Between October and December 2003, I worked on a project studying a wild population of Soay sheep on an island in the St Kilda archipelago, 120 miles off the Scottish mainland.
The only other people with us few sheep researchers on the island were some contractors operating a radar station for the British Ministry of Defense.
To avoid boredom, the contractors entertained themselves with alcohol, billiards and creative pub games. One of these games they promised to play with me was the Coffin Challenge…
One evening after a tough day following sheep in the rain, I went to the island’s pub, The Puff Inn, to lift my spirits with some pints of Guinness.
Kevin, the handyman on the base, is kneeling inside a large black coffin suspended between two chairs with a metal rod.
On the ground, on either side of the coffin, are three yellow Tenants beer cans spaced along the coffin’s length.
Kevin attempts to flick a beer mat off the top of each beer can using a short wooden paddle. He wobbles, trying to keep his balance as the coffin sways side to side on the pole.
He tips the beer mat off each can and cheers at his own success. His mate prepares the next round by moving the cans so they’re further away from Kevin. Kevin manages a few rounds until he loses his balance, tips out the coffin, and slams onto the thin green rug on the floor.
“Your turn David, see if you can do better,” Kevin says.
I strap the white crash helmet around my chin and gingerly step into and then kneel in the coffin while Kevin gives me the wooden paddle.
The first couple of rounds are simple. I gently flick the beer mat from each of the empty Tenants cans. Kevin places the cans further away with each round, forcing me to stretch forward and backwards off balance.
I take my time, moving slowly, adjusting my centre of gravity, and completing another two rounds relatively easily.
“You’re about to break Lenny’s record!” the barman shouts. Kevin doesn’t look happy with me.
All the muscles in my body are now twitching, making micro-adjustments to keep me from spinning out the coffin. I just manage to finish the 6th round. The cans and beer mats are now so far away I need a full stretch with the paddle to reach them.
Kevin and Lenny glare at me while I manage to successfully tip another beer mat from a can. And another… And another…
As I start the record-breaking 7th round, the guys in the pub start taunting me with sheep jokes and nicknames.
“Sheep sha%$er,” Kevin growls. I tightened my grip on the wooden paddle and as my knuckles turned white, I hit the beer mat straight off the top of the next can and towards Kevin’s face.
When they see their insults aren’t stopping me, Martin, another of the contractors living on the island, grabs the back of the coffin and rocks it attempting to unbalance me. I manage only one more beer mat before I capsize slamming into the floor and then falling back to bang my head on the side of the coffin. Martin, Kevin and Lenny cheer my failure.
I glare at Martin and want to smash him in the face with the wooden paddle. But there’s not much I can say or do. It’s me against a pub full of drunk guys.
I’d beaten Lenny’s record and it was clear the guys didn’t want me – a sheepie – to smash it.
The reaction of the contractors to my success in the Coffin Challenge reminded me how envious and jealous people can sabotage our efforts – even when we’re supposed to be having fun.
Some people don’t want us to succeed. And they’ll do anything to stop us or get in our way. They’ll attempt to topple our confidence with negative, snide or snarky comments. I couldn’t ignore the insults hurled at me but focussing on the game, tipping one beer mat after another, stopped me from being deeply hurt by them. Instead, I channeled that anger and focussed that on flipping beer mats.
I was also part of the sheep research team, so my fellow sheepies were cheering me on during the game – which helped immensely.
When I’m developing a new idea into a project, and as the naysayers are shooting my ideas down, I know there are always as many people to cheer me on, as to tear me down.
Most people I’ve met haven’t been as aggressive as the contractors in hating on my ideas and success. And on the contrary I’ve been lucky to be surrounded by my supportive family and friends. But when there isn’t anyone in my corner, I’ll make sure I’m there, ready and eager to encourage myself.