Curiosity & Discovery … Your Dream Job?

A Q&A with Tom Clynes by Nicklaus Suino

[Nicklaus Suino is a writer, entrepreneur, reformed attorney, and martial arts expert. His passion is helping people transform themselves through the pursuit of mastery. You can learn more about his work at nicklaus-suino.com]

My readers and students know that I’m deeply committed to understanding the mastery process and helping people leverage it to accomplish great things. As part of my own exploration of expertise, I find myself asking acknowledged masters not just what they do for a living, but why they do it, and how they’ve been changed by the process. Their answers are always interesting and inspiring, and often provide impactful lessons for others on a growth trajectory.

So I feel very lucky to be able to interview writer and photographer Tom Clynes. Tom travels the world covering science, the environment and education for publications like National Geographic, Nature, The New York Times and Popular Science, where he’s a contributing editor. His writing and photos have also appeared in The Atlantic, Newsweek, Scientific American, The Sunday Times Magazine (London), and many other publications. He’s the author of two books that should be on everybody’s bookshelves, Wild Planet and The Boy Who Played With Fusion.

As an adventure keynote speaker, Tom brings audiences along to some of the most dramatic and intriguing places on Earth. His keynote presentations combine his authentic personality with extraordinary stories and photos. Listeners are captivated and inspired. Readers of this interview will also be inspired by Tom’s journey from where he once was to where he is today, and how he’s changed along the way.

The Questions

Tom, from my vantage point here in the foothills of obscurity, it’s pretty cool to be able to interview somebody who’s made a career out of exploring exotic places, compiling stories, taking photos, and getting published in high-profile outlets like National Geographic, Nature, Popular Science, and The New York Times. When did it first occur to you that you wanted to write for publications like these? Can you describe your state of mind and your aspirations at that time?

I was one of those super-curious kids who always wanted to know what was going on in the world. That obsessive curiosity was, I think, at least partly a defense mechanism to counter the boredom of growing up in a declining factory town in the Midwest. But mostly, I just wanted to find out for myself what was going on out there.

And I wanted to tell people about it! Chasing the dream of combining travel with writing and photography, l sold my car just after university graduation and bought a one-way ticket to London. I worked in the UK as a microbrewer and a bookstore clerk, then I just kept going—through Europe then Latin America and the south Pacific.

Every so often I’d come back to work and save enough money to hit the road again. I picked up gigs writing advertising copy and speeches for automotive executives. But journalism proved very tough to break into. I spent some very frustrating years banging my head against closed doors, and I considered giving up more than once. But I realized that I wasn’t going to improve the world (or any small part of it) if I kept spending my time helping to sell more Chryslers. So I dropped the business writing and committed full-time to journalism.

On the Snake River, Yukon Territory, Canada (Photo: Peter Mather)

And when did you know you could actually make a career out of writing and shooting photos for major magazines, that editors would actually answer your calls and assign you stories that bring you to places like central Africa or the Yukon or Komodo Island?

Well, no one was picking up the phone or sending me anyplace at first! The problem was partly that I didn’t know anyone in the industry—but mostly I just didn’t know what I was doing.

It took five years of mostly speculative work, writing and shooting stories for publications that paid almost nothing, before I started to master the craft and to build my reputation as a writer and photojournalist. Eventually, people began to take notice, and a few high-profile stories led to opportunities with more and more prestigious publications.

You’ve worked for National Geographic and other publications as both a professional writer and a professional photographer. Sometimes you shoot a story, sometimes you write it, sometimes you do both. How common is that combination?

It’s not common at all. That probably has less to do with any special talents I might have and more to do with the fact that trying to do both well can be incredibly nerve-wracking. At root they are both forms of storytelling. But a photographer needs to approach reporting in a very different way than a writer would.

In the field, a photojournalist needs to be “on” when the moment calls; if you miss it you may not have another chance. Writers of long-form journalism can often fill in some of the blanks before and after the fieldwork—in fact, it sometimes serves a story to be more laid back, to give relationships with sources time to develop.

Trying to get both words and pictures right—especially when you’re dealing with tight deadlines and challenging people or places—can really pushes the limits of cognitive capacity. And in some situations you literally don’t have enough hands to shoot and take notes at the same time. Teaming up with a top-notch writer or photographer can be a whole lot of fun.

