How Can I Introduce Adventure Into My Everyday Life?

About this time of year, back in 2012, I was training for an expedition to the South Pole. We’d been working towards it for five years – preparing, planning, training, dreaming. I was stronger than I had ever been in my life. It was going to be a hell of an adventure. Exciting times!

And then our funding deadline arrived. We had failed to secure enough sponsorship. The expedition was off. We had failed.

I spent the next week in the pub feeling sorry for myself. We had all put so much into this, put our lives and ambitions on hold in pursuit of this one dream. We had failed. It was so unfair. Why wouldn’t someone give me £1000000 of their hard-earned money to go on a chilly camping holiday to the South Pole? And what the hell was I going to do with myself now, my diary totally empty stretching for months off into the distance?

Here’s what I was going to do, I realised, in a moment of clarity as I drained an inappropriately-early-in-the-day pint of lager. I was going to stop feeling sorry for myself. I was going to stop blaming the world. I was going to take responsibility and control of my adventures rather than waiting for some mystery angel investor to swoop down, give me a load of money, and make my dreams come true. I was going to see an empty diary as a wonderful opportunity, and I was going to make shit happen.

Six weeks later, instead of beginning hauling a stupidly heavy sledge through a vast, inhospitable wasteland in Antarctica, I began hauling a stupidly heavy cart through a vast, inhospitable wasteland in Arabia instead. Ever since I first read about the adventures of Wilfred Thesiger a dozen years earlier I had wanted to make a journey of my own, in his footsteps, into the Empty Quarter desert. After waiting 12 years, I now made it happen in just six weeks. How did I do this?

I did it by committing to it. I blocked the dates off in my diary. I recruited someone to come with me. I didn’t really know the guy, Leon, though we would become good friends. It was enough for me at the time that his reputation suggested he was competent to handle what the trip demanded of him, that he was filled with enthusiasm to make this happen, and that he was willing to commit to begin – now – despite neither of us knowing what needed to be done.

We bought flights: the important symbolic and financial act of commitment that forces you into action. We prepared, trained, learned as best we could before this too-soon-but-set-in-stone departure date. And then we began. It was a rush, certainly, but there will never be a perfect time.

The beginning was a farce – of course. This is what happens when you get going before you are ready. Our homemade desert cart, laden with 300kg of water and supplies, was useless: I had neglected to include a steering mechanism in the design. It went only in a straight line.

But it didn’t matter too much. We found experts who could help us. You always find experts willing to help you if only you can demonstrate that you are committed, passionate, and determined. Our experts were a bunch of borderline illegal immigrant welders from across Asia who welded, whacked and improvised our desert cart into something that might just make it across the desert to Dubai. Whether you operate in the worlds of Minimal Viable Products, the concept of Shipping Early, or merely making a shit cart to haul across a hot desert because it makes you feel alive, the principal remains the same. Commit. Begin.

Our DIY desert adventure was seemingly a world away from the original South Pole journey. There were fewer penguins. There was less money too: £1000000 of corporate sponsorship versus two thousand quid of our own earned cash. There was no glossy website or press release, no social media strategy or world first record.

But here’s what did remain in this new and very different expedition: there were all the core ingredients that initially provoked me into committing five years of my life trying to get to the South Pole. There was a bloody hard challenge, a journey in the footsteps of a hero, in a land I would never otherwise experience. There was mutual respect, empathy and friendship. And there was a good story and great memories. And so, although there was a massive turn of direction from my initial goal, although the replacement adventure was rather rushed, budget, amateur and improvised, it turned out to be everything that I wanted.

Into the empty quarter

It’s funny how things that seem so very different often have much in common. There are metaphors and lessons everywhere, I guess.

Before walking from Salalah to Dubai I had rowed across the Atlantic Ocean. The two journeys were so similar that the obvious differences (blue, wobbly, wet versus brown, still, dry) don’t count for much.

But in one important aspect, rowing the Atlantic Ocean was unlike any other journey I have taken. There are, clearly, quite a number of things that could go really quite wrong when you head out into 3000 miles of ocean. (In actual fact, so long as you keep attached to the boat and keep the hatches shut, then nothing really bad should happen.) These preoccupied me before we began. I think you would be a reckless fool if you didn’t reflect on the hazards. But once we started rowing, out of the harbour, out of sight of land, I slowly began to learn something vitally important: there was no way off this boat.

However seasick I was, however scared, tired or bored I may be, there was no way off. I have never done anything in life where, even if I really wanted to, there was no chance whatsoever of quitting and scurrying off to somewhere a little cosier, easier, safer. Out at sea though, however many sharks came to circle the boat, there was absolutely no way off the boat. The only thing to do was row. And, if we rowed, then eventually we would hit land and success.

