Something happened to him out there. The desolate landscape loomed with frozen indifference, and he was filled with darkness. Slogging through the gales and frost, the hours blurred into days while negative thoughts became all-consuming. But as forlorn as he was, he was determined to complete the fifty-day march ahead of him. Destination: the South Pole.
"I just couldn’t get out of the negative spiral," says Erik Bertrand Larssen, staring up at the ceiling with a heavy heart.
"I was afraid I’d never get out."
Fear prevents you from living the life you want
Erik Bertrand Larssen is a paratrooper, civil economist, author, lecturer, and mental health coach. He has taught athletes, business professionals, and leaders to believe that faith can move mountains and the will to succeed can overcome the fear of failure.
He’s sitting in front of me; an image of gentleness in a crisp white shirt. He tells me it’s been sixteen years since he had an epiphany at a Tony Robbins seminar in London. After the seminar, he went straight home, quit his job as a civil economist, rented a tiny office and threw himself into a new life as a mental health coach and advisor. It’s all snowballed since then. In his native Norway, Erik has gained popularity as a motivational guru, hosting his own TV show and working with esteemed clients. Success stories include tennis player Casper Ruud, cross-country skier Petter Northug, and wrestler Stig Andre Berge.
The essence of mental training is becoming aware of your thoughts. What you choose to think affects your life. Most people are held back by fear—fear of the unpleasant, fear of what others say, or fear of life itself. But that fear prevents you from living the life you want.
He leans forward in his chair.
“Some people are better at understanding the power of thought. Athletes, people who serve in the military, surgeons; they’re used to performing under extreme circumstances and they use mental techniques to help them win a race…or save a life. But for ordinary people going about their everyday lives, there’s no real sense of urgency. So it’s not as easy to recognize the impact of mental resilience. But I’m convinced that it’s something that everyone can learn and develop.”
It’s not all theory with Erik though. He’s been through the wringer, having experienced everything from childhood loneliness and struggling at school to battling depression, divorce, and addiction as an adult. Not to mention the shame that comes with any of those battles. But he’s comforted by his heroes. Fond childhood memories include reading stories about Churchill, Nansen, Heyerdahl, and Columbus. His dreams are shaped by the lives of those who’ve dared to follow their own. And by his experiences.
I've been caught in the crosshairs of life. But mental resilience isn’t about avoiding the bad and difficult—quite the contrary.
Gesticulating enthusiastically, he continues:
“An important element of mental training is to challenge life. It's just a matter of time before setbacks, including illness and even death, come knocking. Life is brutal! You have to welcome the fact that the sad and difficult are part of the adventure. Look at the vast majority of people who have achieved anything. They don’t avoid what’s unpleasant, because they see it as the only path to the good stuff. They accept that life is an emotionally contrasting journey, and so they seek out the difficult. As do I.”
The expedition to the South Pole
And that's exactly why, just under a year ago, Erik Bertrand Larssen put himself into a brutal position. He chose to embark on an expedition to the South Pole: 136 miles on skis, all alone. Completely voluntary. Just him and a sled with all he had to keep himself alive. It would be sixty days in the coldest, harshest, and most physically and mentally demanding climate in the world.
I wanted the extreme. I knew that if I aimed for comfort, life would only ever be ‘just okay’. But I wanted to know that when I reached the end of my life, I could look back and say to myself: ‘I’ve had a great time’.
“But after ten days, I’d had enough. And there were still fifty to go. I was surprised how negative my thoughts were. Eight to twelve hours each day, I felt so despondent. «What's going on?», I asked myself.”
In addition to the physical challenges presented by the cold, wind, and darkness, the nagging reminders of divorce, painkiller addiction, and negative press hung over him like a black cloak.
Over the many days that followed, I went through a transcendental process where I accepted the negativity and allowed those thoughts to be processed. I talked to myself out loud, which drove me to even more melancholy than I’d expected. I got scarily close to myself and there was nowhere to run.
– What do you do when you can't escape?
“You either give up. Or confront yourself. And what practically everyone experiences when you're face-to-face with yourself, your illness, divorce, or death, is that you get through it. And if you can get through it, you'll find that it's beautiful. Then you feel like you have super powers.”