Is it more appropriate to call you a “National Geographic photographer,” a “National Geographic writer,” a “National Geographic speaker,” or something else entirely?

I think of myself as roughly two-thirds writer, but it varies from year to year. I should mention that National Geographic photographers and writers work mainly on a freelance basis; we’re all independent. Likewise with National Geographic speakers. The days when magazines had photographers and writers on staff are mostly bygone.

Do you mind sharing how your journalistic endeavors evolved into your role as a National Geographic keynote speaker? I mean, there are a lot of writers and photographers who aren’t particularly good at public speaking. You must have had a moment in which you realized you were good at giving keynote presentations and liked it enough to keep at it. Could you talk about that evolution?

As a form of storytelling, the spoken word is the most immediately gratifying; it’s fantastic to see faces lighting up when you hit a note that really connects. But getting up in front of an audience didn’t come easily at first.

One thing that helped me get beyond my self-consciousness was that I have a pretty deep well of compelling stories and pictures to draw on. When I move the focus away from myself and just tell (and show) the story I can get into a sort of flow state that’s just amazing…and contagious. After my talks people will approach me and tell me that the presentation was a turning point that inspired them to take their lives in bold new directions. I’ve stayed in touch with several who are now doing some really important and impressive work.

I’ve read many of your stories, and you largely manage to keep yourself out of them…you’re a storyteller rather than a character in your own writing and keynote stories. But I have a deep curiosity about your experiences in traveling, taking photos, and writing. How do you balance what’s going on in your own interior landscape against the need to tell a story from a more detached point of view? Can you talk about that?

I don’t think my own story is nearly as interesting as the story of, say, the doctor who’s trying to stop an Ebola outbreak, or the conservationist who’s dodging bullets to save the animals in the Baghdad Zoo. Those sorts of stories are well suited to the style of reporting I’ve developed over the years, in which I set myself up as part participant, part fly on the wall. It’s definitely “immersion journalism,” but I’m most concerned with how and why an experience matters to the reader, not the writer. During Q&A sessions people usually want to know more about my own feelings and reactions, which I’m glad to share. But for the most part, it’s not about me.

You’re able to have experiences and create things that other people consider extraordinary. What’s the experience of expertise like for you? Does it feel ordinary because it’s just part of the life you’ve built, or are you sometimes able to appreciate the incredible progress you’ve made as a journalist, writer, and adventure speaker?

I have a life that’s rich in experience and non monetary rewards. Every major story is like starting a new career from scratch, and there’s tremendous freedom. Sometimes it feels quite ordinary, though, and sometimes I wish it could be more ordinary. There are moments when I’d love to have a job with health insurance and a guy with a ponytail to come down from IT and fix my computer.

Then again, my experience with getting into and out of challenging situations—say, negotiating through a roadblock staffed with skittish teenage soldiers—has given me a lot of confidence that I don’t think I’d be able to get in other ways. The frustrations can be pretty extravagant, but they’re balanced out by those “pinch me” moments when I feel like the luckiest guy on Earth. I had one recently in Guatemala, after I’d helicoptered into the middle of the jungle and was crawling around inside the ruins of a Mayan palace with the archaeologist who’d just discovered it. I don’t mind discomfort and deprivation if it allows me to experience something interesting or beautiful.

I feel incredibly fortunate that I’ve been able to build this kind of career, that I have this freedom, that I get to explore and discover things that matter to me and share them with the world through words and pictures.

May I ask if you work from passion, from discipline, or a mix of the two? Do you have any advice for others aspiring to excel, on either or both of those sources of accomplishment?

It always starts with passion. Then, if an idea is going to become more than just an idea, discipline has to come in. I hear older people advising young people to “Do what you love” and “Chase your dreams.” But they leave out the most important part: If you want to succeed at doing what you love and actually catch those dreams, you’re going to have to be incredibly rigorous and tenacious.

How does offering yourself to groups as a National Geographic photographer and keynote speaker work? What is it about you sharing your stories and photos in keynote presentations that helps these organizations thrive? If an organization brings in an adventure keynote speaker like you to inspire their team, where’s the payoff? How does the inspiration and energy turn into palpable benefits for them?