In other words: it was impossible to fail.

This realisation came upon me gradually, like rowing through the pre-dawn darkness and slowly, almost imperceptibly, noticing that dawn was creeping up on the day. And then, suddenly, it is light once again, the sun broaches the horizon, and the doubts and weariness of the night are blasted away. Realising that we could not fail out there in the Atlantic Ocean was a huge moment for me. Because I realised that what I feared the most, what had weighed me down the most before we began as I sat on the jetty staring out at the bloody huge ocean we were about to tackle, what I had feared the most was just the fear.

Out at sea, knowing now that there was no real way to fail, and certainly no way to quit, was so liberating. We tend to get so bogged down by theoretical fears and hypothetical worries. It’s easier to say this than to do it, and an ocean row is an odd scenario where you can’t fail, even if you want to, but wouldn’t it make all our lives and our plans so much more enjoyable, unshackled and unweighted if we just relaxed a little? Consider the risks, of course. Make sensible contingency plans, of course. But why don’t we more often just get on with things, and only fret about problems when they actually become a reality? And, for most scenarios in our lives, it’s probably good to compare them to a storm in a leaking boat in the dark, mid ocean, with two incredibly sore buttcheeks…

Photo: Al Humphreys

Photo by: Al Humphreys

I imagine that almost everyone who reads this is, on a global scale, moderately well-educated, connected and affluent. I cannot speak for everyone, of course, but using myself as an example specimen, if all of my plans and adventures and money-earning avenues instantly failed right this moment, I know that within 24 hours I would be able to find myself some sort of job. I live in a climate mild-enough that if I had to sleep on the streets I would not die. Therefore, I know that I can get money, food and stay alive. So if I fail I will not die.

What then do I fear? A loss of money. A loss of self-respect. The sneer of peers.

In which case, I need to read, again, “the man in the arena”:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
–Theodore Roosevelt

…and crack on with what I am doing.

So at the very, very least, ask yourself this hypothetical question, “if I had no fear, if I knew that failure was not an option, what would I do and when would I do it?”

The answer, I suspect, would be “now”. 

Let me explain my “now” moment, the moment I summoned up the nerve to commit to doing what I knew deep down I really wanted to do.

I was teaching science at a secondary school outside Oxford. I was a trainee teacher, good at the job, and probably taking my first steps on the interesting, satisfying but conventional ladder towards eventually becoming a Headmaster. A good job, money enough, loads of holidays, and a nice pension.

So I was pleased and flattered when the Headmaster at the school offered me a permanent position. I sat down to write a formal letter of reply.

I am often asked whether my decision to ride around the world was spontaneous or a life-long dream. I reply that it had been a dim dream for a few years and that writing this letter was the decisive moment that tipped me over from pleasant daydreaming to committing to make something happen.

Here then are a few excerpts from the pivotal letter.

Dear Mr. Walker,

…I would definitely enjoy working here on a permanent basis…

However there is so much to see and do in the world…

If I was to settle into teaching now I am sure that I would enjoy it, but there would always be something gnawing at me…

Therefore I have decided that I am going to go ahead with my original plan to take 2 or 3 years cycling around the globe. I believe that my experiences on the road will only serve to improve my teaching skills when I do decide to return to teaching…

Deep down I know that [teaching is] probably the sensible option. However, even deeper down I know that if I have the chance to do something now and do not take it, I may always regret it.

Yours Sincerely…

Well done, my young me. Well done and thank you!

I wrote that letter around Christmas time, then got down to some serious planning. The next summer I climbed onto my bike, waved goodbye to my family, my past life, and a nice, safe, conventional life. I pedalled down the road, and just kept riding. It would be over 4 years before I returned home again. I cycled across five continents, and I crossed the oceans by boat – I hitched my way onto boats simply by asking. I spent over a year asking everyone I met whether or not they might have a boat I could jump on to get me across the Pacific Ocean. Eventually someone said, “yes”. Ask, ask, ask, ask…

Anyway, cycling round the world is pretty simple, really. You need a bike, a tent, a map, and that’s about it. I quickly realised that my careful, diligent months of planning were actually important for one thing only: to give me the confidence to begin. To help me overcome all my fears, to overcome the safe inertia of just keeping on doing what I was already doing, and to build the most valuable thing of all: momentum. Call it resistance, call it the lizard brain – it’s a common thing this struggle to make youself begin. But once you have committed, once you begin, once you get up some steam, you are vastly more likely to succeed than before you take that first tiny step. The first step is critical. Without it, there will never be anything. But although it is critical, it is also very easy. Don’t worry about all the big things that may go wrong somewhere down the line. Don’t think how long and difficult the journey may be. Just take that first tiny step. It’s so easy, if you can look at it without fear.

