How do you turn adversity into advantage? I think it has to do with refraining from giving in, despite all the hardship and the small chance of succeeding. About 30 years ago, when I was still a student, a study grant from zis allowed me to travel to Iceland to study the scientific whaling program there – a very political and emotional topic at that time. The conditions of this scholarship were that I had to travel alone and that I was not allowed to take own money with me. At that time, the amount awarded was the equivalent of 400€. However, there was one little problem: you don’t get to Iceland with 400€, not even 30 years ago. The only thing that was making this endeavor look less like just another foolish idea of a premature teenager was a recommendation letter from zis and the UNESCO stating that I was in fact on a mission and that it was ok.
Scarce resources foster creativity
So, I started contacting the Islandic embassy and asked for their help to get me to Iceland for free. I was turned down of course. So, I started calling them and again was sent away. However, I kept on calling. Eventually they called me back and told me that I could go aboard a fishing trawler who would be leaving Bremerhaven in two days with a course set to Reykjavik. They did not forget to add that I should please never call them again.
So, two days later I headed North to meet the trawler. Once we took off, weather got really nasty and I was seasick for full three days until we reached the capital of Iceland.
From challenge to crisis
Once we had arrived I continued to live on the trawler for a couple of days in the harbor of Reykjavik. That was partially due to the cold weather – as it was still snowing in May. But mostly it was because the immigration authority who wanted to deport me because I did not have enough funds to pay for my trip home. Also, at that time I looked like a stereotypical activist from Greenpeace or even Sea Shepherd, a militant offspring of the eco-activists. In the year before, they had sunk two whaling ships in the Reykjavik harbor and sabotaged the central whaling station causing millions of financial damage to the whaling industry. To make everything even worse, the pope was coming to Iceland while I was there and I was seen as a potential risk to his health. The only thing that could save me from being deported at that time, was an invitation letter which the ministry of fishery had sent to me during the preparation for this trip. Obviously, this letter was at home, 3,000km away. And for the younger readers, this was the time before email and mobile phones. And even fax machines were nothing one would have at home. You had to go to the postal office to send a fax. It was quite a big thing. Imagine the upheaval my situation caused at home. My parents were probably petrified from their worrying about their only son. By the time the invitation letter finally arrived I had developed a good relationship to a nice lady at the German embassy who I had contacted in my dire straits.
From crisis to advantage
Once I was allowed by the immigration authorities into the country, I went back to the embassy to ask her a question. In a magazine, I had read an interview with Iceland’s state president Vigdís Finnbogadóttir (the name means “daughter of Finnboga”) about the scientific whaling program. So, I asked the lady at the embassy if she thought it was possible for me to have a chat with the state president of Iceland with regards to this interview. I still recall how she looked at me with a mix of irritation and amusement. Long story short, a couple of days later I had my meeting with the head of state including me signing in into the golden book of Iceland. It might be worth mentioning that none of my close even remotely resembled a suit or anything formal. I was really sitting with her in my hiking boots. However, the meeting went well and it even opened the door for me to work on Iceland’s central whaling station, which had been sabotaged the year before.
What I have learned about life
In retrospect, the experiences I had made on this trip with 19 years of age were invaluable for my development. There were numerous crises to cope with and it was necessary to be creative and to improvise. Skills that are very helpful in this world. Today the word we use for this is resilience – and I have made it my profession to help leaders all over the world to develop more of this inner strength.
Having had a childhood with some challenges, I learned that I can spend 5 weeks with only 400 € and still have a good time. I have learned how it is to be threatened by deportation and how to turn this around into getting an interview with the State President. I’ve understood for myself that limitations are only constructs in my head and these insights I would like to make available to as many young people as possible.