Why adventurers should aim to inspire, not motivate: the trouble with life-hackery

Two weeks ago Sarah Outen returned from nearly half a decade of cycling and rowing around the world, half a decade of vigorously roughing it in a manner that puts my similarly spanned escapade to shame. Roughing it, properly: heart-plunging, soul-shivering stuff on the open ocean, replete with crashing personal crises, soaking self-doubt and premonitions of death. It’s safe to say that facing down Pacific swells that would breach tall buildings is distantly orbiting the comfort zone of most of us.

And you’d think that when Sarah crafted a piece for the Guardian on her return, an optimistic if predictable love letter to the art of adventure and pushing personal boundaries, sprinkled with highlights and lowlights, honestly told and not overly preachy, it would be greeted in the comments section with nothing but congratulation and wistful back-pats.

Not so.

Let me start by stating the obvious: the most rambling and snarky remarks in comments sections of newspapers (even when it’s the Guardian) are from time-rich nitwits typing away in dirty underwear whilst their cohabiting Mother screams up to them in the attic for spending too much time on their train simulator.

So maybe what ensued is not wholly surprising. But whilst most commentators were affirmative and pithy, the moans formed a parade with recurring themes. King among them a general annoyance that Sarah had inferred, however obliquely, that she was part of an elite with the courage to push boundaries further and with greater gusto than most, that it’s both simple and desirable to follow in her gloriously hewn path. I’m not sure that is what she thinks at all, but there’s the accusation.

Self-styled ‘adventurers’ like me (With me again? Wiped up the vomit? good) will label this as sour grapes, it’s easier on our egos to do so. Ignore the haters, call it trolling, and get on. And if you’re a raggedy-pants commentator, if your life is sagging under the weight of misjudgments and missed opportunities, then it’s easier to turn the gun away from your own head and shoot down someone else, someone who’s perceived to leave off the inverted commas from their own ‘success’.

The problem with words

I think Sarah’s achievement was kick-ass, she deserves plentiful kudos and our generous congratulation. Conversely I can’t help feeling the doomsayers have a point, albeit a minor, tangential one.

In the piece a friend of Sarah’s, a Chinese man she inspires en route and who rather heart-rendingly appears with a shiny bicycle ready to join her to cycle a section of the journey, is quoted as saying ‘If you want to do something, just do it. Don’t worry about anything, just do it.’ An innocent enough remark, and explicitly touted as a stirring message for everyone. But is it?

The question that plagues me is this: Why does the world of outdoor pursuit and adventure get so vexingly tangled up in life-hacking? Sarah I should say is not a life-hack but, however inadvertently, has borrowed the vernacular, or at least her friend has. ‘Crushingly insubstantial’ a journalist friend of mine recently described this thickening miasma of stock guidance murking the Internet. And though cynicism is a lazy man’s game, unlike rowing oceans, I have to admit, he has a point.

Age and experience should bring a revelation of how astonishingly more complicated things actually are than at first glance, but for myopia or comfort we abridge and compact. When I read life-advice scripted by adventurers coaxing you into following their dreams, and if I choose to blind myself to the bunglesome matter of some people having responsibilities preventative to long and wild escapes, like family and dependents, then I arrive at question one:

Isn’t this all a bit reductive?

And yet the listicles offering easy options proliferate.

Recognise any of these?

‘Just begin’

‘Do what you love’

‘The hardest part is the start’

‘Never look back’

‘Just do it’

‘Just’: such a vapourous luxury. For me it brings an urge to slap a life-hack around the face. Ironically. With a Nike trainer. In the real world it’s rarely just ‘just’. For those fathoming expeditions as long as Sarah’s or mine though you are swapping one set of opportunities, relationships, goals and proficiencies for another. It’s risky, and it should never just be an easy decision. On the other hand that we can physically depart on less risk-fraught, more fleeting getaways is barndoor, do we need someone telling us we can?

The most grating assumption of the adventuring life-hack, often thickly disguised, is that those conspicuously not pushing personal boundaries are, largely-speaking, slovenly belly-scratchers with a penchant for pasties and afternoons on the sofa. Again, reductive, and presumptuous, and pessimistic. For many of those without much of a rudder or fleshed out, glimmering goals, one of many obstacles seems, to me at least, to be one of choice, and the paralyzing effect of too much. It’s the tendency to dither and ask ‘but what if?’ at every turn in the road, an urge to doubt which is a hurdle, and also a sign of intelligence, not lassitude. This is not an easy obstacle to round, solvable by turning up to a lecture by some bright young thing who has unicycled through magma and survived smiling. There are wonderful TED talks on the paradox of choice by psychologists, not life hacks (and no, ‘just choose’ doesn’t, apparently, cut the mustard).

