I want to convince you – no matter your age – that you have many more exhilarating journeys still to embark upon. I also want to convince you that it is never, ever too late to start again. For those of you who need convincing, I have just two words: Pat Falvey.
Pat is something special. Hard to define – because this man has worn many hats in his lifetime – he is just about the most inspirational guy I know. Now in his sixth decade, Pat is an explorer, entrepreneur, author, motivational speaker, film-maker and environmentalist. He is the first person in the world to have scaled the seven continents’ highest peaks … twice. He led the first Irish team ever to complete the 1,140km trek to the South Pole, traversing the most desolate of terrains in the process. Pat has experienced life with more than thirty tribes across the world, and through them has ‘discovered fascinating similarities and traits in all of mankind: to challenge, to change, set goals, and to achieve’. It strikes me that the words challenge, change and achieve will most likely feature on Pat Falvey’s gravestone … not that he is going anywhere anytime soon!
Pat is not only a world-renowned adventurer, he is also the young lad from County Cork who decided to become a millionaire by his twenty-first birthday, and did so. But before you tell me you can scarcely maintain that expensive gym membership, never mind scale Everest with a million euro in your back pocket, there are a couple of pretty important things you need to know about Pat. First, he came from nothing. And second, there was a time in his life when he decided he no longer wanted to live.
Throughout our conversation, I am equally stunned by his spectacular highs as I am his crushing lows. Pat tells me how, following the collapse of his business empire at the age of twenty-nine, he got into his car, put his foot on the accelerator and came instants away from launching himself, and his life, off a pier. Five years later, he had braved Mount Everest’s ‘Death Zone’ and lived to tell the tale. To me, this contrast less ordinary makes for an extraordinary source of inspiration.
Because we all love the rags to riches, boom-to-bust-to-boom-again stories, don’t we? Any scriptwriter worth her salt will tell you that in order to be inspired, we must first empathise: the leading character must manifest shades of dark and light, must somehow mirror our flawed, multifaceted selves. At base, we need to feel that if he can overcome, then so can we. So here’s my question: can we all do as Pat Falvey has done?
The man himself certainly thinks so: ‘Believe in yourself, have dreams and goals, be positive, don’t quit, and change with changing circumstances. Go for what you want with all of your capacity, strength and tenacity. If you have these attributes, your dreams and goals will in life become a reality.’ It’s good stuff, but I want to drill down a little further. I want to know if there are individuals for whom extraordinary achievement is predestined; people programmed to excel, particularly in the face of adversity? I want to know if that indomitable spark flickers more intensely in some, and if so, why?
To dissect the anatomy of an achiever, I look to what psychologists call the biopsychosocial model. Here, the biological, psychological and social factors attendant to a person’s existence are analysed, the theory being that every form of human behaviour is predicated on a continuum of interaction between all three. And so I sharpen my pencil, tackling the biological first.
‘I had a great childhood,’ Pat tells me, ‘and my parents were absolutely fantastic. There was all this positivity around me. At fifteen I was saying “I’m gonna be a millionaire.” And my grandmother was saying: “You can…so go on out there and do it”.’
Pat was born in 1957 to Tim and Bina in the north of Cork City. He was sent to live with his beloved grandmother, Mary B. Callaghan, aged six, whilst maintaining a happy relationship with his parents (child-shifting was common practice in 1960s Ireland!). His father had served as Lord Mayor of Cork – I’m sensing leadership qualities in the blood – while it was his grandmother’s tenacity that had the greatest effect on a young Pat. ‘She was a tough, no-nonsense lady,’ he explains, ‘whose husband had left her with six kids, so it was all about hard work.’ It wasn’t long before Granny Mary had enlisted her grandson as a cadet. ‘She set me up in my first business,’ he reminisces, ‘when I was seven years of age. She bought me a pram, told me to go around collecting clothes door to door, and I’d get threepence a shift. From there she found out that old people needed turf, so I went out with pram again, and then I decided to sell firewood. I bought a lawnmower with the profits and started a grass-cutting business. I’d put my earnings into a piggy-bank and by the time I was ten, I had a thousand pounds.’
Talk about the smartest kid on the block! His early entrepreneurialism seemed a combination of natural instinct and a product of that old Irish saying: Mol an óige agus tiocfaidh sí (Praise youth and it will flourish). Praise in those days typically came in the form of tough love, I venture. Pat agrees, sharing this story to illustrate:
‘I was a great guy for earning a few pence by getting my photograph taken with visiting Americans … this poor Irish child with the pram, you know. On one occasion I remember hearing them say: “these people are far better off poor. If they were like us, they wouldn’t be so happy.” So I went home and told my grandmother what I’d heard. She gave me a belt across the back of the head and dragged me into the front room, caught me by the back of the neck and lifted me up in front of pictures of the Sacred Heart, of Éamon De Valera, John F. Kennedy and The Pope. She pointed each one out to me and said: “you’re as good as any of them and I want you to remember that”. She wanted us to understand that we were never meant to be treated as an anthropological museum, having others come in and stare at us … and ever since that, I mean, I’ve lived with over thirty tribes in the world and that’s what I say to people: to progress. There’s nobody out there who wants to live – as my grandmother would have done – having to go to the toilet between two planks. So her view was that as her grandson I was going to do better for myself, not be living in that anthropological museum.’
