No excuses Nigel

Published in Collective Hub issue 30, February 2016, and online.

Author and ad exec Nigel Marsh says it's important to explore our capacity for courage. His idea for the perfect way to take a risk and break out of your comfort zone? A communal nude swim.

When was the last time you took a risk?

Not just reaching a little further in something you already do, but a real risk that tests the limits of your comfort zone. It’s something that Nigel Marsh – author of best-selling books Fat, Forty and Fired: The Year I Lost My Life and Got a JobOverworked and Underlaid: A Seriously Funny Guide to Life and Fit, Fifty and Fired Up – wants you to consider. 

“I believe life expands or contracts in direct proportion to your courage, and the magic happens outside of your comfort zone,” he says. “All the good things in life happen when we take a risk. Anything that really enlivens you and moves you forward involves a risk.” 

Having co-founded Earth Hour, had multiple stints as a CEO and racked up 25 years of branding and marketing experience, Nigel may sound like he is talking about reaching for the apex of your career. Far from it. When he unexpectedly lost his job at the age of 40, Nigel took a year-long sabbatical to take stock – and now he’s an evangelist for work-life balance, or just, as he likes to call it, balance.

“If you say ‘work-life balance’ it leads you into thinking it’s some pathetic, superficial plate-spinning exercise about leaving early so you can do yoga or golf,” he says. “If you say ‘balance’ it makes you actually think about constructing a life that you find meaningful. 'Work-life balance' suggests there are only two things in this world, which is bullsh*t, and that they're in opposition, which is also bullsh*t. I think the right type of work is great."

His TEDxSydney talk on the topic has surpassed 3 million views. In the video he prowls the stage, dropping truth bombs with the calm demeanour of a self-assured bigwig. On the phone, however, the English expat is full of beans, a total motormouth, almost manic with energy. 

“You’ll edit out the bad language, won’t you?” I say yes, but I mean maybe. 

“Am I sounding like a mad nutter?” Only in the best possible way. 

The thing Nigel gets the most worked up about is something called the Sydney Skinny. Once a year, he and his team cordon off Cobblers Beach at Middle Head in Sydney Harbour National Park and invite all to come jump in for a nude ocean swim. The first Sydney Skinny took place in 2013 with 700 people hitting the water. The 2015 event saw more than 1000 swimmers splash around in their birthday suits. The next Sydney Skinny is scheduled for February 28, and organisers are expecting up to 3000 swimmers, with proceeds from registration fees going to the McGrath Foundation and the Foundation for National Parks & Wildlife.

Nigel is quick to stress that the Sydney Skinny is not about exhibitionism – instead it’s a way to poke at the edges of your comfort zone and refresh your perspective on life. 

“It’s not about being seen nude or seeing people nude or convincing you to be nude on any other occasion in your entire life,” says Nigel. “It’s about humanity and joy and acceptance and attitude. It’s about courage and joyous circuit-breaking – it’s a brilliant laugh, but it’s about proper stuff. Once a year it’s a leveller. It’s difficult to be an arsehole if you’ve gone for a naked swim with 1500 other people.”

Even just the way you react to the idea of the Sydney Skinny can tell you a lot about your capacity for courage, Nigel adds. At one end of the spectrum there are the naturally adventurous folks who are happy to dive straight in. 

At the other end are those who just shut down at the very thought. 

“Your mental reaction is an indicator of your appetite for risk in other areas of your life – your sex life, your financial life, your social life,” says Nigel.

"The people who go 'Brilliant, sign me up' are welcome, but it's not for them. It's for the people who go, 'I couldn't possibly; I need three months to get in shape.' Because what you do is you get in the bloody water, you come out and no one gives a sh*t. It's liberating."

But before taking the plunge, swimmers can keep their kit on right up to the water’s edge, or even take it off once they’re submerged, and the minute you come out you’ll be handed a sarong so you can cover yourself up. There are strictly no onlookers allowed and photography is tightly controlled to ensure that nobody’s privacy is compromised. Water safety boats and lifesavers on rescue boards patrol the area. 

“Obviously a piano could fall on your head; I can’t guarantee everything. But we have bent over backwards to make sure it is exactly what we say it is,” says Nigel, adding that they’ve made it as easy to do as possible in flat water and some people even take flotation devices. 

“My mate Max is in a wheelchair. He can’t walk; he can’t swim. He’s lifted into the water  by his carers and floats around with a noodle. I’ve taken away all the excuses, apart from ‘I don’t want to do it, I don’t feel comfortable’. I know, that’s the point!” 

And that dip in the water can also be symbolic of a bigger life shift. At previous swims, two women who had mastectomies, said it was the first time they’d felt comfortable with themselves. Another woman flew from Seattle to use the event to mark a new chapter of her life after the death of her husband.

“There’s a wonderful baptismal vibe to it where you can project onto it any meaning that you want,” says Nigel. “It’s something you might do every year, just to keep yourself honest. When I’m at the beach and I’m dropping my kit and jumping in, I haven’t got all that armour; I’m not a CEO, I’m just a human being. 

“It’s just a loving, joyous, totally non-cynical event that makes the world slightly nicer, one swimmer at a time. There’s no downside. The worst that can happen is that you have a brilliant day and feel better about yourself. Oh my god, are you going to do it?” He was asking me.

Now I’m asking you. What’s your answer?