If you could nominate anyone in the world to have your back, you’d probably want it to be Bear Grylls. The man who’s endured everything from a broken back sustained in a 5000m parachuting freefall, to almost drowning in a Sumatran river, to biting into a live Puff Adder, is acutely attuned to identifying risk, managing fear and coming back from failure. “You’ve got to anticipate the simplest of errors,” says Grylls, who’s speaking to MH on an overcast London day from the deck of his houseboat on the River Thames. “It’s always the little stuff that catches people out. My experience is the sum of all my near misses. On that basis, I’ve got some good experience.”
“Good experience” is perhaps underselling his expertise. Unparalleled is probably closer to the mark. Grylls went from a stint in the SAS to become the youngest Briton to climb Everest, before launching a TV career that spans a series of globally successful survival shows: Man vs. Wild, Running Wild and You vs. Wild on Netflix, to name a few.
Which is why I’m particularly heartened when Grylls tells me near the end of our chat, “I’ve got your back”. In the wilderness that’s basically like having Batman as your camping buddy. In real life, though? Well, it turns out Grylls can help you there, too. Because as he so effortlessly demonstrates, the secrets of survival draw on traits – determination, grit, perseverance, resilience – that bear a remarkable resemblance to those critical to achieving a goal that lies at the other end of the spectrum of human experience: success.
It’s fair to say Grylls wouldn’t be in the position he’s in today without having served in the SAS, an experience that physically and mentally eviscerated him. “I think it’s impossible to go through selection without being humbled,” he says. “I mean, it’s a daily thing. You’ve got to dig deep. Sometimes it’s going to hurt and you’re in that hurt locker but you’ve got to keep going.”
It was the military’s core values of endeavour and camaraderie that drove Grylls last year to purchase outdoor training company British Military Fitness, which he subsequently rebranded as Be Military Fit. “We want to give regular people a taste of that experience that will empower their day,” he says.
Central to the organisation’s military-inspired ethos is the idea that physical fitness underpins endeavour, opening up a world of possibility. Grylls himself trains for 30 minutes every other day, doing a circuit that incorporates kettlebells and bodyweight work at high intensity. “It’s 30 minutes where I’m really on the edge,” he says. On alternate days he’ll do some cardio, playing a hybrid game of tennis and squash called touch tennis, again for half an hour. Once a week he’ll do a yoga session.
If a solid fitness routine is the launching pad for adventure, your mental strength and capacity to endure hostile conditions is similarly boosted by getting reps in, Grylls reckons. “You need to test it, and use it,” he
says of honing your survival instinct. “Fail. Keep going. Intuition, spirit and resilience are all muscles. By taking them to failure they get stronger.”
After a long career in front of the camera Grylls is an extremely polished performer who can zing from earnestly upbeat to charmingly zany as the situation allows. It can be difficult to penetrate his bubble of positivity. But it’s worth remembering that everything he’s achieved began with a step outside of his comfort zone. His skills were cultivated and sharpened through experience. And the spotlight he now so comfortably inhabits initially bewildered him. “I’m actually quite a shy person,” he says. “I have a much more extroverted sister who loves
the attention. I actually really struggled with it. For me, Man vs. Wild became empowering when I saw the effect it had on other people. Initially it was just one or two people writing in going, ‘I’m a single mum bringing up the kids alone and when you talk about smiling when it’s raining in the jungle, I understand it’.”
It’s these times of struggle, Grylls says, whether it’s in the wild or even in the workplace, that your fortitude is truly tested. And it’s been those times, both with his fellow troopers in the SAS and with his longstanding production crew, that Grylls has learned the true value of the camaraderie he now champions. “Having good friends beside you has been the great lesson of my life,” he says. “Whether you’re on a mountain or in an office and you’re having a hard time, it’s always about the bonds you create with the people you’re with. Together we’re stronger. It’s a great truth.”
Here’s another one: life is full of things you don’t want to do. And whether they are forced upon you in a survival situation or you seek them out like Grylls does, your capacity to endure them has the potential to be the making of you.
“My job is definitely not super fun all the time,” Grylls admits. “There are times when you’re cold, hungry and tired and you’re like, ‘Oh, I’m actually miserable at the moment. This isn’t fun’. But welcome to the human race. That’s just part of survival. That’s part of life.”