But what if I fail? with Anna McNuff


She’s a Ted Talk alum, an ex-team GB rower and was a marketer. Now she’s a global adventurer, speaker and writer but Anna has asked the question in a recent Ted Talk that we’ve all asked once in our life, “But what if I fail?”

Now available to book for motivational talks we caught up with Anna to ask a few questions from personal development to too many biscuits at conferences and her advice for businesses in 2016.

Starting out as a rower and being part of the GB rowing team must have been a hard dream to let go off, what prompted you to switch from a potential Olympians to an adventurer?

“When it came time to retire from the GB rowing team having not yet made the Olympics it was a real gut-wrencher. One part of me was screaming “What are you doing? Don’t give up!” and the other part, my gut, knew that I just wasn’t happy…” The truth is that endurance adventure challenges suit me better than elite sport.”

What was your transition between athlete to adventurer and motivational speaker like?

“The full transition from athlete to adventurer took 5 years, and I worked a corporate 9-5 in between. I’ll confess that at first it was terrifying. For years people would ask what I did, and I’d say: “I’m a rower.” And then suddenly, I had nothing to say any more. It was so much more than giving up a sport; really I was giving up a part of my identity. And that’s a scary point in anyone’s life. Because you’re staring at a blank slate – the world is wide open to you, but for the first time in a long time you have to really identify who you are, your place in it, and what you want out of it.

I’ve always had an obsession with riding the ‘pain train’. That is, doing things that push me right to the edge. With rowing it was more physical, but as I started doing more adventures, I begun to realise that I enjoyed the mental challenge of adventure too and perhaps even more so.”

You mention working a 9-5; did your time in marketing prepare you at all for speaking at corporate events?

“Absolutely, whenever I walk in to do a talk at a company conference or away day, I have a good idea of what it’s like to be on the other side of the fence. I know that the audience has, or is in the middle of, a day of tricky tasks and testing discussions.
I also know that if it’s a post-lunch speaking slot, there are a lot of heavy eyelids in the room. They’re also probably feeling a little bit guilty about all the free biscuits they ate during the coffee break (because they were only teeny little packets after all).

I have been there! (Ginger Nuts are my favourite) It’s a tough day for the brain on all fronts.”

I bear all of that in mind when giving a talk. I like to see that I’m the ‘light relief’ part of the day. My challenge is to find the elements of my story that make the audience’s ears prick up. I’m aware that they’ve probably seen a dozen speakers over the years, so I remain authentic, honest and open – and tell the story only as I can. My hope is that the audience leaves the room feeling, lighter somehow. Excited to explore exactly what they’re capable of at best, and at the least believing that the big challenge they’ve just been set is entirely possible.

Moving onto your speaker career what has been your most challenging event/client brief so far?

Aside from trying to convince a room full of 18 year old school boys in Boston, that riding a Pink bicycle through the 50 states of America was ‘cool’… the most challenging brief I’ve had was to help one business see that the small acts they perform each day, as team members, and as individuals are the acts that really make the difference.

Because I often opt for grand adventures, there can be a tendency for a person to think that bigger is better, but it’s not the case at all. At that particular talk I shared stories of some of the smaller trips I’ve taken – including one of my all-time favourite adventures, which was an attempt to rollerblade 100 miles around Amsterdam. It was only a 4 day journey but it had everything that the bigger ones did. We were delayed in starting due to broken wheels, it poured with rain, we got lost, slept in bushes and my friend broke her hand on day 2. So we had a team huddle and went back to the drawing board. Over those 4 days we bonded and formed a friendship based on trust and respect. We left having learned far more about each other than we would have done if everything had gone to plan.

I also shared the stories of the small acts of kindness I have been privy to all over the world. When someone pulls over in the middle of the Nevada desert to check if I’m okay and offer me water, or a stranger buys me a cup of coffee in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere. All of these acts may seem small to the giver, in fact most of them are accompanied by a ‘oh it’s nothing’ – but to me at the time – tired, exhausted, homesick – their small act means everything. And it’s those small acts that have mounted up over the years to make me believe that this world is a wonderful place full of kind hearted people just waiting for an opportunity to help someone else out.

What will clients and audiences gain from having you at their next event?

Above all else – confidence. The confidence to dispense with a fear of failure, to make bold moves whilst trusting your gut and embracing the bumpy ride to the finish line. And then to take the time to look back after each achievement, and to be proud of what you’ve done, and of how you did it.

Aside from that, they’ll get raw honesty, humour and passion. They’ll laugh at my ineptitude and tales of adventure-disaster (of which there are many), and see that the road to success is littered with obstacles. Once you find the will to embrace each obstacle, to study is closely and to view it as an opportunity to learn and to grow – that’s when you become truly unstoppable.

If you could give businesses of any size a tip for 2016 what would it be?
Go in search of discomfort! Seek out new challenges as often as possible. Fear, nerves, failure, risk – a life in which these elements make a regular appearance is a life well lived.

What drives you as an adventurer to keep looking for your next big challenge?

Growth and perspective. Growth because adventures are always about putting myself in situations where I learn new things, about my body and my mind. We have a limitless capacity for change, and so I see my journeys as an opportunity to explore the ‘edges’, the parts of me that don’t get tested in everyday life. To some extent the challenge has to include a physical element – I’ve been active since I was a nipper so I can’t sit still, but really it’s the mental challenge of it all that fascinates me.

And perspective because adventures constantly remind me how vast and varied this planet is. Meeting so many new people reminds me that we all take different paths in life. Some of those paths come down to a conscious choice, and some of them, sadly, don’t. If we have the luxury of choice in any given situation, then we should exercise it boldly and wisely – grab life by the short n’ curly’s, and don’t look back.

Any further wisdom you would like to add . . .

Listen to every single part of yourself, and respect the ‘holy trinity’ of decision making; your head, your heart and your gut. I’m a woman who’s ruled by my head and my heart, and I often ignore what my gut is telling me. However, as I’m aware of it I try to make time and space to listen to my gut. Check in with each, and get all three in balance – and that’s the direction you should move in.