What I learnt while paddling 50km in a sea kayak alongside 19 incredible people

Two days ago I returned from the first ever Advance Queensland Venturer Program, and now that I am back, I feel like Neo in the Matrix.

What we did

19 of us from across Queensland — mostly startup community leaders mixed with current founders — took part in a 7 day adventure (4 of the days without any comms), that included 50 kilometres of kayaking in the sea around the Whitsundays, a sailing challenge on Maxi yachts, multiple dawn mountain hikes and yoga sessions, volunteer work on the reef, snorkelling, fishing, and a helicopter ride, along with a series of inspiring talks from special guests flown in, including the amazing Matt Golinski, Glenn Bourke, Rob Davidson, Steve Baxter, Mark Sowerby, and Wayne Gerard.

What was the point of the program?

The Venturer Program is the brain child of Mark Sowerby, who is the current Queensland Chief Entrepreneur, and co-founder of Blue Sky Alternative Investments. The human-cyclone that is Mark Sowerby is not only an accomplished entrepreneur and incredible leader, he is an endurance athlete, having successfully swum the English Channel in 2015.

Mark has implemented these types of resilience-building challenges into Blue Sky, where staff were expected to nominate and complete personal challenges each year, as a method of staff development.

This particular mission was designed and delivered by full-time adventurer, and best job in the world winner, Ben Southall (who’s wife was also expecting a baby at any moment during the mission).

Why I went

The mission was framed around resilience building, and to strengthen relationships between the cohort of participants. As someone who spent most of their teenage years through to my mid-twenties out camping, abseiling, skiing, flying, kayaking, hiking, and diving, this mission was calling out to me like an old best friend that I hadn’t seen in decades.

A good friend of mine, who has completed multiple of these types of personal challenges and other resilience-building and radical self inquiry programs, said something to me in the days before the mission that really resonated: “Aaron, when you get back, you will be ready.”

The trip was very well timed for me. Having spent the last 12 months focussed on personal development, and having just come back from the Startup Catalyst mission to Europe, I was already very consciously in a moment of change in my life (my brain was already hyper-active for the previous 3 weeks processing the European mission experience).

I’m a huge fan of the Matrix, and for those of you that know it well, the entirety of the scene depicted in this meme below sums up the experience I was expecting. I was expecting to be physically and mentally broken down and rebuilt. To be challenged; tortured even. To be pushed beyond my limits. To be tested. And to see the world differently as a result.

So did the program break me?

A funny thing happened. I didn’t get tested in the way I expected to. Sure there were some tough sections of paddling in pretty choppy sea with strong winds, big swell, and a washing machine of converging waves that had us occasionally going backwards, sideways, and for some, vomiting over the side. And some steep hikes. Add to that no showers, pit toilets, and the fact that dead coral doesn’t make the best ground base for sleeping on. But still, I always felt well within my comfort zone.

But what did happen was something even better.

The first full day in the kayak was 21km of paddling. My brain drifted off. With no new information inputs — no emails, nothing to read, no distractions, no meetings, no phone calls — my brain was able to simply process all the backlog of inputs and datasets and emotions. I was physically paddling the entire day, but for most of it, my thoughts and mind were not present in the kayak. Out of that silent canvas of thought came so much clarity.

Sea kayaking in the Whitsundays

The second great thing that happened were the conversations and friendships. Six specific conversations in particular.

Just like on our Startup Catalyst missions, this trip had the effect of removing all the facades and personas we carry, and bringing the participants back to a more vulnerable state of being, that enables true friendships to be formed.

The 6 conversations that were critical to me came about because I openly put out there some things from my personal life that I wanted help with. Normally I don’t share much of my personal life, and would never normally openly ask for help with personal issues. But by talking about the issues I was facing, by making myself vulnerable, suddenly my friendship with those key people on the mission went to another level, and the insights they provided indirectly unlocked a lot of self-realisations.

So, what was the result?

The trip gave me exactly what I was looking for. I ended it with lot of clarity on the next chapter of my story. I have 5 specific new goals, 3 of which relate to Startup Catalyst, and 2 which are very personal.

But more importantly: I am ready. Ready for anything. I’m not afraid of anything. This lack of fear is manifesting in my decision making, in my conversations, the words I use, the size of my smile, and where I am now choosing to invest my time.

So I got to exactly the outcomes I wanted from the Venturer Program, but almost in the exact opposite way to what I had expected. It turns out, what I needed was actually inside me all along.

The next Venturer Mission

The next mission is being planned already, and from initial chats with Mark and Ben, I think the next one will break people, physically and mentally. I’m super keen to go if they will let me.

At $5k per head, the mission was actually unbelievable value. I’m not sure what the price point will be for the next one, but if you get a chance, you absolutely should consider applying to go.

Huge thanks to the legend himself Ben Southall. Also, massive thanks to Mountain Designs, Aquapac — 100% waterproof protection, and the amazing crew at Salty Dog Sea Kayaking and Explore Whitsundays- Sailing Adventures for supporting the mission.

Peak Performance Persona

Helping individuals achieve sustainable peak performance

Aaron Birkby

Written by

Dad of two amazing souls. Lover of adventure. Passionate about human growth. CEO @ Startup Catalyst. Co-founder @ Peak Persona. Director @ StartupAUS.

Peak Performance Persona

Helping individuals achieve sustainable peak performance