdependency, and then doing what is the right thing to do is key. And we are more powerful than we think. We can use our consumer power, we can use our votes in democracies, we can change the world around us—little by little—we can do revolutions, we can do all sorts of things to make this better.
But then we have to avoid distractions. One of the biggest distractions these days is, for example, the concept and the constant bombarding of global warming and climate change. It’s distracting people away from the real and current issues of polluting, here and now. We have governments, companies, and individuals who are throwing garbage in the air, in our seas, and in nature. We have a consumer pattern that is completely unsustainable. And all of these things, we can do something about. But we can’t do anything about it if we’re distracted and we talk about things a hundred or two hundred years in the future. That blurry concept of climate change, it is blurry enough to not put the finger on the real issues. And it doesn’t put responsibility on real people.
We have to hold politicians, corporations and CEOs, and influential people accountable. If we don’t have good politicians, we have to change our politicians. We have to take personal social responsibility, personal environmental responsibility, each and every one of us.Me, for example, I’m promoting and dreaming and trying to help more sustainable tourism, more sustainable travel. And my friend Bertrand Piccard, he’s also working on electric solar planes and all sorts of things. My dream is to be able to use that one day. We have to find politicians that are promoting sustainable solutions, stop subsidizing oil and gas industries and polluting industries. We have to change our financial system in the way that—it’s sustainable without constant growth. Growth—constant growth in economy—is what’s going to kill us.
IS: Yeah. And if we can change that, going to a more circular economy and do better things—we have the brain power. We have all the brainpower—if good people do more, we can change this course. But then we have to stop crying over melting glaciers and actually do something about how we produce power, how we transport goods, how much we buy, and how much we consume.
AZ: It’s a very interesting concept, it’s like Willie Nelson said, “If everyone takes care of their own area, everything will be just fine.” We have power, as individuals, to do things.
AZ: But, in a way, the melting glacier becomes an excuse, because how are you supposed to clean that up?
IS: It’s a big distraction. There is a clear sign that when BP, Exxon, Statoil [now Equinor], and all the other oil and gas companies, when they spend two, three percent of their budget on sustainable solutions and then a lot of their PR machinery is working on sustainable solutions, and they’re talking about climate change and global warming, there’s something seriously wrong.
We have to keep companies accountable. We have to stop buying products and services from companies that are destroying our planet.And it doesn’t make it better if you have fifteen jeans, and they’re produced in Bangladesh. You don’t see the pollution in the rivers in Bangladesh. You don’t see the exploitation of the people in the factories. But it’s still real. You’re responsible. I see articles about how nine, ten rivers in Asia are polluting the world with plastic and toxins. But it’s our toxins, it’s our plastic. We have chosen for the last fifty to a hundred years to produce our products and goods in low-cost countries with weaker environmental laws. It’s our responsibility.
AZ: Absolutely. A slight shift, but I wanted to talk a bit about a subject that we’ve talked about a lot, which is the overview effect—
AZ: —that astronauts talk about. And I think you’ve experienced similar profound cognitive shifts. Tell me what the overview effect is and how you may have experienced similar.
IS: I read about the overview effect many, many years ago when I was a kid, and it fascinated me. Like, what is this concept of seeing things from the outside to get a better perspective of it? And in many different ways, I’ve experienced the same in small and bigger ways through my life. And I really only understood it when I got a taste of it on an isolated Greenland expedition once, where I was out, isolated from the world and news and telephones and music and everything, for three months, and that isolation, I think, brought me into a state of mind and understanding of myself in the whole that was quite paradigm-shifting or, I don’t know the right word for it. But it was life-changing for me. And I read more about the overview effect after that expedition to try and understand how I can use this insight and gain even more insight without leaving Earth, because my chances of getting into space are not very high. I’m still hoping—I’ll try to get into space one day.
AZ: For our audience, what is the overview effect?
IS: So, in the fifties and sixties, when Russia and the U.S. were in the space race, we had psychologists on both sides of the Iron Curtain describing the effect it had on astronauts, on cosmonauts, to leave this planet and seeing it from the outside. They described the change in their perception of themselves and their perception of the Earth and the whole. And that effect they named the “overview effect.” By leaving this planet and seeing it from the outside, being completely isolated, everything you know, everyone you know, everyone who ever lived is there, and you’re here. That, I think, is a powerful thing.
IS: Being isolated on an ice cap gives you a little taste of it, but I still think the real taste or the real experience of overview, I think you have to leave the planet.
AZ: Something you’d like to do?
IS: Oh, I’d love to do that. I would volunteer for a one-way trip to Mars. Or two-ways. [Laughs]
IS: Yeah. I would tomorrow.
AZ: Why? How?
IS: It’s an experience. It would be a mental and physical and philosophical experience I would love to have.
AZ: Well, I guess human potential in general is the area you really play in the most. For yourself and for others, what have you learned about what impedes human beings from reaching their full potential? What is it that stops them?