The first beginning is the hardest beginning. This is true for several reasons. For the difficulty of overcoming inertia and for not yet having confidence in yourself. It’s at this stage that you need heroes. Once you are familiar with something and know loads of people doing similar things to you, then you realise that you are not alone and that it’s not actually so hard as it was before you began. This is true for your nerves on your first day at school compared to your confidence sense of belonging by the end of term. It’s true now that I know many people who have cycled across continents or written and published books. But before you join the gang it can feel intimidating, exclusive, not for you.

Photo: Al Humphreys

Photo by: Al Humphreys

Before your first beginning then, you need heroes. Heroes to inspire you, cajole you, and get you so excited and determined that this is the path you want to take, that you are able to overcome your nerves and doubt and ignorance.

Back when I wanted to take on my first adventure, I didn’t know anyone who had done adventures themselves. I had nobody who could specifically help and inspire me. I wish I could have met someone who could say to me, “I did that. It wasn’t too hard.”

Instead I turned to books, jammed full of timeless heroes. I read adventure books for vicarious thrills – Ranulph Fiennes in ecstasies of masochistic suffering – and also to be reassured that other people felt like me. It’s a lovely, warm, exciting feeling. So lovely, in fact, that there’s a tendency not to actually bother taking any more steps. This is when you need the hero who makes you squirm, who tells it to you straight (the following passage is from this piece by Mark Twight):

What’s your problem? I think I know. You see it in the mirror every morning: temptation and doubt hip to hip inside your head. You know it’s not supposed to be like this. But you dressed yourself up in someone else’s life.

You’re haunted because you remember having something more. 

Aren’t you sick of being tempted by an alternative lifestyle, but bound by chains of your own choosing? Of the gnawing doubt that the college graduate, path of least resistance is the right way for you – for ever? Each weekend you prepare for the two weeks [holiday] each summer when you wake up each day and really ride, or really climb; the only imperative being to go to bed tired? You wish it could go on forever. But a wish is all it will ever be.

Because… Monday morning is harsh. You wear the hangover of your weekend rush under a strict and proper suit and tie.On Monday you eat frozen food and live the homogenized city experience. But Sunday you thought about cutting your hair very short. You wanted a little more volume.

Tuesday you look at the face in the mirror again. It stares back, accusing. How can you get by on that one weekly dose? Do you have the courage to live with the integrity that stabs deep?

Use the mirror to cut to the heart of things and uncover your true self. Use the razor to cut away what you don’t need. The life you want to live has no recipe. Following the recipe got you here in the first place:

Mix one high school diploma with an undergrad degree and a college sweetheart. With a whisk blend two cars, a poorly built house in a cul de sac, and fifty hours a week working for a board that doesn’t give a shit about you. Reproduce once. Then again. Place all ingredients in a rut, or a grave. One is a bit longer than the other. Bake thoroughly until the resulting life is set. Rigid. With no way out. Serve and enjoy.

But there is a way out. Live the lifestyle instead of paying lip service to the lifestyle. Live with commitment. Live whatever life you choose honestly. Get to the guts of one thing; accept, without reservation, the responsibility of making a choice. 

Tell the truth. First, to yourself. Say it until it hurts. Learn the reality of your own selfishness. Quit living for other people at the expense of your own self, you’re not really alive. You live in the land of denial – and they say the view is pretty as long as you remain asleep.

Well it’s time to WAKE THE FUCK UP!

So do it. Wake up. When you drink the coffee tomorrow, take it black and notice it. Feel the caffeine surge through you. Don’t take it for granted. Use it for something. Say “no” more often. As long as you have a safety net you act without commitment. You’ll go back to your old habits once you meet a little resistance. You need the samurai’s desperateness and his insanity.

Burn the bridge. Nuke the foundation. Back yourself up against a wall. Have an opinion one way or the other, get off the fence and rip it up. Cut yourself off so there is no going back. Once you’re committed the truth will come out. 

Crikey!

Heroes, then, can make stuff happen for you. But I caution against measuring your own success against their success. Don’t measure it against your peers’ success either. I am an adventurer. If I measure my adventures against Neil Armstrong blasting to the moon, then I am a total flop. I am an author. If I measure my sales against Bear Grylls’ sales, then I’m a failure too. If you are an entrepreneur, best to not measure your bank balance against Richard Branson’s. Measure yourself against an earlier you, and the earlier you’s hopes and dreams. I recently found my first ever Amazon listing, when I’d just self-published my first book. The cover photo had clearly been taken by me: the camera flash glared off the cover and you can see the pale blue bedroom carpet around the book. I laughed out loud at my incompetence. But back then I was thrilled: I had written a book! I had published a book! It was on Amazon: people perhaps might buy it! That was success. I hope that in another few years’ time I shall have done and created things that make me more proud and satisfied than the things I have done today. That will be success.