The second assumption is that you’d be happy doing what they’re doing, choosing as they do – a life of adventure is glamourized and marketed not as the only but perhaps as the supremest way to validate yourself as a human being. That you’d want to pogo stick off Niagara if you could only grow the cajones, muster the determination. It assumes, in short, one size fits all. Desk jobs are interminably mocked as soul-destroying. Come on you somnambulant drones! YOLO!

To be fair some of the singers of adventurous lifestyles will claim they aren’t stationing themselves as specific ‘come and do what I do’ people, but that they are aiming to help everyone to more general goals; of achieving a life with a greater sense of purpose and self-affirming pursuit. Unfortunately though we hear about other genres of ‘success’ stories much less, teaching wayward youths on a daily basis just isn’t as sexy as free diving to the Marianas Trench with a Go Pro strapped to your heaving scrotum.

A final assumption: my brave decision to live a life of adventure makes me happier than I would otherwise have been. The fact is: you don’t know that, though it is greatly comforting to consider all your past decisions to have been the right ones. Go you.

In defence of adventurers

This piece was designed not as an attack on modern day adventurers, who I admire and arguably fall in with, but on the evolving vernacular and over-reach.

What can be learned in wild regions of the planet when you are at your most physically and mentally stretched, needful and decimated, can be profound. Capabilities crystalise, way beyond where you’d pegged them. This is reportage of the internal variety, and it’s fascinating. There’s always a cost to an expedition, always self-doubt, always fierce gains to be won and losses to dodge. Telling your story afterwards, especially to young people, encourages ambition and the calculated taking of risks. All good stuff. And having moaned about over-simplification, over-complicating things doesn’t help either. I’ve cycled over 50,000 miles now since I left the UK in 2010, some of them quite unpleasant, and it’s not through fretting about how hard it would be. Journeys form step by step, pedal by pedal, stroke by stroke, and repeat.

Adventurers are doubtless in a bind: one half of the population seems to crave life lessons (what did you learn? How have you changed? How do you begin? Hark the masses after every presentation) The other half bristles if you broach it. Equally as frustrating as making adventuring the exemplar of a wildly fruitful lifestyle is that of it being little more than splashy solipsism, serial jaunts of no real meaning or value. The argument has marginally more credence if you keep your experience to yourself, but if you share, and if you share well (pick your medium: words, stills, documentary film making, in person, often all of the above) a process that can be as tempestuous as any ocean, that obliges skill, and can be brutal on mind and nerves, then surely you’re a valid contributor to the global good? My journey around the world by bicycle, whilst not inspired in concept by other adventurers, is certainly longer-lived because of them, and thus far more peppered with highs and lows, far more impactful. In fact if the likes of Alistair Humpreys ever showed up round my Mum’s house, he would have a lot to answer for.

The British are supposed to be terribly humble, or at least faux-modest, never arrogant and broadcasting. But where some see harping on about expeditions as boastful self-love, I see sharing an adventure as offering inspiration (cf motivation, and whether we can carve a sure boundary between the two is a debate I’d like to see). If we all quietly achieved and didn’t tell the world for fear of being judged an egotist, where would the next generation of summiteers and Sarah Outen’s come from? Certainly there’d be fewer of them, and we’d all be worse off for it. Perhaps the question is not why do adventurers trumpet their triumphs so publicly and relentlessly, but why others do not? Personally I for one could have done with a few more shining examples of ‘success’ in the more untraditional, less flashy fields at school. Isn’t it inherent on us to try and inspire others, or at least share hard-won skills? Wouldn’t it be a better world if we did?

Some of the negativity in the comments is readily explicable: commentators raged against a perceived class-gifted privilege Sarah may or may not possess (one delusionist suggested she might have done it to land a Tory seat). The explorers and adventurers of today are seldom pipe-toting, whiskered and double-barrelled; may not gallivant around the edges of colonies and make first forays any more, but let’s face it, adventuring is still as middle class as someone busking with a harp outside Waitrose, or feeding quinoa to a Golden Retriever. Adventurers today are all just as fiendish for publicity, as motivated by ego, but there are a slew of other rosier motivations too and wonderful side-effects to greeting extremes of endurance and geography. Frankly the gripes about class are boring. True, but boring. And true as well for a whole bunch of other professions: I know, I went to medical school, and full of Good Will Huntings it was not.

Other negative comments can be explained in a more damning way. Sarah is a woman, and like every woman who voices an opinion, writes a memoir, goes on an adventure, she’ll be immediately gunned down for being self-absorbed in a way men are immune to. This is the world we live in. Ranulph Fiennes doesn’t get the same level of critique, nor Felix Baumgartner. ‘Oh but Ranulph..’. No. It’s festering, veiled misogyny, stop it.