IS: Again, I think fear, very often. Fear is a limiting factor in people. And then also, your will to do what it takes. A good friend of mine,Winston Churchill, said, “Sometimes, doing your best is not enough. You have to do what is required.” And people tend to push themselves to what’s comfortable, what they think they can do, or what is socially acceptable to do and not push beyond that. And I think if you focus on what it takes to reach a goal, whether it’s a physical or intellectual or mental or practical goal, if you push yourself and do what it takes, you would reach much, much further.But to do that, you have to leave your comfort zone. You have to risk social failure or other things. The feeling of failure is quite painful for some people, but on the other side of that, there’s a different kind of success. If you have success after a lot of failure, it feels better.
It is strange how hardship qualifies you, not only for doing bigger, better things, but also to understand what you’re doing better. And it qualifies you to appreciate the journey more than the end goal. So if you reach your goal, your big hairy goal, you reach it, but what you look back at is the journey, what’s the most important.
AZ: We were talking about Mark Pollack before, but you’ve led people and traveled with people that have all sorts of physical or mental injuries. I love your bit about—and I know you’ve spoken about it a lot, but for this audience—a bit about the Walking With the Wounded project.
IS: I was very fortunate to be guiding a few expeditions and TV projects before that with so-called “disabled” people. And it inspired me. And then an organization called Walking With the Wounded in London heard about some of these trips, and they asked me if I thought it was possible to take wounded soldiers on an expedition to the North Pole. And I said yes. One and a half, two years later, in 2011, we reached the North Pole with a team of wounded English soldiers. And it was an incredible journey and a beautiful experience. And because of the publicity it got, it also inspired a lot of other expeditions like that later. And I was very fortunate to be involved in that Walking With the Wounded journey for many years.
AZ: And Prince Harry was involved.
IS: Yeah, that secured a lot of media attention, and it raised awareness, and it raised a lot of money for wounded veterans in England, the U.S., Australia, and Canada.
AZ: That’s amazing.
IS: It was a beautiful project. I’m very proud to have been part of it. Working with these very different soldiers from different countries taught me a lot about myself and about human potential, and I’m also happy that the effect was not only on the people going on the expedition, but it inspired healthy, so-called “able-bodied” people all over the world to push themselves a little bit more and feel a little bit less sorry for themselves and actually go out and start changing their lives and changing their potential.
AZ: What did you pick up on from… Was there a sort of throughline about these people that were going to the North Pole, with all sorts of physical and mental injuries that they had been living with?
IS: I think the first big takeaway that I had was, it’s not a group of people. It’s not a conformed group of people. They’re as individual and different as everyone else. So understanding that I had to relate to them as individuals and human beings and see where they are today, what they’ve been through, and where they want to go, was the only way for me to treat each and every one with the respect and the personalized preparation that they deserved. So that was a very important moment for me, to understand that. So today, I see disabled people differently than I did ten years ago. I relate to them as human beings, not as disabled, because I have experienced that so-called “disabled” people are sometimes more able than a lot of so-called “healthy” people or “able-bodied” people.
AZ: And you told me once that has something to do with their—if there was a throughline, you know, that happens when people share experiences like that—that they become very solution-oriented.
IS: Well, I think that’s a frame of mind that is forced—you’re forced to become solution-oriented. But we’ve all seen it. If a kid loses their right hand, they become really good at writing with their left hand. So overcoming mental or physical injuries is the key. It’s like looking realistically at what you have, and “How can I make the best of what I have?” without dwelling on what you don’t have. “I have one left arm, I’m going to be the world’s best painter with this left arm.”
AZ: It’s also connected to another subject that we’ve spoken a lot about, which is hedonic adaptation.
AZ: Tell me a bit about what that is. I don’t know if people really have heard about that before.
IS: That’s very different. All of these things, all of these phenomena, all of these human traits and things we go through, they are quite fascinating, but they’re complex and difficult to understand sometimes, but if we boil it down, it’s like, the human need for stimulants, human need for safety, human need for recognition, all of these things…
When you see people shopping like crazy, it’s because it stimulates some of those basic needs. It either is a supplement for something, or it stimulates something in us. And in the process of trying to understand myself and human beings more, I’ve come across these things that I’ve also experienced and had, but left. Like this need to buy new things, for example, to get that instant gratification. And hedonic adaptation is partly that phenomenon that happens when you start buying things, you get a gratification. And this curve, this bell curve, of gratification is very steep and tall in the beginning—the first time you buy something, you really, really want it. You get instant gratification and a high. And then this depletes after a while. It flattens out, and then it depletes, and the depletion rate is actually the interesting part here. Sometimes, you feel an emptiness a while after you bought something. The instant gratification has gone. You don’t appreciate the thing you bought as much anymore. And then you want to buy something more or bigger or different, to feel that instant gratification of buying again. And exactly like addiction to our cell phones, exactly like our addiction to praise or to sexual attention, all of these things that we appreciate, those instant gratifications, they come with a cost. It numbs us, it desensitizes us. And we need more and more and more of it.
