Mark Pollock @ The 2018 GEB Network Conference

November 2018

The future is uncertain.
Thanks to our personal strengths and the support of others, we can achieve great things.
#aboutpartnership #successtogether

This represented the overriding message for the audience at this year’s GEB Network Conference during a moving, humbling and truly inspirational talk. And it’s a message that couldn’t be more relevant to the Network.

We also caught up with Mark for an exclusive interview, more of which later.

Unbroken by blindness in 1998, Mark went on to compete in ultra endurance races across deserts, mountains, and the polar ice caps including being the first blind person to race to the South Pole. He also won silver and bronze medals for rowing at the Commonwealth Games.

In 2010, he was left paralysed after falling from a second story window. He is now exploring the intersection where humans and technology collide, and catalysing collaborations that have never been done before. Through the Mark Pollock Trust he is unlocking $1 billion to cure paralysis in our lifetime.

What’s more, he is the subject of the acclaimed documentary called unbreakable, is a TED, Davos and Wired speaker and is co-founder of the global running series called Run in the Dark.

“Sometimes we choose our challenges. Sometimes they choose us. It’s what we decide to do about them that counts,” said Mark as he opened his presentation to the audience.

Mark took everyone through his three main guiding principles – or choices – in life:

1. Spectator or competitor?
Mark explains that in 1998 he was studying for a business studies and economics degree and wanted to be an investment banker. He was also a sportsman, rowing for his University and for his home country Ireland. In the spring of that year he lost his sight due to detached retinas. “I immediately lost my identity. My plans for the future were temporarily on hold,” says Mark.

However, over the following 10 years he created a new identity. To start with, he got a guide dog and a talking phone to help ensure his independence. Later, still driven by a desire to compete, he became an adventure athlete. “I created a new identity and felt able to compete at the same level as before my sight loss.

“When I first went blind I feared that I would have to sit on the sidelines as a reluctant spectator. But I realised that it didn’t have to be that way. I simply had to decide to be a competitor again which was about my mindset.”

2. Acceptance or hope?
“After paralysis I was in a dark place for a long time,” says Mark describing the months he spent in hospital and the following years. A dawning moment for him came when he wrote a blog entitled ‘Optimist, realist or something else’.

“I wrote the blog in an attempt to explore how we should approach circumstances we cannot necessarily change.

“I discovered that optimists rely on hope alone and that’s a risky place to be, in that you risk disappointment if the best case scenario doesn’t play out.

“Realists confront the brutal facts of their current reality while maintaining a faith that they will prevail in the end. This is a liberating place. Realists have sorted out the tension between acceptance and hope by running in parallel.”

3. Soloists or collaborators?
“Up to this point in history it has proven to be impossible to find a cure for paralysis.” says Mark. “Yet history is filled with accounts of the impossible made possible through human endeavor. Just think about polar exploration and space travel. Why can’t that same human endeavor find a cure for paralysis in our lifetime?

“The challenge now is to connect the physical exercise experts with the robotics guys and also the scientists. They’re all aware of each other’s existence but they don’t have the time or space to look sideways and collaborate.

“Making those connections seemed to be where we could contribute. So, in 2014 we connected a group of scientists in UCLA who were electronically stimulating the spinal cord to allow for voluntary movement with a group of robotics specialists at Ekso Bionics. And, after 3 months in the lab we proved that voluntary movement increased over time, as I did more with my own legs the robot did less.

“The question was how were we going to galvanise a disparate group of people around a common goal? And, for that we need to have a broader vision, we need to agree on what we’re doing in the first place. For us it is to cure paralysis in our lifetime.”

Exclusive interview with Mark

Before he spoke to the audience, we caught up with Mark one-to-one to learn more about what motivates him. “I don’t just breeze through challenges,” he says. “Like anyone else, I start with an emotional response, but then I suppose I move rapidly to looking at the facts: the things we can control. The foundation of everything is dealing in facts.

“In the aftermath of the accident, however, I also learnt that there’s a strength in the emotional response. It leads to passion, which leads to drive. If all we deal with is facts, it’s a grey world.

But Mark’s challenges aren’t akin to most people’s challenges. So what advice can he give for dealing with very complex problems.

“I’m driven by looking at ‘why’ we do what we do. I read ‘Man’s search for meaning’ by Viktor Frankl, which chronicles his experiences as a concentration camp inmate during World War II. He studied his own response to this challenge, which led to a deep understanding of finding meaning in what he did.

“In the book he quotes Nietzsche – “He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How”. In other words, if you know ‘why’ you’re doing what you’re doing, you can put up with the tough stuff.

What can we take from Mark’s experiences in terms of the Network?

“I’m currently reading ‘New Power’ by Heimans and Timms. It contrasts traditional organisations like the Bank of England with movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo: old values versus new values and everything inbetween.

“If an organisation is run as an old style institution, with the core dictating how it’s going to be, independent entrepreneurs within the Network are unlikely to feel part of something bigger.

“The question is, can organisations operate like grassroots movements? If you have the guiding principles focused on collaboration with room for both the core and the Network Partners, then we can probably develop the best of both worlds. Everyone needs to get something out of the relationship so that everyone benefits from being part of something bigger.”