I think it’s important to force change on yourself sometimes and to impose constraints on yourself. If you have a totally blank page and the opportunity to do absolutely anything, then chances are you will actually do nothing. There’s too much to choose from. Better then to make some limits, impose a time frame, and get going.

For example, if I gave you any amount of time to hatch any sort of adventure on any budget you fancy, then you will do nothing. I guarantee it. Whereas if I gave you £1000, a bicycle, and two months to get to Istanbul, then you could have a wonderful adventure. And if I told you that you were leaving in seven days’ time then you could most certainly make it happen.

Similarly, if you sit around scratching your head and waiting for a genius Escape idea to strike, then you may wait a long time. But if you think of three things that are important to you and three things that the world does not already offer to people who value those things, then you have the skeleton of a plan straight away. Give yourself six months to flesh out your idea (being prepared for those plans to pivot and evolve) and save up cash. Then quit your job and launch into it! Worst thing that can happen? Sharks? Raw boils on your arse? Or the plan fails and you go back to normal life until you come up with a new idea.

Even once you have escaped towards the life of your dreams – for me this was one revolving around adventure, independence and writing – you have not ‘arrived’. You never arrive. You’ll never stop and stand still.

A couple of years ago, my ‘career’ was pootling along quite nicely: certainly beyond my dreams when I began my first adventure. I was doing enough big adventures to feed the rat (the primal urge to do crazy stuff and test the limits) and pay the bills. I was writing books, giving talks, and paying for my life through doing stuff I loved. It was a sustainable, viable business and life.

There is a pretty simple formula to making a career as an adventurer:

Do a massive adventure. Make sure people find out about it. Write / Speak about it well. Get Money. Repeat.

And then I broke the mould. I stopped going on massive adventures. I started doing microadventures. Instead of cycling round the world I walked round the M25 instead. This felt like a big risk to me.

But I had come to believe that you don’t need to travel to the ends of the earth to live adventurously. I had seen that although many people love adventures, few actually have them in their life. So I began cycling round suburbia, sleeping on hills, swimming in rivers, and banging the microadventure drum. It was a risk, I followed a hunch in my gut, and I was emboldened to do so knowing that, if it didn’t work out then I could just go back to what I was doing before.

So far, the microadventure stuff is going really well. To my combined irritation and delight, my book about arsing around close to home is selling far better than my books about slogging my way for tens of thousands of miles around the world by bike! So this was a risk I have taken recently, an example of being willing to experiment, to pivot and change tack.

But the popularity of microadventures, I think, has also been because the concept transfers to whatever it might be you are dreaming of doing in life.

One of the most popular ideas in the book is “5 to 9 thinking”. Our 9 to 5 lives, convention dictates, prevent us living as adventurously as we might like. But what if you turn that thinking on its head? When you leave work at 5pm, you have 16 hours of glorious freedom until you need to be back at your desk again. What adventure can you have in that time? Here’s an idea. Jump on a train out of town. Climb a hill. Watch the sunset. Sleep on the hill, under the moon and the stars. Wake at sunrise, run back down the hill, jump in a river, then back on the train and back to the office by 9am. What an opportunity! What an escape! See the opportunities everywhere, not the constraints. Look at the possibilities not the barriers.

And so here’s my challenge for you today: go jump in a river. If you don’t have a river, try a cold shower. How will this help your escape plans?

Because jumping in a river is a metaphor for life and all the cool shit you aspire to do.

Daunting to consider.

The first step is the hardest. ‘Don’t do this!’ cries your mind!

In moments the shock passes and you start to get used to it.

Once it’s done you realise it wasn’t too bad after all, and actually you feel great and are delighted to have done it.

So, go for it. Jump in. Commit. Begin.

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Alastair Humphreys is an adventurer, author and motivational speaker. His newest book Microadventures is available now. This article is the transcript of Alastair Humphreys‘s “Sunday Sermon” at our Escape to the Woods microfestival last year. 


Doing something different with your life and career is hard… but you don’t have to do it alone. If you need help with your Escape and if you are ready to re-take control over your life, join our Tribe.

“No one can tell you what to do with your life and there is no “one-size-fits-all” escape that will lead you to happiness. What does work, however, is exposure to new ideas, likeminded people and a safe environment for you to figure out what it is you really want.”

– Rob Symington, Escape the City co-founder.

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