Bear Grylls is buzzing. He’s just come off the main stage at the Hay Festival, where in his role as a Land Rover ambassador he’s been speaking about climbing trees, eating spiders and hanging out in the wild with Barack Obama and Julia Roberts. The gathered throng spans the ages. Everyone loves Bear. And everyone wants a piece of him. As he moves into the green room, a man who must be more than 50 presents him with an aardvark, a stuffed toy. He asks Bear to pose with it and to ‘pretend it’s the worst thing you’ve ever had to eat’.
The crowd disperses (‘you were fabulous, Bear!’ shrills a female voice), and he takes a moment to exchange instructions with his wife Shara, who’s shepherding their three boys, all in various stages of young adolescence, before finally the air clears sufficiently so we can start talking.
With a man like Bear – although, plainly there aren’t many men like Bear – the temptation could be to assume he’s a fame-thirsty lunatic, prepared to throw himself into a pit of snakes at the first sign of a camera. That’s not the image he portrays on screen, but you have to wonder if behind the earnestness and the enthusiasm is a narcissist who thinks nothing of risking his life for ratings. He wouldn’t be the first, after all.
But in the metal, he’s not. Even with the adrenalin flowing, the Bear Bubble is flooded with calming energy, warmth and humility – humility of the kind that makes people around him feel special. Very quickly, I find myself, like all the 8-year-old boys in the Hay audience, wanting to be in Bear’s gang. Which wouldn’t be easy. He says he’s worked with the same people and the same crew for years and years – they’re a unit, a team, a family.
In conversation, he’s lively, firing out mantra with rapid-fire intensity, skipping from one thought to the next as a man would from one foot to the other walking across hot coals (made extra hot by Bear, one imagines). The fame, the success and no doubt the fortune have not come easily, or naturally, he assures me. He’s an introvert, climbing trees as a child ‘to escape’ from a ‘bossy’ older sister. ‘She says I’m terrible at being famous and that I should be milking it, going to parties,’ he says. ‘She says, “I’d be much better at it than you…” And she’s probably right.’
His gift, or one of them certainly, is that he’s comfortable doing things the rest of us aren’t, but wish we were. ‘I struggle with so many other things in life,’ he says when asked why he puts himself into so many predicaments. ‘Adventure is a natural place for me.’
If it’s not for us, it’s because much of what he does looks terrifying, whether that’s climbing Everest (which he did 20 years ago, aged just 23) or reaching into a bee’s nest (even though he’s allergic to bees). Much easier watched on TV from our comfort zones than done.
Talk of comfort zones stirs him up. ‘I don’t even call it a zone, I call it a pit,’ he says urgently. ‘Somewhere you want to get out of as quickly as possible, because it’s where we go stagnant. We only grow when we have that edge and feel those nerves. It’s only through the struggle that growth ever happens. I see it with the great champions. They’re open to failure, to looking vulnerable.’
He’s hot on failure. ‘It’s the heart of everything,’ he insists. ‘I try and say to our boys, because they don’t appreciate it enough, that they just see the successes. They think it’s easy for me. So I sat with them, and I listed all the failures. We’ve done 27 different TV shows. Born Survivor. That’s one. Running Wild. That’s two. Most of the rest have been real failures. Terrible ratings. Fallen flat. Failure is purely a doorway to get to where you want to go. But unless you’ve got the courage to walk through it, you’ll never get there. It’s a stepping stone. People hate failing, so they never try anything. I’m really proud of my failures and where they’ve led.’
‘I call the comfort zone a “pit” – somewhere you want to get out of as quickly as possible, because it’s where we go stagnant’
It’s hard to convey on the page, but these words are laced with real fervour. He’s a natural evangelist, charming on TV, utterly convincing in person. ‘Time to fail!’ I can almost hear myself thinking. But then doubt kicks in. Isn’t it success that breeds success? Don’t people label other people as failures once they’ve failed?
‘Well, then what are you doing it for?’ he retorts, the ‘it’ being whatever it is you’ve set out to achieve or become. ‘For a label? Now you’re saying that you’re going for success because you want people to think you’re a success. But you’ve instantly eroded all your power over the journey, because now it’s about your label. It doesn’t matter what other people think. We all like the life labels, but you’re never going to satisfy people.
