Why are we doing, what we're doing? | VarnFest '23

Dan Collins at VarnFest 23

"Why are we doing, what we're doing?"

Dan Collins' Talk at VarnFest 23

Dan Collins created one of largest outdoor pursuits companies in the UK, specialising in experiential leadership & team development working with businesses such as Innocent Smoothies. He is a prolific businessman, conference organiser and a facilitator of adventurous conversations.

After much life reflection, Dan has pondered on some of the reasons business leaders make the decisions they do and also if leaders are actually leading in the best direction.

At VarnFest 23, Dan asked the audience to ask themselves some important life and business questions, to both inspire self-awareness and to harvest wisdom from the crowd of experienced business founders, owners and Directors…




Why are we doing, what we’re doing?


Dan explained at VarnFest the value of learning through questions…


“The things I have learned have not always been from what people have told me, but when someone asked me a question. I’ve often reflected on that question, and it has changed the trajectory of my life, my career and my businesses.”


Bee and trail


For Dan, his life has changed direction sharply when confronted with provocative perspectives and new thinking to the point he calls it a ‘shockwave’ moment in his life.


“Whilst you may think you have worked out answers about your direction, be prepared to have an open mind and think differently about the response you might give to a self-analysing question.

Have an open mind, as minds are like parachutes, they work better when they are open. There are no right or wrong answers to the questions I am going to pose, just YOUR answers.” 


Dan Collins talking at VarnFest 23


"Some Challenging Questions"

Here we share the questions Dan posed at VarnFest and some of the answers that our audience were happy to share…



QUESTION 1: What is success for you? 


“A definition of success is unique and probably changes over time. To begin with, it can be status and money-driven and then it changes to other kinds of happiness around family and friends.”


“Being authentically yourself, and not being something that you are made to feel you have to be.”


Bee and trail


QUESTION 2: What would you tell your grandchild about becoming successful?


“I started thinking about encouraging success in terms of a job and career role but then realised I needed to talk about encouraging and focusing on them and their values. Sometimes it’s true that you just have to work hard to pay bills but you want them to be happy with their decisions.”


“Nobody says to their grandchildren or on the deathbed: ‘I wish I had spent more time in the office.’”



A warning from the fates of the greats


For Dan, chasing power and wealth alone is not always advisable. To make the point, he recounts an infamous cautionary tale around a speculated meeting of several of the world’s most successful tycoons, in the Edgewater Beach Hotel in Chicago in 1923. Some of the attendees included names like Howard Hopson who was the President of Associated Gas and Electric Company (AGECO) one of the largest utility holding companies, Richard Whitney – President of the New York Stock Exchange and Charles Schwab who was President of Bethlehem Steel, one of the largest independent steel companies. Some 27 years later, their surprising fates were revealed. 

Howard Hopson had been sentenced to five years in prison on seventeen counts of mail fraud for cheating investors out of $20 million, and later he was sentenced to two more years for income tax evasion. After a decline in physical and psychological health, he died in a mental institution. Richard Whitney was accused of embezzlement and sentenced to five years in Sing Sing prison and finally, Charles Schwab, was said to live his last miserable years on borrowed money with an insolvent estate and debts to the tune of $1.7 million.


“This was like the Dragon’s Den line-up of the time. What we perceive as success now isn’t always the success we sought, in the end.

So, my next question for you is, is simply a provocative question…”


Bee and trail


QUESTION 3: Imagine that your death is fifteen years from now. What plan would you make, if that were the case?


The VarnFest audience were quiet and very reflective with this question. It’s a question that caused people to look carefully at their own values and goals with maybe a slightly different lens to normal! Many of our audience kept their own thoughts on this question private but one member of the audience was willing to share their insight that emerged from being asked this question. Their response was…


“Definitely relax more, and not sweat the little things.”


The question of growth


Dan mentioned that companies chase growth to become bigger, spread out, hire more people and sell more goods and services, and also use more resources. However, he posed the question, it this really the best way forward? Often growth can be clumsy. Dan highlights Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter where he instantly downsized it dramatically to keep it efficient, as if it were too cumbersome to support itself as a business.


“A business can be full of fat and surplus which is the premise for my next question. Is there an argument that says you don’t have to grow?” 


QUESTION 4: As a business, why grow?


“I’ve been on courses where you are told you must grow and grow, it’s that investor model where you are advised to grow by 100 or 200 percent. There is almost something Darwinian about it, programmed into humans psychologically, that says we must grow and compete. To me, it’s about nurturing businesses instead of just saying grow, grow, grow…”


“There is an idea that perpetual growth is completely unsustainable for the planet and therefore why do we base all of our success on continued growth? It argues we should have a better model to measure our success. The concept is to make sure everyone has enough to live well and that you use resources properly, so you don’t grow so much that you use too many resources. So, make sure your people are looked after but don’t keep aiming to scale.”


“Investors demand returns, so if you borrow you are expected to grow for RoI. There is also a fear factor that if we do not grow our business, someone else will grow their business and steal our customers and livelihood. If you grow your business, you are also growing your wealth which gives you more choices.”


“We are in nature and everything in nature grows. There is value in growing, including growing your mindset and you want people in your team to have opportunities to grow. I think increasing shareholder value quarter after quarter is flawed but growing as a concept is fundamental to nature.”


“Thriving can be better than growth. You can grow without spreading out to consume extra resources.”


Bee and trail


QUESTION 5: What imprint would you like to leave on ‘your tribe’? What do you need to achieve that imprint?


Dan’s final question was about community and a person’s sense of self-belonging within that. It is based on the idea of being in a tribe. “By tribe,” defines Dan, “That could be family, friends, work colleagues or the whole world.” A wonderful answer from our VarnFest audience to this profound question was…


“To be remembered for supporting people, for being there when needed.”



5 Takeaways from VarnFest Talks


1. Know what success means

This is your personal concept of success, not what others expect or project on you.



2. Don’t grow for growing’s sake

Think about how and why you are chasing growth. Is it sustainable and making the business (and you) healthier?


3. Live life like it will end one day

Time is short. You only get one life, so make sure you plan well for what you want.



4. Plan how you will be remembered 

Understand what is important about you that you want to impress on people you care about.



5. Always think ‘why?’

Why are you doing what you do, are you happy with your direction?

Do you want to find out more about VarnFest events?

If you are looking to be inspired and connect with other business leaders at our woodland business festival in 2024, or have a thought provoking idea for a talk at our next VarnFest event, get in touch with us.

VarnFest Event 2023. The woodland business festival leadership event at Varn's outdoor woodland office featuring Tom Vaughton, Dan Collins and Rebecca Morely

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