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Down on the Farm: Courage vs. Crazy

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If you try something crazy and fail, you're still crazy. But if you succeed, even after many attempts, your craziness suddenly becomes courage.

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I recently met polar explorer Ann Bancroft at an event where she spoke on the topic of leadership.

Tenured and secure in an elementary school teaching job in Minnesota, she abandoned a comfortable teaching career to trek to the North Pole on an expedition led by Will Steger in the 1980s.

Doing one crazy thing wasn't enough.

In the 1990s, she crossed the Greenland ice cap. Then she skied to the South Pole. Later, she and a partner pulled a sled all the way across Antarctica, a trek of over 1,500 miles.

After hearing the harrowing story of Bancroft's expeditions, I realized I would sooner go to the moon than pull a sled across Antarctica.

Forget the moon. Camping in the Boundary Waters is about as wild as I'll ever get, and that's won't happen unless I can bring a bed. And a fridge.

If there is one thing I have always thought was crazy, it was taking unnecessary physical risk.

Skydiving? Crazy.

Driving race cars in a circle? Crazy.

Rock climbing? Crazy.

As I get older, my crazy threshold has lowered: Today, I think it is crazy to submit one's self to any unnecessary physical discomfort.

Two years ago while on the road, I decided to do the noble thing and support a local motel instead of handing a few extra dollars to a national chain.

After finding a hair ball in the bathtub and about three dozen cigarette butts underneath the bed, I realized that my decision had been crazy.

Lesson learned. Never again.

Suffice it to say I will never find myself thousands of miles from civilization in a pup tent in sixty below zero weather in fifty mile-per-hour winds trying to get to the South Pole.

I'll take the cigarette butts under the bed any day.

But what about Ann Bancroft? Is she crazy?

In our lazy world of limitless comfort, endless entertainment, cushy warm homes, cheap food, good roads and comfortable cars, yes she is.

But in the bigger picture, maybe she's not.

Ann Bancroft's first polar expedition shattered the prevalent notion that women weren't strong enough for arctic exploration. She was the only woman on the trip.

Her subsequent trips pushed things even farther. No huskies, she pulled her own sled. No men either.

Were her expeditions of any long-term use?

Apparently, yes. NASA monitored Bancroft's epic journeys to study the psychological effects of isolation and discomfort over long periods of time in preparation for possible manned expeditions to Mars.

Hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren followed Bancroft's expeditions via satellite.

In addition, thousands of children and adults have been inspired by Bancroft's tales as she has spoken about her expeditions to audiences around the world.

But the most interesting result of Bancroft's expeditions, to me, is the person who returned from them.

Soft spoken, unimposing, almost mousy in stature, Ann Bancroft glows with the hard-won confidence of somebody who has conquered obstacles few of us will ever face.

Ann Bancroft, as crazy and unnecessary as her expeditions may seem, proved that she could overcome obstacles larger than any faced by an NFL quarterback.

She proved her ability to a skeptical corporate world, which refused to sponsor her as it had sponsored male-led expeditions; she proved it to the children who followed her expeditions, children who have not yet had their own crazy dreams crushed by mundane reality; and, most dramatically to anybody who has met Ms. Bancroft, she proved it to herself.

Having taken on challenges as formidable as Columbus' crossing the Atlantic, Amelia Erhardt's attempted crossing of the Pacific and the Apollo astronauts' landing on the moon, Bancroft wears the easy smile of somebody who will never again be bothered by anything less than death itself.

Although I am not likely to sign up for a skydiving mission--or even a camping trip to the Boundary Waters--any time soon, I left Bancroft's talk with a sense that high risks, successfully conquered through preparation and discipline, bring high reward.

Sometimes it pays to have the courage to do something crazy.

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