Here’s where I become a hypocrite. Whilst I’m generally speaking loath to offer life-path advice to any adult, part of me pines to shake a minority of people out of their stupor, even if I know I have no right to do so, that I am nowhere near having it all sussed out, that success and achievement are entirely subjective and my demons are not anyone else’s. This is because some seemingly unfulfilled people have the scrawniest excuses for not striking out on a different path. No time? Really? Do you live in an entirely different extra-planetary space-time continuum where clocks run faster? What you mean is that you have different priorities (which is allowed, by the way), or perhaps that you don’t have the courage to shift them around, and make sacrifices (which is a bit shit, but only a bit, and you should just acknowledge so instead of pouring envious scorn on those who do). No money? Equally ridiculous when there is (frankly gratuitous) proof of the possibility of achieving all kinds of things, including adventures in wild places on a budget. Again the problem, which isn’t really a problem, is priority.

Going back to Sarah’s comments section: there was the tragic claim that ‘Nobody made the woman do it’ (notice: the woman) ‘all difficulties encountered are entirely of her own making’- but isn’t that the point? She tried something much harder than was necessary. By choice. Whilst thousands strive for the opposite. To me that’s worth applauding, if only for the paradox, the against-the-grain-ness of it. So we approve grit and resolve if someone’s forced into it, but not otherwise? Is there a difference?

I’m returning home in three months after six years of cycling around the world. Will I give media interviews, punch the air, write a book? Of course I fucking will. It’s been a testing six years! To try to inspire others would be a privilege. But to try to motivate would be a conceit.

I doubt very much Sarah paid much attention to the negative comments, undoubtedly she’d had them before, perhaps when she drew a line across the Pacific and made plans to row it, perhaps after she was evacuated in a tremendous storm and had to fundraise for a boat. And if they’d got her down then, she wouldn’t have rowed across the finish line to my, and many others, honest admiration.

I hope adventurers will continue to push boundaries, give talks, make films, write books (about adventures only please, not ‘how to win at life’), but just chill out on the prosaicisms and buzzwords, leave out the fluff and life-quackery, the ‘you can do it too’ warblings. Because then well-meaning adventurers will alienate, when the aim, if it pleases, should be to communicate passion, and to share, share, share.

 
(If you made it to the end of that rant and would like to catch up on where I am on my bike ride – the answer is Georgia, the country not the state, and here’s the tale)

 

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Comments (14)

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    John Onken

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    God help us when you get back Stephen, you'll be laying around saying 'what now.' Life is all about the doing, not the having done. Just like Sarah, you I'll be found in the post journey situation where 'I cycled around the world' is measured against 'I walked to the chip shop.' Both ask for judgement, meaning, opinion, and life in the past. The only solution will be to life in the moment and nothing else.

    Not to say we're not full of admiration for you!

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      Stephen Fabes

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      I agree John.Its always better not to linger on what's gone before. I'm actually really looking forward to getting back and moving on to the next project – there are a number lined up! I'm also relishing that walk to the chip shop!

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      Lydia Franklin

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      Fantastic article Stephen… balanced views from a self-stated adventurer.
      John you are right to an extent… there is the what next… what you may not realise that it often begins before the first is first is finished. For example when I rode route 66 I was planning New Zealand… now New Zealand is planned (leave on feb 1st) I am looking at my next challenge ?Tour Divide race. For me its mostly about challengimg myself and seeing where my boundaries of breaking mentally and physically lie . I also raise money for a charity that is dear to my heart along the way. I dont think I tell people how to live their lives… rather I hope… show them that people can accomplish things (whatever it may be in life) if they put their mind to it and overcome obstacles with a smile. I am guilty of oversimplifying (Fight the fear… embrace the randomness… go with the crazy) but actually everything I do is planned with contingencies. I publicise what I do in order to raise money for the charity (www.facebook.com/OneChallengeAtATime)

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    Meraid

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    Best opinion piece I've read today, Stephen. You're absolutely right. Well said.

    Reply

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    AXP

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    Right on!

    Savor the dwindling miles. Best to you, bud 🙂

    AndrewXP

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    Anonymous

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    I love your worded ways. Want to partner on your return? Walks to the chip shop together? Savoring snacks. Bicycle rides between writing (rants)? After your first adventure is published, cycle six continents together with a similar route? Write second adventure and repeat….indefinitely. (If wasn't in pajamas at nearly ten bells or a self-acknowledged-hopeless-romantic, I'd publish comment with a name.) Keep writing. You've got the knack.

