Bear Grylls’s Dublin surprise: He’s Irish, and he has the passport to prove it
Adventurer and survivalist tells Pendulum Summit about the rules he lives by
Adventurer and TV presenter Bear Grylls on the Pendulum Summit stage. Photograph: Conor McCabe
Here’s the surprise from Bear Grylls at Pendulum: he’s Irish. We love to claim the world, so an aside that the adventurer and survivalist now has an Irish passport somehow got a sprinkling of applause at the Dublin business convention.
His mother, a Ford, is “fully Irish”, as is his grandmother. Ray D’Arcy’s follow-up – “Where’s she from? We’re interested in that sort of thing” – doesn’t get an answer, perhaps through uncertainty or for privacy.
It prompts an unasked question about his own unlikely name, which was hardly given at birth. Wikipedia tells us that his real name is Edward Michael Grylls, that his mother is Sarah Ford – his late father, Michael Grylls, was a Conservative Party MP – and that, though he was born in London, Bear grew up in Donaghadee, in Co Down, until he was four.
I’m free-falling, past 4,000ft. I look at the altimeter. The canopy is open, but I can tell something is very wrong
Bear Grylls is in Dublin to give a presentation about the “four Fs” – failure, fear, fire and faith – that guide his life. On the stage at Convention Centre Dublin – a far cry from his more familiar territory of leaping and climbing and cascading and yelling and crawling around the world for his adventure TV shows – the 45-year-old is wearing jeans and a mid-blue shirt with the sleeves pushed up.
He acknowledges the irony, and fear, involved in such presentations, although his message is engagingly and comfortably presented. Grylls is just like us (ahem) and faces challenges, but the difference is that the situations he draws on for his four Fs are exciting, terrifying stories.
He failed his first 11-month trial to join British special forces. “I was not fast enough or smart enough or good enough. Failure overshadows success.” The experience built resilience; “it forced me to adapt and get stronger inside and outside”. He adds, “There is no short cut to any of your goals that avoids failure, the doorway you have to go through to succeed.”
So he did the long trial a second time, and succeeded. A natural storyteller, he gives a vivid description of the deep fatigue, pain and blisters after a gruelling weekend mountain trial in the rain. The lights of the army trucks as they neared the end signalled rest, but the trucks drove off just as they reached them.
“It’s 3am, we’re all slumping over our rifles, and they messaged to say they’d meet us back at the other side of the mountain.” One after another, people gave up. After a bit the trucks returned to collect them - “they wanted to see how we’d react when truly empty”.
Of 80 or 90 recruits, only four were still standing at the end of the process. “And this is the real point: three of us had failed selection on the first attempt. The failure is the key. Embrace failures [and] never run from the doorways you have to go through to meet your dreams.” His motto: never give up.
As for his second F, fear, “The universal truth is that, whoever we are, life will test us, physically, mentally, emotionally... How we react to that fear defines everything.” Grylls describes a moment that changed his own life, during a parachute jump in Africa. “I’m free-falling, past 4,000ft. I look at the altimeter. The canopy is open, but I can tell something is very wrong. I am falling way too fast. I am too low to use reserve, and I can only brace for the impact. My world goes black.”
He awoke in hospital. “I’m alive, but I can’t move.” His back was shattered in three places, and he spent months in rehab. He describes the night terrors, “always falling, always out of control”.
Did he ever dive again? “The answer is: all the time. It’s part of my life.” Before dives he dreads the jump, then “the roar of the wind, the fierce noise. But I know the answer to my fear: face it. Don’t run: use this. Life and experience have told me that when we edge towards our fears they so often melt away. The only way over our fears is over the middle.”
The exception, he says, is when “facing crocodiles in murky small ponds”.
Grylls’s final takeaway is that true wealth lies in our relationships. So, he advises, don’t be an idiot, and be grateful for life, and be kind
One man on stage, he looks out at thousands in the hall. “I struggle with rooms full of strangers. The irony of standing on stage here is not lost on me. I’m not as strong as people might expect. That’s okay: we all have our stuff. Our fears are what make us real and relatable.” (Mind you, his stuff is pretty far removed from our stuff.) He recalls being on a small inflatable boat with four others, “at 3am, in a force-nine gale, 500m offshore, in pitch black, surrounded by ice as the waves crash. We’re teetering on the edge of capsizing.” He and a companion’s eyes met. “The big moments in our lives leave marks. I’m covered in marks. You just keep moving. Use fear as an emotion to keep you strong.”
His third F, fire, or resilience, means turning those failures and fears into power – he quotes an SAS motto, “Always a little further” – which is the difference between ordinary and extraordinary. “The fire is always there, and it can change everything,” he says, describing the resources he needed to reach the peak of Everest, weakened, and “no longer sure I can can do this. The voice inside saying, ‘You don’t belong here. It’s okay to go.’ But finding that fire, that spark – never give up.”
He says resilience should be taught in school – “the most crucial thing is not talent, skills or knowledge: it’s quiet resilience. Know the power of unrelenting, unwavering resilience. During dark nights you have to hang in there doggedly. The dawn will always come… The fire is your pathway.”
His last F, faith, is in yourself, in others, in the force of goodness out there, and in his own Christianity. “A little voice willing you on: ‘Lean on me. Get back up.’”
His final “takeaway”, in the parlance of the motivational event, is that true wealth lies in our relationships, being grateful and kind, seeking humility, and “knowing our place in the universe. We stand on many shoulders in life.”
So, he advises, “Don’t be an idiot, and be grateful for life. And be kind.”