‘And you know what? The truth is it gets worse when you’re a success, because then people criticise you much more. I notice actually that if we have stuff go really well for a while, and friends ask how it’s going, I never say it’s going brilliantly. They don’t want to hear it. But if I tell them the book’s flopped and they’re pulping loads of copies, they find the positives for me. There’s a lesson in that.’
This is all well and good. Embracing failure, reaching new heights and sticking it to the haters. But come on, I say. We all have priorities, responsibilities, stuff we have to do. We can’t all be Bear Grylls, holding Kate Winslet’s hand over a mountain pass or building dens on desert islands. And anyway, surely he’s the same – he’s got family, he’s got commitments. How does he manage them?
He bounces straight in. ‘We have clear priorities written up on the wall in our office,’ he says, preparing to count them off on his fingers. ‘Number one, stay alive. Number two, time with the family. Number three, fun. Number four, empowering other people. Number five, money. Don’t get tempted to flip them – so if you know the money’s going to be really good, but it means time away from the family at a really critical time, resist it. Stick to the priorities and don’t walk the line too much. But it’s hard. Earlier in my career, I was away too much. If Shara’s mad at me, she’ll be mad at me for six months…’
She must be a very understanding woman. At one point in our conversation, he tells me that the previous day he’d strapped his middle son Marmaduke to his front and taken him up on his motorised paraglider. He talks vividly of flying high in the clouds and low over rivers, dragging their feet through fields of wheat. ‘I love those sorts of moments,’ he says. ‘They make me really grateful for life.’
His parenting philosophy? ‘That’s easy,’ he says, once again skipping straight to his answer. ‘Three words. Example, example, example. It’s the only thing that matters. They don’t hear stuff, they see stuff. How do I treat Shara? How do I pick myself up from another failure? This isn’t a position of power. This is a position of vulnerability and humility because my example isn’t always very good, but we really try and understand that it’s the only thing that helps kids.’
There’s a lovely certainty about Bear Grylls. Allied with his natural ease, it makes him intensely attractive. The way he speaks, his gestures, the way you feel when he grabs your shoulder encouragingly – you want to bottle his enthusiasm and own it for yourself in a desperate attempt to offset your own cynicism (and all those other shortcomings). If he has one great gift, it is to inspire (see the moving film below he made with Land Rover, in which he meets a fan with a tough backstory). He wasn’t made the youngest ever Chief Scout at 34 (he’s now 44) for nothing. Maybe he was just born this way.
He thinks there’s more to it than that. ‘I learned early on to try and choose an attitude,’ he explains. ‘That was a big game-changer for me. We don’t always feel like that. Especially when you’re away a lot, when you’re struggling – we all struggle a lot. Choosing an attitude really helped me. This is the hat I’m going to put on today… And then you water it every day and that becomes your nature.’
He also puts some of his outlook down to his faith. Over the years, he’s been zealous in talking about his Christianity, and has been a poster boy for the Alpha Course, an introduction to Christianity that now enjoys global influence. You wonder if he’s seen that many glorious sunrises that at some point he’s had a lightening bolt moment when the questions of love, life and the universe were divinely and definitively answered. Again, he’s quick to dismiss the suggestion.
‘No,’ he says shaking his head and smiling ruefully. ‘I haven’t. That’s the magic of faith. There is no one thing that can 100 per cent convince you. I’ve been lucky. I’ve seen amazing things that have been so life and faith affirming and you feel a light pour in. You know, a flower in the jungle, or an amazing sunrise over the Himalayas. Faith is that last step. I’m never one of these people who just knows. I wake up some days and think this faith side of life is real madness, madness, the whole thing’s madness – and then something little happens… And that’s the journey.’
That’s how it is for Bear Grylls. An extraordinary journey, or, more accurately, an extraordinary adventure. Our time is up. He has other commitments to get to, others to inspire, others to – and I think we can say this with a straight face – bless. I’ve had my fill. And I feel I’ve been blessed.
Oh, and by the way. He declined to pretend to eat the aardvark. The man has some limits.
Bear Grylls was speaking to The Jackal as a Land Rover ambassador. Running Wild is currently airing on Discovery