To me, the terms “motivational speaker” or “inspirational speaker” carry connotations of something cheesy and vacuous. Do my talks inspire? Yes! They also entertain and challenge and open up thinking—but in an authentic way. I use real stories and pictures to bring audiences along “on assignment” with me to exotic and intriguing places. They meet real people—explorers, conservationists, archaeologists, virus hunters, Ebola doctors—who shaped their lives into extraordinary, world-changing adventures. They discover how these heroic people did it, why they did it, and why the world needs all of us to pursue what we really care about.

The programs I’ve developed have proven particularly useful for organizations that want to catalyze creativity and stimulate engagement at the beginning of an important gathering. I work with my clients to customize a program that supports the event’s goals and moves their constituents forward into the rest of the meeting with an anything-is-possible mindset that can generate extraordinary results.

Is what drives you at this point in your career very different than what drove you in the beginning, when you were first falling in love with the possibilities of storytelling?

For me, it’s still fundamentally about curiosity. I’m curious about everything and everyone, and I think I’m stuck with that. No matter how much I read or see on a screen, I don’t think I’ll be truly well-informed if I’m seeing the world mainly through other people’s filters. I believe that it’s intrinsically worthwhile to venture out and discover, for myself, what’s happening out there.

Yukon: Canada’s Wild West

By Tom Clynes

Author’s Note: The Yukon, with its brawling, big-mountain physicality, is one of those places that tugs on adventurous imaginations. It’s also one of those places that tends to draw passionate people with passionate opinions. The debates that have overtaken Canada’s Far North are emblematic of the tension that runs through many of the world’s still-unspoiled places—between those who would keep it wild, and those whose success depends on digging it up.

As it turned out, this National Geographic feature would be one of the most rugged and most fun assignments I’ve ever experienced. Over three weeks I explored high ridges with gold prospectors, paddled through impossibly beautiful Arctic valleys with conservationists, and hunted caribou with some of the last hunter-gatherers on the continent. I came back with mountains of material—enough notes and photographs to fortify four magazine stories (including this one) and enliven plenty of keynote talks. As for the debate over the future of the northern wildlands, it is still far from settled.


Shawn Ryan recalls the hungry years, before his first big strike.

The prospector and his family were living in a metal shack on the outskirts of Dawson, the Klondike boomtown that had declined to a ghostly remnant of its glory days. They had less
than $300 and no running water or electricity. One night, as wind sneaked through gaps in the cladding, Ryan’s wife, Cathy Wood, worried aloud that their two children might even freeze to death.

Today the couple could buy—and heat—just about any house on Earth. Ryan’s discovery of what would eventually amount to billions of dollars’ worth of buried treasure has helped reinfect the Yukon with gold fever, and fortune seekers have stormed the Canadian territory in numbers not seen since the 1890s.

The minerals rush has reanimated Dawson’s weather-tilted bars and bunkhouses, whose facades glow in pastel hues during midsummer’s late-night sunset. The scene could be from more than a century ago, with bearded men bustling along wooden sidewalks and muddy streets, hooting and trading rumors of the latest strikes and price spikes. Inside Diamond Tooth Gerties casino, miners mingle with tourists and cancan girls, thronging four deep around beer taps and poker tables.

Read the entire story here. 


Author, photojournalist and adventure speaker Tom Clynes travels the world covering the adventurous sides of science, the environment and education. His work appears in publications such as National Geographic, The New York Times, Nature, Popular Science and The Atlantic. As a keynote speaker, Tom inspires audiences and brings them along on assignment to fascinating locations around the globe. Whether your group or organization is in search of adventure speakers, environmental speakers or your own in-house “National Geographic speaker series,” Tom’s presentations will earn high praise. To contact Tom and find out more about his memorable and inspiring programs, email info@tomclynes.com.

The Virus Hunter

By Tom Clynes

Author’s note: I often include this story in my keynote presentations. In terms of intrigue, it’s got just about everything: an exotic location, scary diseases and a protagonist whose efforts may very well prevent the next smallpox or Ebola from gaining a foothold in human bloodstreams.

On my journey with Nathan Wolfe and his team into the very jungle that produced the HIV virus, I could see how logging and bush-meat hunting is bringing humans deeper into once-isolated regions that have a history of spawning deadly pandemics. Meanwhile, society has stacked the decks in favor of opportunistic microbes, with our closely packed cities, our changing climate and our growing numbers of elderly.

