- Andy Kirkpatrick / @psychovertical: What is an adventurer?
- Julia: When did you decide you're an 'adventurer'?
(If you'd like to ask me a question, you can do so here.)
The first question in this series seems apt as a starting point: ‘what on earth is an adventurer anyway?’
And I’ll add my own follow-up to it, ‘…and why should anyone care?’
My hope is, chiefly, that you'll find it interesting to look behind the scenes of the adventurer's visible facade. Perhaps aspects of these musings might overlap with your own life, whether that is attempts to plan expeditions, to live adventurously amidst the busy-ness of ‘real life’, or just escape for the occasional microadventure when you fear your head will explode if you do not.
It might be that you’re interested in making a career from something you love. Or just sharing the ups and downs of what we learn of life as we bump along our way.
What this ‘adventurer’ certainly is not — and what this series will not be — is an elitist, athletic, record-breaking, adrenalin junky.
I remember listening to an interview with political cartoonist Chris Riddell in which he talked about the way we compare ourselves with other people being really harmful to creativity. I hope this series can be an antidote to feeling that way.
I’m uncertain, for now, quite what direction all this all might go — that depends on the questions you ask. But in the same way that curiosity, serendipity, momentum and adventure show up once you dare yourself to get out of the front door and have a look around, I decided to just get started and give this a go.
I picked one of the questions from the growing list, hopped on my bike and went for a ride. The route was designed purely because there was a nice café halfway round* where I could write down my answer. If cycling helped Einstein come up with the theory of relativity (“I thought of that whilst riding my bicycle,” he supposedly said), then it would be good enough for me...
Question 1: what is an ‘Adventurer’?
My short answer is that an Adventurer is someone who earns money from adventures.
But an 'Explorer' or an 'Extreme Athlete' or an 'Author' or a 'Motivational Speaker' or a 'Mountain Guide' could also do that. So what is the difference?
‘Explorer’ sounds impressive, certainly. If you feel comfortable with the label, if you can pull it off, or if it is appropriate for what you do, then I can think of no cooler job description!
But I am most definitely not an Explorer, sadly. I’ve never been somewhere that hasn’t been mapped. I’ve never discovered anything new, let alone anything that is both new and useful. I feel that an Explorer needs to return home with knowledge.
‘Adventurer’ is a vague term that depends upon the word ‘adventure’. I have always been adamant that everyone’s personal definition of adventure ought to be different. One man’s small adventure is another man’s Everest. Someone else’s Everest is another person’s expensive queue of vanity projects. But if I leave it up to you to define ‘adventure’ it doesn’t make it easy for me to define ‘Adventurer’!
To my mind being an Adventurer is linked with the experiences you have along the way more than the lands you conquer. It sounds like a 21st Century term, linked with earning a living rather than having a patron or independent means. An Adventurer belongs in the era of social media, storytelling, fun journeys and less epic feats than the days of Cook and Shackleton.
Being an Adventurer feels accessible to more people, free from stigma, dogma, or restrictions of elitism or gender.
It is possible to be both a normal person and an Adventurer.
‘Adventurer’ is a niche word, useful mainly for semantics and simplicity. This is confirmed by Googling ‘adventurer’. 76,000,000 pages begin with a bunch of dictionary and thesaurus definitions. And then comes an article by me!
Compare that with 1.5 billion pages about ‘explorers’. (Even removing those linked to Microsoft Explorer or the Ford Explorer only culls 1/10th of the entries. The fact that both Microsoft and Ford have used the word adds to my unease with considering it appropriate for my own life.)
How else could I describe myself if not as an ‘Adventurer’? When you’re stuck it can be interesting to come at a question by subtraction and elimination. Pare away all you know not to be correct and see what is left. “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it,” said Michelangelo.
This is the opposite approach to how we normally go about life: a Jenga-esque accumulation of stuff, ideas, baggage and beliefs piling up on top of each other, year after year. We churn around plans and dreams and hopes and practical barriers until the music stops and then that jumbled heap becomes our life and the slightest shift or change of direction is now impossible to contemplate.
So what are some other titles I might have plumped for?
• Cyclist? Cycling round the world was by far my biggest adventure (in many ways my adventuring life peaked back then!) But that ride was ages ago: not even this decade nor the one before it! Yes, I adored the month I spent cycling around Yorkshire and recording a podcast in 2019, but I don’t honestly consider myself a cyclist in any way at all.
• Athlete? I have run a marathon (and an ultramarathon or two), but I certainly am not an athlete. I'm quite happy to swap running for tree climbing if I get the chance.
• Expeditionist? Is that even a word?! I have been on an expedition to the Arctic Ocean, but never yet made it to either pole.
• Traveller? I’ve spent the past decade championing the merits of not going on long, meandering journeys.