AZ: They say also that we have a sort of baseline level of happiness. And so even if someone has a major injury, they lose their legs, once the initial shock of that is over, they generally return to the happiness baseline.
IS: And after a crisis, a lot of people, if they get out of it on the other side, they actually reach a higher level of appreciation and gratitude than before a crisis. And you tend to focus more on and appreciate the things that are important in your life. I have never met an interesting or good person who hasn’t had a crisis in their life.I’ve met good people of all sorts, but the most interesting people in my life, they’ve all been through some hardship that qualifies, to understand themselves and the world better.
AZ: Well, it breaks them, or breaks them open?
IS: Yeah. And we’re all on a journey. Life is not a destination, like happiness or success is not a destination. It’s a process, and we have to learn to appreciate the process more than to focus on the end goals all the time.I’m goal-oriented sometimes, but I’m also really here and now, experiencing this moment, a beautiful moment in New York with the sun shining outside and good company here. Very intellectually stimulating to talk about something without a script, for example. But this moment, here and now, is very important to me.
AZ: Me too—that’s why we do this podcast! [Laughs]
IS: [Laughs] Great.
AZ: You seem to have sort of an evolving measurement of success for yourself. How do you measure the success within your craft—like when you get back from one of these things—how do you know if you did a good job or not? Beyond just finishing, you know?
IS: It’s actually quite strange… There’s another phenomenon, when dealing with other human beings or going through a process that is important to you, you sometimes experience an anticlimax when things are finished. And I’ve been really curious about this effect, because I’ve felt it myself, and I’ve seen it in so many other people. It can be from the last day of school or the first week after school. Often you have vacation, and you feel some kind of grief inside. It’s an interesting thing in human psychology, the circle of bonding and loss. Every time we get separated from something, even if it’s a bad thing, we feel a sense of loss.It’s a very strange phenomenon. And these powerful experiences that I lead people and myself through on the expeditions very often end in anticlimax or actually grief afterwards. You reach the North Pole, you’re really happy, and in the helicopter back or when you come home, you feel an emptiness. And it’s that change, that shift in focus from this very concrete thing of working hard, sleeping, pushing yourself, reaching the North Pole—that goal has been very important to you for so long, and then you reach it, and it’s over. And I address this with all of the expeditions I lead. I prepare people for that emotion, because it can be quite powerful. People come home and make all sorts of changes in their life because of that grief or that mental shift.
AZ: Needing to fill the emptiness.
IS: Needing to fill the emptiness of some sort, and some people plan a new expedition, some people buy a motorcycle. I don’t judge what’s the right thing to do, but it’s important, like all other mental preparation, visualizing and understanding that this might happen. It can be different for you, but a lot of people get this sense of emptiness or grief after this project is finished.
AZ: You’ve been to the Poles dozens of times—do you know how to come up with ways to push through that, knowing it’s going to happen?
IS: For me, it’s a lot easier. Because I work very project-oriented, and I accept the fact that people that I see every day and work very hard with and get to know very closely and intimately, those people will be separated from me again and move back to their normal lives and get on with things. Some of them I have very close contact with after, some of them I don’t see again or hear from again. And that’s okay. I have accepted this, and I think the curiosity around that psychological phenomenon—and my interest in the circle of bonding and loss from childhood—that interest has made it easier for me to deal with. I’m trying to help other people deal with it by explaining it and preparing them for it, and, very often, they call me after two or three weeks, like “Inge, I’m feeling it now.”
IS: “It’s really strange how I abruptly dismissed you when you said it—‘I won’t get there.’ And now, I’m feeling it.” And it’s normal. It’s natural. We human beings—we connect, and we bond with people. And when we’re separated, we feel grief. And that’s something we have to take seriously.We have to understand it.Some grief will be strong and last for years, and others things will just “Oh, that was interesting. Yeah.” [Laughs]
AZ: Well, change is one thing we can count on, right?
IS: Change, we can count on.
AZ: Just as a final thought, how do you envision the future moving forward? You’re right in the middle of your life right now.
IS: Statistically, yeah.
AZ: Statistically, right in the middle of your life.
IS: I’m a middle-aged man.
AZ: I hope you’re in the beginning.
AZ: How do you envision the next chapter?
IS: I am an optimistic person—I think I have almost an unrealistic view of the future, like I wake up in the morning feeling really grateful and optimistic about the people I will meet, the things I’ll do. And when people congratulate me with things I have done, I’m thinking, Oh, that’s nothing compared to what I’m going to do in the future. Not for fame or fortune or recognition. But life is so, so interesting. So many challenges, and we’re living in very exciting times where things are moving super fast—trends, news, people… We are moving so fast. And that has challenges, but it has also enormous potential.
AZ: Well, we’ll end there.
AZ: Inge, thank you so much for coming in today.
IS: Thank you for having me.
AZ: This was really amazing.
IS: Yeah, thank you for having me.
This interview was recorded in The Slowdown’s New York City studio on July 26, 2019. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity.