Monday, 21 July 2014

A Lesson In Striving!

The idea of the Virgin Strive Challenge came easily. My cousin Noah and I had both identified that we wanted to do a big challenge – something to push us to our physical and mental limits. But just as importantly we wanted it to be a vehicle for conversation about teaching children how to develop the skills they need to thrive in life.

These skills, like having a positive perspective, goal setting, resilience and communication, inform such crucial parts of a child’s development. They’re also the DNA that runs through the Virgin Strive Challenge.

We didn’t want Strive to be a typical fundraiser, where we have a dinner to raise funds for the schools that do these amazing life skills projects. We wanted to be out on the frontline, meeting these amazing people and really showing how and why goal setting can make such a big difference in their lives and create a vehicle in which to talk about them.

I know it’s a bit of a cliche, but after two amazing days spent at three different schools, what I didn’t know was how much I was going to learn from the children. They were very passionate about thriving in life and it was incredibly inspiring. Some are further along that journey than others! 

There were some amazing examples of striving. There was one pupil who came from Italy two years ago and spoke no English. He’s now fluent and is studying French and Spanish.

I was seeing different people facing very different challenges. Telling people about life skills while not really knowing about their challenges can be tricky, but it’s really about a balance. You have to inspire them while still respecting the complexity and breadth of the problems they face. 

When I was at the Globe Academy  I was part of the egg and spoon run during their sports day. I was next to a young girl who wouldn't get involved and didn't engage with me. But within five minutes of attention and interest in her, she was smiling and enjoying herself. Sometimes all it takes is to show an interest in people and make them realise someone cares. 

The school trips have just been amazing; really powerful and humbling. The kids have been incredibly engaged. We’ve been chatting to them, playing sports with them, listening to their dreams.

There have been tears in the classroom, laughing in the sports field (when I dropped the egg during the spoon race) and a real feeling of positivity and growth all around. Both sides of the fence! 

These sorts of experiences really reinforce why we are doing this challenge, and gives us extra reason to dig deep under pressure during tough parts of the challenge.

It was such a wonderful experience and a real education for myself and the team. We'll aim for many more but if we can improve even one life from this, it will have been worth it! 

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

My Top Five Films Celebrating the Planet

I’m a big believer in the impact films can have on the world. They have the power to trigger global conservations that can have real positive ramifications. That’s exactly the reason why I set up my production company Sundog Pictures - to tell stories that matter and bring new audiences to important topics.
Here are my top five films that celebrate the planet in a unique way and left a lasting impression on me. 

Baraka - 1992

This is a stunning film and is such a beautiful way to showcase the planet. It’s incredibly immersive and hypnotic, and it has such an amazing visual presence that you forget it doesn’t have a voice over - it’s just this amazing planet looking like you have never seen it before.

1 Giant Leap - 2001
I saw this a few years ago and it was such a beautiful way to chart human relationships amidst a backdrop of the world and music.
There is a brilliant album to go alongside this beautiful film - so either way i’d encourage you to listen or watch the life lessons shared here.

An Inconvenient Truth - 2006
Proof that film can be such a powerful medium. I remember it coming out in the cinema and I kept hearing from people that I had to see this film. I was absolutely blown away by what I saw, and completely believe that is one of the most powerful and important films I have ever seen. It really got the subject of climate change to the whole word and triggered a global conversation that people are still having now.

In The Shadow of the Moon - 2007
This was a film I saw last year. It was recommended to me by a friend and it documents the story of NASA’s manned Moon missions in the 60s and 70s. As I am going to be heading to space in the near future with Virgin Galactic I really wanted to be aware of the history of space travel.
It’s an incredibly interesting and moving film, and after I watched it I had a mixture of nerves and excitement about my trip to space!

Revolution -2013
This is an amazing documentary made by my pal Rob Stewart. It initially looks at the world with concern - highlighting worries about pollution, wavering ecosystems and over population before focusing on how we can all make a difference.
His belief is that if more young people knew what was happening to the world they would stand up and fight for the future. It’s a powerful film. 

What are your favourites? 

Sunday, 13 July 2014

The Power of a Positive Perspective

One of my earliest memories is that of my dad heading off in a balloon on another one of his crazy world record attempts. I remember sneaking into the capsule to leave a note asking him to make sure he came home because I was terrified that I might never see him again.  

I guess the adventurous spirit runs strong in my family, because adventures have also been such a big part of my life – and I can confidently say they have helped shaped me into the person I am today.

I’m not going to lie, I’m a LUCKY man. I have been able to travel the world, meet some incredible people and do some pretty amazing things. But in my late teens, like the majority of people, I had started to question life and the meaning of things.

I just couldn’t shake off the feeling that my life needed a direction, a focus. I didn't have the first clue what that direction was and how to go about finding it, and then the phone rang, and I was offered an amazing opportunity that changed everything!

It was Will Steger – who has led some of the most significant dogsled expeditions in the world. I had joined Will on small trip before and liked him. On the call he filled me in on his next challenge.

He was planning a 1,400 mile dogsled expedition in Arctic to raise awareness of climate change amongst young people in US... and it would take about three months!

Arriving in Baffin Island, I got a huge shock to the system. We were packing up and sorting our equipment and I remember thinking, 'What the hell have I let myself in for?'  

The tents were tiny, I literally couldn’t expose any skin outside, I was already exhausted... and I had three months of this ahead of me!

I knew I couldn't get through it in that state of mind, thinking in that way – so I took myself aside and said to myself: ‘You are not just going to do this, you are going to do it with a huge smile on your face.’ 

 Otherwise what’s the point?’

I didn't want to go in to it wishing for it to be over before it had even started.  

So I told myself:  'Do your best to make the most of every moment and embrace all the feelings that come with it, good or bad'. And from that point on, I was ready for near enough anything the experience threw at me.

That was the only way to do it. In fact, I believe it’s the best way to approach any challenge life throws at us. The realisation that in most situations in life we have a choice of how to perceive something is empowering.

Perspective with purpose is incredibly motivating and when I embraced the experience of that journey in the Arctic and stopped thinking about the end goal and how far away it seemed, I was set…This perspective has driven me ever since and I try to adopt it in everything I do. 

That was one of the key themes I talked about last Sunday at the 2014 Adventure Travel Show  at Olympia London. I was incredibly fortunate to speak at the event, and it was heart-warming to see my family and friends, including my beautiful wife and my sister Holly, there.

Since that expedition the bug certainly took hold and I’ve undertaken a few more challenges. I have broken a world record for the most linked runners to complete a marathon, attached to 33 friends; I have cycled from Italy to London as a part of the Dallaglio Flintoff cycle slam and I kite surfed from France to England, achieving the World Record for the fastest cross-channel kite surf. 

I believe that setting yourself goals and trying to achieve them is the fastest way to becoming a healthy, happy and confident individual – and the best way to achieve those goals is through a positive perspective and enjoying the journey along the way.

What are your tips on tackling big challenges in life?

Thursday, 10 July 2014

They Call It Puppy Love

An office should be a place of work - but also one of liveliness, flexibility and fun... with that in mind, let me introduce you to Nala, the latest member of the Branson family.

I’ve learned since I was young that work should never be a daily grind. Whether you’re an employee or an employer, office life should be a place of work -  but also one of liveliness, flexibility and fun. A place of work should be somewhere which inspires you, and it should be also be a place where you can be yourself and enjoy. You spend most of your life at work, so as much as it can be a place that brings joy the better. Positive people are more creative and more productive.

My production company Sundog Pictures is an incredibly happy place to work, and the staff work hard but also enjoy the work they create.

It’s an atmosphere that encourages people to push themselves, but also to unwind and have a laugh - the most recent way of doing this is for people to bring in their dogs. I mean what would Sundog be without the dog!

My wife and I recently adopted a seven week old puppy and we named her Nala, from the Lion King (a small obsession of mine!) She’s an absolutely beautiful and sweet natured Golden Retriever… but she does keep me awake for most of the night! I had to sleep on the sofa with the fire door closed and put my fingers in my ears, with two pillows on top, and I could still hear her!

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Health Over Handcuffs

The Support, Don’t Punish campaign is urging for a change in drug policy that will treat drug addiction as a health issue rather than a criminal one.

I completely agree that this is the right message to spread. It’s also an incredibly important one.
My production company Sundog Pictures  made Breaking The Taboo because it was exactly the sort of story that I set up my company for – to tell stories that matter and to start conversations about important topics.

The War on Drugs is such a compelling subject, and it has been ever since president Richard Nixon started the war in the US over 40 years ago. It’s a war that is still being waged, and it’s clear that a heavy handed prohibition approach hasn’t worked and in fact is causing many more problems than the drugs themselves. Drugs haven’t killed over 40,000 people in Mexico in the last few years… The war on drugs has!

What we highlighted in the film was that countries like Portugal are treating people with drug addiction as a health issue rather than a criminal one and are succeeding hugely in curbing the violence and the suffering associated with the war on drugs.

The idea that billions of pounds every year is given to the hands of organised crime to spend on murder, extortion, prostitution, trafficking and all kinds of illicit activities that tear at the fabric of our society is unacceptable.

That sort of revenue needs to be taken away from criminals and put back into society – where the money can be used for good.

While other countries seem to be taking progressive and difference stances on how to look at drug use, Britain still seems stuck in its ways.

