Major accomplishments come through setting small goals and remaining committed, said outdoorsman and motivational speaker John Huston. Eight years ago, he and a friend, Tyler Fish, became the first Americans to ski unsupported to the North Pole in an expedition that was man-powered and without resupplies.
Huston gave a lecture during the 2017 Conference on World Affairs at CU Boulder titled “Lessons from the North Pole.” Elizabeth Maroon, a post-doctorate fellow at CU, moderated the talk.
Huston talked about how to effectively pursue goals, explaining his view that there is a key framework to accomplishing them. Huston said that committing mentally to a goal is extremely important. He said you have to promise yourself that no matter what, you will see this through to the end, which gives your process a foundation and a priority.
Next, you have to prepare thoroughly for your journey to complete the goal, in Huston’s process. The third element is to believe that you will succeed and that optimism will carry you through the inevitable rough patches. And finally, you need to have the ability to adapt to changes that come up on the way to the goal. Huston’s advice was that being willing to change in order to adapt will lead to a more successful outcome.
When Huston committed to the goal to ski to the North Pole with Fish, they agreed on four small commitments as well — to be communicative, to keep moving forward both literally and figuratively, to come back alive and in one piece and to start the journey in three years so they could have adequate time to prepare. That preparation included intense workouts to build and train the right muscles they would eventually be straining during their journey.
To train, they pulled around tires to mimic how they would be pulling the sleds that carried their supplies. The duo’s biggest challenge was staying optimistic. To do so, they agreed not to complain.
As Huston put it, “The body will achieve as much as the mind lets it.”
As Huston and Fish skied over the ice, they often came across leads, which are breaks between larger ice sheets that are frozen, but only barely. The two had to move quickly across them and without stopping lest they fall through. Eventually, while Huston was making his way across one of them, the ice was too thin, and he fell into the water. Once he was certain he hadn’t lost any gear, he worked his way over to Fish, who was on the side of the ice. They had prepared for emergency situations like this many times, but Fish couldn’t have simply pulled Huston out; he likely would have been pulled into the water as well.
It took Huston eight tries to pull himself out as the ice sheet kept breaking under his weight. Once he got out, he went into a makeshift tent to change into Fish’s long underwear that had been worn for over a month straight. They could not spare the gas or time to dry out the clothes, so it was up to Huston’s body heat to slowly dry out his clothes over the course of days.
By day 52, they were behind schedule and were looking at having to increase the amount of hours spent skiing to around 16 hours per day to meet the rendezvous deadline and counter the southward drift of the ice. The two were so discouraged that Huston picked up the satellite phone and called the expedition manager to say, “We are going to fail.”
They had lost all optimism in their ability to complete the trek. The manager, while still optimistic, told Huston to call back in six hours after they had some sleep. Later on, the pair felt reinvigorated to ramp up the hours skiing per day. Huston said that the last miles of the expedition were a struggle, but they made it to the North Pole in time to meet the Russian helicopter that took them back to the mainland. By that point Huston had lost so much weight that he said, “My gluteus maximus was minimus,” to a sea of laughter in the audience.
Falling through the ice, skiing against the flow of ice and the fatigue from skiing for a majority of the day for months were all obstacles the duo overcame. The answers to these problems were never pleasurable, but when pursuing a goal as extreme as theirs, easy solutions were not an option, Huston said to the crowd.
Huston’s role as a motivational speaker usually comes through the lens of his expeditions.
“During the expedition or in preparation, I don’t think about it — I just let the story happen,” he said in an interview after the talk.
Earlier in his life, Huston worked at Outward Bound, a non-profit organization that runs expeditionary trips for adolescents and adults. He said his love for the outdoors has been part of who he is since childhood.
“If I went back in time or told the childhood me, ‘Hey this is what you’re going to be doing,’ I think that the younger version of me would be pretty happy,” Huston said.
“I think it’s always important to let people know what’s going on at the poles,” said Maroon, the moderator. “What is it like to be on sea ice? What is the climate like there? Because this is something that’s not going to be here in 50 to 100 years.”
Connor Craven is a student in a Reporting 2 journalism class at CU Boulder and originally wrote this story for that class. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.