And progress Pat did. He left school at fifteen, convinced that wealth was his to claim. Working initially as a bricklayer, within two years he had twenty men in his command, and four years later had a million in the bank. Here’s where psychological factors present themselves. Was it money that drove him, I ask, or a love of business? ‘It was anger,’ he tells me. ‘You see I have a fantastic father, my greatest mentor, but when I was younger he was caught for a lot of money by a developer…and went broke. He had built his business with great pride, but when it went wrong, I thought he was an idiot; a fool. I asked him how could he do such a thing to our family, without ever realising the pain and anguish he was going through.’ His father’s reaction? ‘Rather than tell me to give up on my business plans and go to college, he said: “Son, you’re the biggest dreamer I’ve ever known…so dream, and dream big. Remember that it is in the following of the dream that the success lies.” I’ve lived my life by that.’
Fate can be a cruel mistress, of course, and while flying high on material success – ‘I had a big Georgian house of 3,500 square feet when I was twenty one’ – Pat was soon forced to swallow the bitter pill dispensed to his father before him. At twenty-nine he went broke. ‘The business crashed slowly,’ he tells me. ‘It took a couple of years for it to wind down, and I wasn’t moving fast enough to stop it. I thought I had the Midas Touch for as long as I can remember, because of my grandmother’s belief in me. So when my business went, my self-esteem went too.’ From more money than he had time to spend, Pat found he could no longer afford petrol. Crisis mode ensued. ‘My self-esteem hit an all-time low and it turned into depression. I felt I had let my family down, had recreated my father’s situation. I had a lovely wife and two lovely kids and was thinking: ‘what the hell have I done?’ It’s all my fault that things are tumbling down around everybody. So I decided ‘that’s it, time to get out of it’. I decided to take my own life.’
A snap decision, he says, found him careening down that pier. Another beat, and he had slammed on the brakes, a flash of his children’s faces before him. ‘I stopped at high tide on the River Lee,’ he says ‘four inches from going in.’ A week later, a man named Val asked him to go for a walk up a hill. And so it was that a social factor – a simple invitation – was to change Pat Falvey’s life forever. ‘At the time it was an irritant to me,’ Pat smiles, ‘who the bloody hell does this guy think he is, trying to get me to go hillwalking, I thought, I’m a workaholic, not a walkaholic! But he kept insisting, so I went out for a walk with him and it turned my life around.’
That first hike was to gift an unexpected, life-saving lesson. ‘When I reached the summit, I had transcended from looking at the water flow down the mountain to being there above it,’ he recalls. ‘I had accomplished this small target. That made me focus on the fact that in order to survive, I needed to challenge myself again.’ The next challenge was Carrauntoohill, Ireland’s highest peak at 1,038m (3,406ft). On reaching its summit, Pat informed his fellow walkers that he would one day climb Everest. They laughed. He believed.
A reignited zest for life saw Pat face challenges head-on as he built up a profitable finance company. Retiring at forty, he has since devoted his time to conquering the extremities of our planet. He has climbed Everest, and then some. He has subjected himself to the most inhumane conditions imaginable. And he has done so because it makes him feel alive. ‘I often try to figure out how I am still alive…’ he says.
Which circles me back to that idea of a biological impulse. Is Pat’s brain geared towards risk? I suspect so when he discusses the ‘Death Zone’. ‘It’s a place above about 26,000 feet,’ he explains, ‘a height at which the body actually deteriorates and you start losing your mind due to oxygen deprivation, and then you don’t recover. I’ve lost fourteen friends alone in the Death Zone…and I probably know fifty other climbers who have died there too.’ So why on earth go there?
Recent research indicates that neurotransmitters – those chemicals responsible for communication within the brain – may have a key part to play. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter associated with risk-taking: the higher the dopamine level in the brain, the higher a person’s gravitation towards risk will be (see Chapter X). What’s more, dopamine itself likes a challenge, meaning only an unprecedented situation – a new kind of risk – can sate the craving.
I look to the preface of Pat’s book, The Summit, for evidence of his super-high dopamine levels. On scaling mountains, he writes: ‘When that impulse has been satisfied and the next challenge has been met, thoughts of returning to the comforts of home are relished, only for the cycle to – inevitably – begin all over again until time or death dictates otherwise.’ I get the science, yet this rationale remains brain-bending, especially when considered from the perspective of my comfy couch. It leads me to wonder how the loved one of a dopamine-chaser like Pat might feel. ‘Do we know one of four of us is going to die up a mountain?’ Pat asks. ‘Yes, we do. Are we selfish enough to take that risk and put our families under stress? Yes, we are. Do we believe that we will come back? Yes, we do.’
Pat keeps coming back. The intrepid explorer, the fearless adventurer, he has recently added another title to his resume: he’s become a grandad. I wonder if that biological, risk-oriented urge will skip a generation; if Pat’s grandson will feel compelled to climb the highest mountains there are? I wonder, too, if Pat would want that for him. ‘Honestly?’ he replies. ‘No. But would I support him if he decided to do it? The answer is yes. I believe that every person has their own genre in life and that family is there to support it; not restrict it.’
For now, Pat’s ambition is anything but restricted. He wants to write a play, he tells me, is writing a book to be titled The Psychology of Success and his film production company is on the upswing. He will continue to welcome guests to his lodge in the Kerry mountains, pushing them up Carrauntoohill to get a taste of his version of the high life. One remaining ambition is, however, more grounded than you might expect.
‘My kids have told me that they are, of course, proud of me,’ Pat says, ‘but they’ve also pointed out that I’ve missed important events, like Communions and Confirmations. They ask if I realise how much I’ve lost … and I do. So now that I have a grandchild, I can’t say I’m going to be brilliant, but I am going to make an effort to become a good grandfather. And I’m excited about that …’