‘You don’t need muscles or good looks’

‘You don’t need muscles or good looks’


“The ninjas of the future,” says Bear Grylls, “are going to be those who can learn how to navigate the fear. It’s like a firefight. You can’t move backwards. You’ve got to move towards it, you know?”

Not really. But I’ve never been in a firefight. And if I saw one I doubt I’d move towards it. I’ve been raised in a mimsy, risk-averse country. Few of us have acquired the wild wisdom of Edward Michael “Bear” Grylls OBE. Unlike the 46-year-old TV adventurer, we have never simmered a sheep’s eyeball in geyser water, paused on Everest to reflect on the corpse of a late friend, wrestled snakes, outrun lions, or broken our backs parachuting. 

Grylls wants to change all that. He wants kids to embrace fear and risk. “If you meet somebody who says they don’t have fear, it means one of two things: one, they’re not telling the truth; or two, they’re not going for anything big enough in their life. What I’ve learned through many trips and many failures is that you have got to move towards the difficult stuff. And the irony is that the things we fear most often dissipate.”

Lockdown put paid to our plans to meet face to face in Hyde Park in London, where, ideally, we’d have bench-pressed each other naked and then cemented our relationship with sauteed police-horse testicles

There’s another irony. In the trailer for one of his new You vs Wild films for Netflix, we do actually see Grylls running for his life. He’s not so much moving towards the difficult stuff as exiting screen right pursued by a lion. The show’s interactive video-game conceit is that you the viewer choose what he should do next during a mission in the wild – for instance, dive under a truck or climb a tree to avoid becoming lion lunch. The choices are limited, though. When the series launched, in 2019, one reviewer found himself unable to feed Grylls to a crocodile, however much he tried.

Lockdown put paid to our plans to meet face to face in Hyde Park in London, where, ideally, we’d have bench-pressed each other naked and then cemented our relationship with sauteed police-horse testicles. Instead, we speak via a video call as Grylls is driven back from filming in the wild, or rather the English countryside.

The wild, he says, is a better teacher than any of the ones he had at Eton. “I wish I’d been taught the stuff that really matters. What I struggled with is that schools celebrate traditional heroes, whether sporty, academic or good-looking. Schools in general – Eton, American ones, state schools – celebrate these things and therefore teach you nothing about the real world, where rewards go to the resilient. You don’t need muscles or good looks.”

I wonder if Eton gave him a sense of superiority, arguably a key characteristic in Boris Johnson, the UK prime minister, a former pupil. “No, that’s not what I got from Eton. Listen, everyone’s experience of extreme places is different.” This is certainly an interesting way to describe the £42,501-a-year school.

“My thing is I came away with a real sense that friendship matters, and that I’m not as strong as I’m sometimes expected to be. I also came away with a willingness to go for things and follow my own path. I think Eton is pretty good at that – don’t be scared to pick the path less trodden.”

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