Like many of the world-changers I’ve met, Wolfe has the conviction and tenacity to follow through in the face of challenges that would turn back most others. This is one of the most logistically challenging environments on earth, but as Wolfe tells his team, “If nothing is going wrong, it means we’re not asking tough enough questions.”

 


HIV, Ebola, and the vast majority of other killer diseases have passed from animals to humans. Virologist Nathan Wolfe is searching for the next AIDS before it makes the leap — and is revolutionizing the way the world tries to control diseases in the process.

It’s nearly midday when Brice Bidja steps out of the tangled forest surrounding the African village of Messok in southeastern Cameroon, gripping a Russian 12-gauge shotgun in one hand and the limp body of a mustached monkey in the other. Bidja usually returns alone after his hunts, but on this morning a handful of foreigners tags along with him as he approaches his mud-brick hut. Among the researchers, logisticians, and documentarians is American virologist Nathan Wolfe.

Wolfe stands just outside as the others duck through the low doorway; inside, the glare of the tropical sun gives way to a reddish glow of firelight on the faces of Bidja’s wife Sandrine and their two small children. Bidja sets the monkey down on a palm frond and pulls out a sheet of filter paper provided by Wolfe’s organization, the Global Viral Forecasting Initiative (GVFI). Sandrine crouches and picks up a machete, then slices off one of the animal’s front legs and holds it over the paper, aiming the dripping blood at five printed circles. Once the targets are saturated, the hunter tucks the blood sample into a ziplock bag filled with silica gel packets and hands the bag to one of Wolfe’s colleagues. The group will run tests later to see if the animal that Bidja and his family would soon devour is infected with a particularly nasty virus that could jump to humans, ultimately becoming the next deadly pandemic.

Sandrine thrusts the monkey’s leg into the flames, perfuming the hut with burnt hair and skin. She sets it aside and continues the butchery as the foreigners come in closer with their cameras and notepads, documenting the blade’s passage through legs and tail and neck. At the doorway, Bidja chats with Wolfe, their simple French mixing with the sounds of splitting bones and separating tendons. Sandrine begins to open the monkey’s rib cage with sharp hacks of her machete, each of which unleashes a fine spray of blood. It’s too much for one of the visitors, who darts outside and makes a panicked reach into her backpack, pulling out a bottle of antibiotic gel.

“Oh good, you brought hand sanitizer,” Wolfe says, exaggerating a stifled smirk. “That’ll protect you, don’t worry.”

Children in southeastern Cameroon play with organs of a mustached monkey, recently hunted and butchered for the family dinner. Virologists analyze blood samples from animals like this, and from human hunters, to detect and prevent outbreaks of any viruses which might be transferred from animals to humans.

Meanwhile, Sandrine uses a smaller knife to finish readying every part of the money, except the entrails, for her family’s use. Seeing the children growing restless, she reaches into the animal’s chest cavity and cuts out its heart and liver. She tosses the floppy organs to the kids, who roll them in their hands like Silly Putty, showing them proudly to Wolfe.

Solidly built, with curly hair and plump, whiskered cheeks, Wolfe, 38, is at the muddy-boots vanguard of an ambitious movement that seeks to shift the way the world approaches disease control, from containing outbreaks to launching preemptive strikes against emerging viruses. “If we look at AIDS or smallpox or Ebola, or any of the really bad shit that has emerged over the past century,” says Wolfe, “the vast majority of these pathogens passed from animals to us. What we’re trying to do now is get upstream, way upstream, and catch the next HIV before it can explode into a killer pandemic.”

Read the entire story here.


Author, photojournalist and keynote environmental speaker Tom Clynes travels the world covering the adventurous sides of science, the environment and education. His work appears in publications such as National Geographic, The New York Times, Nature, Popular Science, and The Atlantic. As a keynote speaker, Tom inspires audiences and brings them along “on assignment” to fascinating locations around the globe. Whether your group or organization is in search of adventure speakers, environmental speakers or your own in-house “National Geographic speaker series,” Tom’s presentations will earn high praise. To contact Tom and find out more about his memorable and inspiring programs, email info[at]tomclynes.com.

How Can 6 Million Acres at Denali Still Not Be Enough?