You can’t look at this problem in an idealistic way, otherwise we will just cause more and more harm. We have to take all the evidence in and be pragmatic about the issue. The wellbeing of people and society must be our main goal.

We are talking about people here. Only a humane approach will work. By prioritising health over handcuffs, we are putting not only people’s welfare first, but also the communities they live in. We must all have a voice on this incredibly important issue that affects all of us!

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Why Adventure?

You could say the adventurous spirit runs strong in my family. Setting goals and taking risks, be it physically or mentally, is in my blood.

I have enjoyed and learnt much from the amazing adventures I have undertaken in my life – like spending three months in the Arctic, setting up my production company Sundog Pictures and getting married to my beautiful wife Bellie.

But setting yourself a goal and working out how to achieve it can be the biggest adventure of all. By achieving your goals you keep yourself motivated and positive – as well as enjoying a sense of fulfilment and pride.

Knowing you have pushed yourself and refused to take no for answer to achieve something is such an important life skill. But it's one I believe sadly isn’t been taught enough at school. Big Change, a charity I co-founded with friends, is focusing on life skills and helping to develop programmes that will give young people around the UK opportunities to learn and develop the so called ‘soft skills’ they need to become healthy, happy and productive individuals.

Young people today are leaving school and having to navigate a complicated world of new challenges and new opportunities.

While they may have been taught academically, they haven't always had the chance to develop the communication skills, teamwork, confidence and resilience that they will need to rely on over the years ahead. These are the skills that help you overcome obstacles and get the best out of life.

This is why I wanted to come up with an idea that created a vehicle to talk about these skills and raise funds for projects around the UK that are enabling young people to grow them… and so the Virgin Strive Challenge was born!

Virgin STRIVE Challenge is a mass participation ultra-endurance event that will see a core team, including myself, Wimbledon champion Marion Bartoli, Innocent Drinks co-founder Richard Reed and paralympian gold medalist Ade Adepitan, travel from London to the summit of the Matterhorn (the most iconic mountain in Switzerland), entirely under human power.

That means three back-to-back marathons from London to the coast, rowing the English Channel, cycling 900km to Verbier, hiking seven days over the iconic Haute Route to Zermatt and then climbing the Matterhorn, all of which will take just over a month (August 2014)... Phew!

By using these incredibly important life skills to help us tackle this challenge, I’m hoping that it will show people that you can achieve your goals, if you really set your mind to it and you can also learn a hell of a lot in the process.

All proceeds raised by the Virgin STRIVE Challenge will go to Big Change to support young people all over the UK.

Hundreds of others will be joining us along the way.We hope you join us too and become a part of our story!

Friday, 7 February 2014

We must change drug laws if we want to save lives

There has been a lot of talk on drug laws this week, mainly due to the tragic passing of Philip Seymour Hoffman. 

His death came as a shock, equalled by the cause of it. A middle aged and incredibly lauded actor at the top of his game is not the stereotypical image that we attach to heroin addicts. 

Cue a shocked media and a frenzy to bring those who dealt to him to justice - a fast track way to make us all feel better again and gloss over the root of the real problems of the war on drugs.

As Russell Brand says, in his recent opinion piece There is a predominant voice in the mind of an addict that supersedes all reason and that voice wants you dead’.

If drug addiction is such a mental minefield for those that are in its grasp, why do we still treat them as criminals and not in a compassionate, humane way that we would expect if we were at our lowest and desperate for help?

The answer is simple - our drug laws make it impossible to treat drug addiction the way we should. We criminalise them and demonise them, but seem unable to care for them. In a way laws are in place just to help the conscience of those in power instead of getting right into the toxic subject and finding better solutions. 

The reason I made my first feature documentary Breaking The Taboo was because I couldn’t believe that the War on Drugs was still going on. The more I learnt about the topic, the more I realised it is an issue affecting everyone on the planet, whether you realise it or not. It is a forty year plus battlefield of misery and despair, where the only winners are criminals, who are getting richer and richer and spending their profits on organised crime and tearing at the very fabric of civilisation. 

The film paints a picture of international drugs policy and how the War on Drugs has failed in every possible way - how drugs are more prevalent than ever and that people are still dying. We looked at countries who treat drug addiction as a medical issue rather than a criminal one and how their progressive and tolerant drug laws have seen a positive impact in reducing drug related crime and deaths. 

In any other walk of life, if things were going this badly one would adopt a different way to tackle the problem. We are not talking about 'addicts', we are talking about people. Fathers, sons, mothers, sisters etc. Real people. They are not a stat on a piece of paper. We must try to find better solutions to this huge problem and find a smarter fight. 

Please sign this petition here and help end the war on drugs