Thursday, 19 November 2015

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)