By Tom Clynes

Author’s Note: After a half-year of brainstorming about National Geographic Magazine’s yearlong celebration of America’s national parks, the magazine’s editors offered me the pick of the litter.

The choice was easy. Denali National Park, the crown jewel of America’s park system, offered a range of possibilities broad enough to be a world unto itself. It also offered some formidable challenges. I quickly realized that the normal conventions of outdoor reporting wouldn’t cut it in this vast wilderness, which is cut by only one 92-mile-long road.

I would spend a total of five weeks walking, skiing, flying and dog-sledding through the park’s spectacular terrain, during the extremes of the Alaskan winter and summer. These explorations yielded enough stories and images and controversies to fill dozens notebooks and photo data cards.

In the end, only a small fraction of this material fit into NatGeo’s 28-page feature, leaving plenty of adventures to share for the first time with audiences at my upcoming talks and presentations.


Denali: The icon of Alaska’s wilderness symbolizes the tension between preservation and use at U.S. national parks.

PARK RANGERS here call the high season—from June through early September, when Denali National Park and Preserve hosts the majority of its 500,000 annual visitors—the “hundred days of chaos.” Indeed a midsummer morning at the park’s Wilderness Access Center, located at the start of Denali’s fabled 92-mile-long Park Road, can feel a bit like rush hour at Manhattan’s Port Authority Bus Terminal. Loudspeakers announce bus boarding times, and visitors from many nations crowd the ticket counter.

Most of Denali’s visitors are cruise ship passengers who see the park and its prolific wildlife largely through bus windows. “But if you’re seeking solitude, it’s not hard to find,” says ranger Sarah Hayes, who helps backpackers and hikers prepare for their adventures. “We’ve got six million acres of mostly trailless lands where wild animals roam undisturbed. And it’s accessible to anyone who hops off the bus.”

As my bus rolls out, noses press against windows, hands clutch cameras, and people speaking half a dozen different tongues excitedly speculate about wildlife sightings. I ask several passengers what’s on their wish list. “A moose!” “A grizzly!” “Caribou!” “A wolf!”

At the five-mile mark we spot our first animal. “Squirrel!” a kid yells, bringing the bus to laughter. After the 15-mile mark, the road turns to dirt and empties of cars. A few miles farther along the trees disappear. As the distant peaks of the Alaska Range come into view, the scale of this kingdom of nature becomes apparent. The driver slows down.

“It’s been hiding for two weeks now,” he says, wheeling the vehicle through a tight turn. “But there’s a pretty good chance that today …” As the towering mountain comes into hazy view, a dozen voices sing out, “Denali!”

Rising 20,310 feet above sea level, North America’s tallest peak is a stunning sight, although in warm weather its slopes are often shrouded in clouds. The mountain was a big part of the legend and lore of the Athabaskan-speaking people who gave it the name Denali, meaning Tall One. In 1896 gold prospector William Dickey renamed it Mount McKinley in honor of Ohio politician William McKinley, a staunch champion of the gold standard who one year later would become the nation’s 25th president. For decades Ohio’s congressional delegation successfully blocked attempts to rename the mountain. Then last summer the Obama Administration used its executive power to restore the original name.

Seeing the mountain, spotting a grizzly, or catching a glimpse of a wolf are the top three reasons people give for coming to Denali. As recently as 2010, a visitor stood a better chance of seeing a wolf in the wild than seeing the elusive Tall One, which is visible on just one in three summer days. But since 2010 the number of wolf sightings has plunged. According to a study of wildlife viewing opportunities along the Park Road, observers recorded wolf sightings on only 6 percent of trips in 2014—down from 45 percent in 2010. Park biologists report that the number of wolves inside the park has dropped from more than 100 a decade ago to fewer than 50 last year. I came to Denali, in part, to discover why.

Read the entire story here.


Author, photojournalist and keynote adventure speaker Tom Clynes travels the world covering the adventurous sides of science, the environment and education. His work appears in publications such as National Geographic, The New York Times, Nature, Popular Science, and The Atlantic. As a keynote speaker, Tom inspires audiences and brings them along “on assignment” to fascinating locations around the globe. Whether your group or organization is in search of adventure speakers, environmental speakers or your own in-house “National Geographic speaker series,” Tom’s presentations will earn high praise. To contact Tom and find out more about his memorable and inspiring programs, email info[at]tomclynes.com.