• Microadventurer? This, perhaps, is the best description for most of my life these days. Yet to be able to define it you first need to establish what ‘adventurer’ means...
• Writer? I would love for this to be the one-word summary of my life. But imposter syndrome (and income percentage) deter me. (Is it daft to only call myself a ‘writer’ if I earn £X from it? Yes!)
• Speaker? I enjoy speaking, I’ve been doing it for many years, it feels useful and worthwhile, and it pays most of my bills. I make a living from speaking about my adventures, though I am not famous nor rich. (And I am delighted not to be famous.) But 'speaker' feels like a ‘job description’ not a ‘life description’.
• Film-maker / podcaster? I like making films but I’m only a dabbler. I'm enthusiastic about podcasts, but I’ve only been doing it a short while.
• Influencer? 🤯🤮🙅♂️
To get a sense of the different vibe of some of these labels I asked people on Twitter to say who they thought of when they heard the word ‘Explorer’, ‘Adventurer’ or ‘Travel Writer’.
[A quick pause while Twitter’s doing its thing to give you the always-rude Modern Toss's take on being a ‘Mountaineer’:
Pushing yourself to the limits of human endurance
Climbing up a big dirt pile
Take a picture when you get to the top
So we all know you’re not bulls****ing it yeah
Then come back down
And **** on about it
For the rest of your life
Ever tried working in an office?
Doubt you’re up to it mate
But someone’s got to do it]
Back to my Twitter poll...
After two hours 67 people had suggested Explorers. They were mostly the names I’d expected: Shackleton, Fiennes etc. 18 people offered Travel Writers: Theroux, Palin, Freya Stark and the like. And 16 came up with Adventurers. They were much less well-known, spread more widely, and nearly all from people doing stuff in the 21st Century. (An honourable mention for Levison Wood who popped up in all three categories. Is your Mum championing you on Twitter, Lev? 😉)
This gave me the idea of taking a straw poll of some of the first names that came into my head to see how they describe themselves on Instagram or Twitter. I also looked at this season’s National Geographic Adventurers of the Year.
• @alexhonnold - Climbing!! [sic] (I think it’s telling, and fab, that Alex chooses the verb not the noun. He’s out there doing it.)
• @andrzejbargiel - Extreme skiing
• @AnishHikes - Author. Speaker. National Geographic Adventurer of the Year
• @annamcnuff - Adventurer, Speaker, Mischief Maker
• @antmiddleton - Adventurer & Explorer. Leader. Proud Dad
• @babsizangerl - Climber
• @beargrylls - Host of Running Wild
• @benedictallen - Environmentalist, author, speaker. Immersion in remote habitats and communities; pioneered immersion/self-filming for telly. No GPS, sat phone or com sponsors
• @benfogle - Louis Theroux in a sensible cagoule
• @borgeousland - Polar Explorer
• @challengesophie - Athlete
• @ed_stafford - Explorer
• @explorer_sarahmarquis - National Geographic Explorer
• @felicity_aston - First woman to ski across Antarctica alone
• @hilareenelson - Skier, Storyteller, Mother and lover of wild places
• @insta_repeat - Wander. Roam. Replicate
• @jennytough - Adventure Traveller and Endurance Challenger. Mountain Lover. Tree Hugger
• @leonmccarron - Writer, Filmmaker
• @levisonwood - Author, explorer, soldier, photographer
• @mikehornexplorer - Professional Explorer
• @polarben - Explorer
• @psychovertical - British writer, funny-man and unlikely hero-mountaineer
• @rozsavage - First woman to row solo across the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans
• @sarahouten - Adventures by land & sea
• @SteveBackshall - naturalist broadcaster and author
(There might be interesting scope in looking deeper into the different ways that men and women describe themselves in this world…)
Perhaps being an ‘Adventurer’ is about the difference between being a ‘Jack of all trades’ versus being a ‘specialist’? 'Jack vs. The Specialist’ is the title of a long-running email discussion I’ve been having with my friend Paul Deegan over the past 8.5 years. These sort of back-and-forth email musings / tugs of war / brainstorms / arguments are well-worth cultivating. They are fascinating, fun and it is always good to have your views challenged.
I’ve been arguing with my friend Rob Lilwall for years about whether it is better to write many books or strive for one ‘Great’ book. It often veers in the direction of Cal Newport’s 'Deep Work' and heartily disapproves of me doing daft stuff like beginning a series like this…
Back when I used to spend every day with Ben Saunders working on a South Pole project he would berate me for spreading myself too thin, for eccentric blog posts and for trying to do everything, rather than just doing one thing really well (David Hieatt-style). I took Ben’s point (as I have done many times) but I just can’t help myself dashing off like a Labrador puppy to explore all the different, delightful smells and adventures in the woods!
