Polar explorer Erling Kagge: Why risk makes life meaningful

Playing it safe and always taking the easy road can be obstacles to happiness, says professional adventurer Erling Kagge.

ERLING KAGGE: Life is very much about taking risks. To walk to the North Pole, walk to the South Pole, climb Everest—it's all about taking huge risks. But sometimes, it's even more risky doing nothing. If you lay on the sofa for too long, you risk getting some heart diseases. And, of course, most accidents in life are actually going on in the kitchen, if not a car hits you first.

One of the greatest climbers in history, one of my big heroes, Tenzing Norgay, didn't die from falling down the mountain. He died from lung cancer because he was smoking all the time. And this happens again and again. So I think, first of all, you need to take risks. That's part of life. But having said that, to me, the most important of that is to be well prepared. I have always been extremely well prepared in my expeditions. So for me, it hasn't been as dangerous as it would have been for other people.

But if it hadn't been dangerous walking to the North Pole or climbing Mount Everest, I would never have done it. It's part of life. It's part of what gives it meaning. And all this kind of little dimension of fear or danger makes you feel that you're very much present in your life. You don't really care about anything but what's happening there and then. And of course, that's a feeling you can't have too often in life, but once in a while, it's a beautiful feeling.

I think in life, you need some uncertainty. Like, you know, it's quite often I hear people and they don't want to have any uncertainty in life at all. And I think that's a big mistake, because you need variation in your life. You need to be surprised. You need novelty. Because if you don't have it, time narrows in. Like, it feels like everything moves on really fast, quickly.
And also, the universe around us, or the space around us, somewhat narrows in if you know what's going to happen in the next minute or the next day. The way to feel that you're alive, the way to feel present in your life, is to take risks and feel that not everything is certain, that it can be some rough oceans ahead. That's just the way to live rich life. To hold this idea of a risk-less society is a huge misunderstanding. It's nice that the government tried to help us in a number of different ways, but we need to be able to risk something.

I think every morning you wake up, you make all the choices throughout the day. There is the easy option, and the more difficult option. And of course, it's very tempting always to choose the easiest option in life. The problematic side of that is that then you're not any longer a free human being because it's predestined what are you're going to do throughout the whole day because you always choose the easiest option. So to live a free life, you actually have to go for the most difficult options quite often in your life. So that's kind of a huge misunderstanding, that the way to make your life beautiful, the way to have a happy life, is to go for the easiest options.

  • There's a huge misunderstanding that the way to make your life beautiful, and the way to be happy, is to choose the path of least resistance, says polar explorer Erling Kagge.
  • Risk makes life meaningful; a small dimension of challenge and danger, combined with well-preparedness, is a way to be present in your life. Novel experiences stop your life from narrowing in around you and going by too fast.
  • Remember that Tenzing Norgay didn't die falling off a mountain. He died of lung cancer after a lifetime of smoking. Most accidents happen on the road or in the kitchen, says Kagge. Sometimes it's riskier to do nothing.

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