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    max Goldzweig

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    Interesting POV. Something I've pondered when thinking about these sorts of things is that it's always solo adventurers (present company and Sarah excluded) that seem to stray into the unfortunate territory you outline above, but rarely groups or couples or pairs of mates. Groups/couples usually seem just to get on with what they're doing and let their actions speak for themselves, but with solo adventurers, I dunno… I think all that time alone inside one's own head can leave some people with a kind of cathartic need to [over]articulate their every thought and opinion which can then come across to others as a bit OTT. That's my psychobabble reading of the situation anyway

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      Stephen Fabes

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      That's interesting Max, I think you're on to something. I do think there's a tendency for solo travel to leave you self-absorbed. The cliche is that long solo travel is a great road to self-discovery, but I've always found I've learnt far more (and far more difficult truths) about myself from travelling with others. I think self discovery comes not when you examine yourself but when you examine your relationships and ponder how others might see you.

      Reply

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    Mosera

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    Appreciate this.

    One of the other realities of those who turn away from adventure is how much adventurers actually depend upon them. In my own travels, I recognized how much I personally counted on the stability of parents and friends who remained in place and were always willing to lend a hand. They reliably sent supplies (from a reliable mailbox) or provided a warm sofa/bed; they maintained the infrastructure that my travels depended upon; and ultimately, among the briefest encounters, made my travel worthwhile.

    There is something terribly smug in any of us when we challenge others to be more like us, or wonder why others do not share our own goals. We shower our friends with a history of our accolades without fully appreciating their own struggles, their different goals, or the realities of their lives that make our choices untenable or simply uninteresting. Of course, we present these accolades as our small way of encouraging behavior we recognize and prefer to lifestyles we do not. But this ignores the diversity of all choices and projects our own sense of a life well led to others who may fully and appropriately disagree.

    Someone has to pick up our daily garbage, dress and feed our children, tend to the sicknesses of our elderly, ensure the integrity of our infrastructure, or simply live with dignity. These things are often challenging enough for many and, oftentimes, entail their own quiet difficulties that may seem like towering ocean waves to the individuals who bear these challenges alone, everyday. Where is the article or TED talk written for the single mother whose sacrifices and effort rival those of most proud adventurerers?

    In short, we should all respect the choices of each one of us and do so more quietly, more graciously. I am a fan of this site and others like it. They remind me that, through the stages of our lives, there is a time for ourselves, a time for selfishness. When we train for the next race or prepare for our next adventure, we steal time from those closest to us, we ask them to understand our choices and give us the time and space needed to be ourselves. But we should recognize that there may come a time when they will want to depend on us, a time when we must be prepared to answer their call or to support their dream in whatever form it manifests itself. And we should live our lives quietly and respectful of choices we may not understand and always be prepared to become the back upon which others occasionally depend.

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    Tom Allen

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    Great blog, Steve. I agree that most motivational preaching in the adventure sphere is bollocks. I don't think that means we should not aim to motivate. It's more a question of how. My own cycle touring blog is primarily about motivating, but through suggesting practical actions rather than spouting lazy platitudes. It's about acknowledging the complexities and obstacles to adventure that all of us face, and setting out how to tackle them in a realistic way. Entertainment is an important part of engaging people too – simply telling good stories – and an important means to an end for anyone who wants to inspire change. Anyway – good stuff, enjoy the khachapuri, and safe home!

    (Also, nobody should ever read the Guardian comments section. Ever.)

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      Stephen Fabes

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      Hi Tom, I think in hindsight the title of my post wasn't the best choice. I don't think there's as hard a line between motivating and inspiring as I've implied. I agree there are complexities and obstacles to adventure, that lazy platitudes are unhelpful and that simply telling stories is a great way to inspire/motivate (I would say the best way). I think one of my main grudges was well articulated in the comment above 'We shower our friends with a history of our accolades without fully appreciating their own struggles, their different goals… we present these accolades as our small way of encouraging behavior we recognize and prefer to lifestyles we do not.' Anyway, unfortunately the Khachapuri has had to come to an end, I'm now in Europe. All the best

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    Ben Southall

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    An excellent piece which very much echoes my thoughts on why we partake in travel-bound adventure and the results it can produce.
    Travel, whether it be through a vast expanse of ocean nothingness or the clutter and chaos of downtime Delhi, is a personal education that shapes an individual for the rest of their life. Whilst it can be seen by some as a selfish removal from society, by others it is the catalyst they need to fulfil their own dreams.
    It opens the mind to new ways of thinking, breaks down cultural barriers and helps us gain a better love and understanding for the future of Planet Earth and the people who call it home.
    Long live travel, adventure and those brave enough to challenge themselves in the great outdoors…

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