Does the notion of ‘Adventurer’ boil down to where your priorities lie?
Mine lie everywhere! Which, of course, is nonsense. You cannot have multiple priorities. That is as meaningless as brands who have a dozen different core values just to tick all the buzzwords of the day.
But all I am interested in is everything, “desirous of everything at the same time”. With that comes an acceptance that in its place I must forfeit the chance to be the best at anything: I will not be an ‘Explorer’ or an ‘Athlete’ or -perhaps- a great ‘Writer’ without narrowing my focus. And I am OK with that.
In terms of my actual ‘work’, all of this adventure stuff only occupies a mere 30 hours out of the week’s 168 hours. The vast majority of my time I am actually just ‘Al’ or ‘Dad’. But perhaps a key part of my personal definition of an ‘Adventurer’ is that the essence of it runs right through all those other hours in a way it might not if I was a butcher, a baker, or a candlestick maker. This is more than my job. It’s my life.
My choice of the word ‘Adventurer’ then is a statement of intent to myself, a reminder to be curious, enthusiastic and as bold as I dare be at all hours, not just those when I’ve clocked on for work in my shed or up a hill.
I don’t want to think in terms of “adventure or work”, “adventure or down time”, “adventure or family”. My aim is for my life to be “adventure and work”, “adventure and down time”, “adventure and family”. To build my life around the intangible essence of all that the phrase ‘Adventurer’ implies.
‘Adventurer’ is a clunky label of convenience. It clarifies that I am not an explorer, but nor am I an accountant. And it goes some way towards encapsulating my passion, my income, and my lifestyle priorities. It hopefully will also serve to steer this unfolding series of questions and musings.
Phew! That turned out to be a harder question than I expected to kick things off!
As for the second part of the question about when I decided I was an ‘Adventurer’ as opposed to ‘unemployed’, a ‘bum’, ‘writer’ or whatever other hats I wear…
My adult life began with me daydreaming through lectures at university, working long hours in the local pub to save money, always scheming and planning the next adventure. These adventures were not only precious experiences, they also paved the way to becoming an ‘Adventurer’ and onto all the years when I worked on the rough assumption that one big adventure a year would scratch my itch and pay the bills.
These days I’ve moved onto a new phase, trying to weave living adventurously into the daily fabric of my life, even though circumstances dictate that I won’t be going on any more epic journeys for a while yet.
Calling myself an ‘Adventurer’ was a gradual process of stages towards acceptance and ownership.
First I had to define and believe it myself.
Then I had to dare to describe myself that way online, and finally to say it to real people, face to face. I still never manage to do this without air quotes, deprecation and explanations. It is a ridiculous job description for a middle-aged bloke.
When people ask me what my job is I usually say ‘writer’, despite that not being a majority of my income ("yet" - he adds, in hope). Writing does occupy a majority of my working time, so perhaps that is what I am? After all, we are what we repeatedly do, the saying goes.
At other times, when I can’t be bothered with the inevitable conversation that follows from saying I am an ‘adventurer’ or ‘writer’, I say I am a teacher. I was, once. For a year.
And if I’m in one of those dangerous situations for introverts where there is zero chance to escape your inquisitor and the horrors of small talk loom, I shut things down fast by saying I’m an accountant (experience has shown me that this leads to very few follow-up questions) and then quickly bury my nose in a book.
Did I call myself an ‘Adventurer’ during the four years when I was truly having an adventure every single day?
But I do remember the distinctive nuances of the words ‘tourist’, ‘backpacker’ and ‘traveller’. (Back then I enjoyed the book ‘Are You Experienced’, a novel about backpackers, though I suspect it may not have aged well. I liked the quote “There was a general belief that a long and unpleasant holiday was of crucial importance to one’s development as a human being.”
‘The Beach’ resonated with me too: “If I'd learnt one thing from travelling, it was that the way to get things done was to go ahead and do them. Don't talk about going to Borneo. Book a ticket, get a visa, pack a bag, and it just happens.” Or: “Tourists went on holidays while travellers did something else. They travelled.”)
I guess then that names and labels have always mattered, vague and blurry though they may be.
Did I feel like an Adventurer after cycling round the world?
No. But I felt like I'd done a big adventure, at last.
Did I feel it after my next big trip? Did I feel it after getting paid to do a talk? Did it begin then? Or after publishing a book? Did I feel it when I quit being a teacher and committed to trying to make this stuff my job?
This is probably the closest I came to committing to this moniker, which confirms — finally — what I said long, long ago at the very top of this article, that an Adventurer is someone who is making a career from their adventures.
And that is that, until I come up with a better answer.
So there we have it: my first question and my first answer.
Did you find it interesting? If so, please stick around. If not, why don't you ask me a better, harder, wiser, deeper, dafter question of your own?