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The Kon-Tiki Effect

February 16th, 2010

An outbreak of personal adventure has recently spread among my friends in the form of a book. Anthropologist and adventurer Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki, the true account of his ride across the Pacific on a balsa raft, is a page-turner. This little paperback epic is easy to recommend because the tale seems to speak directly to that innate part of people that secretly (or not so secretly) wants to commune directly with the unknown—and unknowable—forces of nature. Aligning yourself with this wild spirit just feels right.

The story of the journey itself— a tapestry of jungle headhunters, whale sharks, naysayers, miracles, and the sparkling beauty of a perpetual ocean horizon—makes this work a compelling one, for sure; but it is important to understand that Heyerdahl wasn’t just a thrill-seeker. He undertook the whole brine-soaked affair to prove to his colleagues that an anthropological assertion he had made in a paper wasn’t an impossibility. He staked he and his crew’s lives on his belief that the Polynesian Islands had been populated thousands of years prior by ancient peoples from South America. The story of Kon-Tiki is most interesting to me because it is the story of a man’s sense of duty to his ideas.

What Heyerdahl understood is that people must want to be a part of an idea before they will stand behind it. Time after time during the book, people offer their help with the expedition solely because of the “courage and enterprise” of the whole affair. So, what makes people get swept up in an idea? According to a study of the New York Time’s most e-mailed articles, stories which inspired a sense of awe in their readers were among the most viral of any in the paper. Likewise, those individuals most highly regarded in our society are those that seem to actually embody their big ideas; People such as Heyerdahl, Gandhi, Dorothy Parker, or even Prince, are inspirations to many. We reward their commitment with a deeper appreciation of their message. Other idea-men, like Steve Jobs or TV’s Don Draper, are most admired for being able to tell a story like no one else, even if we don’t always like their personality. Either way, the takeaway here is that storytelling, not just story, is king.

May we all make the journey that must be made to support the ideas we believe in, both in our lives and in our work.

For those of you prepared to see how it’s done, watch the Academy Award Winning documentary of Heyerdahl’s journey, made with footage taken on the voyage itself.

Ideas, Movies, Writing

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