Erik certainly earned his powers. On his journey to the South Pole, he cracked a ski, had his toilet paper blow away, miscalculated his rations, caught a fever, and had stomach problems. He thought he wouldn't make it. He felt lonely, abandoned, and depressed. He set fire to his tent upon accidentally knocking over his Primus camping stove. Oh, and he lost twenty-eight kilos. And almost resorted to peeing in his pants so that he wouldn’t have to move his frostbitten fingers.
To embrace the darkness is what makes life beautiful
Although Erik resisted what was going on, he didn’t quit. He took it one day at a time.
“I was in a hole, and had to be a lot more patient with myself than I was used to. But…
All the things we endure! In the end it comes down to emotions, and you can’t die from negative emotions. We humans are extremely resilient. You can experience the worst things—something bad happening to your children or anyone in your family—but look at the strength you can have! Remember what you did when the storm hit. We have more going for us than we think, and I noticed that on my trek to the South Pole.
In life, we all have our trials (our emotional South Poles). It's important to handle them the best way we can. You don't always have to get out of the hard stuff as quickly as possible either. Sometimes it’s better to stay in it for a while, allow yourself to be fascinated, go even deeper into it, and maybe even start to like it! The problem in today's society is that we think we want to be so-called "happy". Meaning that there's something wrong with you if you're ever anxious or fearful. If you're not happy, you feel you need to get a grip.
Intensity rises in Erik’s voice.
“But no! It's perfectly normal to have “bad” feelings. Then you can learn to deal with the lows so you're better prepared for the next hardship. You can't prepare for everything, but you can always learn from resilience.”
– Are all of us capable of building resilience?
“Absolutely. One thing is to have the mental strength to ski for a long distance, but the next-level challenge is to go for your dreams. Or take control of your life. Or to live with more inner strength than you thought possible. Sometimes people ask me: «I want to go for my dream, but what if I don't succeed’». I always respond by asking: «But what if it works?»”
He pauses for a moment.
«What if it works? Imagine if you were able to believe in something enough to make it happen. Imagine what a gift that would be». That's the goal of mental training: creating faith. If I had not believed that I could reach the South Pole, it would have been too big a hindrance. But the belief that it would work was always with me, even if I sometimes doubted it. We humans have a great capacity for belief.
– What about fear? Can't that kill faith?
“The fear is there. The voice that says you won't succeed, that you're not good enough. It comes naturally. But instead of getting rid of your fear, you need to compensate for it with faith, joy, desire, energy, action, and confidence. You need to be full of good feelings. How you talk to yourself matters.”
Erik goes on to quote mountaineer Aksel Lund Svindal.
«I welcome fear,» he said. That's good. Welcoming it makes it harmless. We must not allow fear, sorrow, or discomfort to threaten us. Welcoming it provides the contrast we need to see the beauty in life.
One night in his tent, after fighting through another day in the unforgiving landscape, Erik had a powerful experience.
It was the purest form of happiness: a hot cup of cocoa, in a dry sleeping bag, after twelve hours of skiing
He explains how he wept at the simple pleasure of sipping from his cup.
“I think I became even more humble after the South Pole. Out there I felt so incredibly small and vulnerable. I was the loneliest person in the world on the coldest, windiest continent. I was completely outmatched by the forces of nature which could have easily chewed me up and spat me out. But I stuck it out.”
What we’ve learned from Erik
Life is not about avoiding the bad and the difficult. You can handle a lot more than you think.
Embrace adversity and don't take life too seriously; you’re not gonna survive it anyway!
If you foster a strong belief in yourself, fear won't stand in the way of your dreams.
Photographer: Nikolaj Schwaner
Journalist: Lasse Lønnebotn
Translation: Angela Murphy
MAN IN THE SHIRT ”The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood.” - Theodore Roosevelt, Paris, 1910. In our profile series "Man in the Shirt", BARONS men explore what it means to take risks. How do they find courage? What's the most important thing they've learned along the way? And what can the rest of us learn from them?