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I wish I could do what you do… Well, why can't you?

At the end of a recent talk a young man approached me.
I wish I could do what you do…“, he said, wistfully.

He was 23, earning good money in the City, single, had no mortgage and was physically fit. So I asked him what was stopping him from doing what he really wanted to do.
His answer was revealing, in so much that he did not have an answer. He umm-ed and ahh-ed and could not articulate whatever it was that was inhibiting him.
He did not know what it was that was preventing him leading the life of his choice.

I find it embarrassing, humbling and rewarding when people come to speak to me as that young man did. I also find it amusing that people think I can do things that they cannot. Only people who do not know me would think that!

People who know me see me as I really am: a pretty normal bloke. Sure, I am ambitious and try to live fully, but that is no different from a teacher or a lawyer or a carpenter who is aspiring to be the best they can be at what they do. There is nothing I have done that could not be done by most other people. The difference about me is that I earn the money I need to travel and have the freedom and time I cherish by blowing my own trumpet!

This was highlighted to me recently when I contacted the climber Mike “Twid” Turner, asking if he would be kind enough to write a guest blog on my site. I asked him not only because of his climbing exploits, but also because of his approach to his climbing: to do things just for the doing, the very best reason of all.
His reply showed me that I had picked the right man to ask about this topic (even if he declined to write the post!):

Being brutally honest I find statements like “the first real adventure of the new millennium” a total turn off. It cannot be. Thousands of folk had adventures. A lot of folk find this type of self promotion over the top. Might sit alright with folk who don’t know much but there are thousands of folk doing real adventures and just getting on with it. You are obviously highly motivated and talented to your causes but take a tip from me: such statements only throw egg on your face. Sorry to be brutally honest but better you get feedback than think such things are cool. You don’t need to do this; you have an impressive CV. Just enjoy it for yourself.

I agree entirely with Twid on all this! But I have two points in reply.

  • The first is prosaic: my trumpet blowing is a pragmatic choice that allows me to live the life of my choice.
  • The second is that I am beginning to realise the privilege of being able to chat with people like the young man at the beginning of this post.

And so then to my attempt to help with his dilemma.

To say to me “I wish I could do what you do” regarding the physical side of my lifestyle is laughable. Little by little I am striving for “Citius, Altius, Fortius“. But I am not, never will be, and have never claimed to be an athlete, a hard man or somebody breaking new ground. If I have anything of interest to add to this topic it is a case study of a normal bloke trying to do the best he can with a slightly weedy body!

The more common reason that people say to me “I wish I could do what you do” is because of the opportunities I have had to experience some fabulous places around the planet. I know that I have been very fortunate and that this is a trickier subject to discuss.

[Disclaimer: I know that commitments, age and health can get in the way of things. I also feel sad when motivated, talented young people in far-flung lands talk to me and I know that they will never be able to do what I have done because they are poor and live in a country bereft of the opportunities to change that].

But what was stopping this young, free and single, affluent, educated guy in London?

The first, important step for him -in my opinion- was to look hard inside himself (with the diamond-hard look of a cobra), to look honestly, and to learn what it is that was preventing him from leading the life of his choice.

I said to him that while he was travelling home on the Tube he should make a list of the things he was dreaming of doing with his life and the reasons why he wanted to do them. He should also come up with a list of all the things that were stopping him doing them.

After that he should decide which was the most important of the two lists.

And then he should start taking the steps towards overcoming whatever it was that was stopping him.

He needs to be living his life fully, not wishing that he had the time to live it. The clock is ticking!

Finally, in these discussions I often hear the same reasons cropping up that are stifling ambition and audacity. Here is an essay about some of them, with one man’s thoughts on how to overcome them. It’s titled Why You Should Quit Your Job and Travel the World.

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  1. Great Post!

    Re Twid’s comment; its the same sentiment that has people whinging about Andy Kirkpatrick being a media whore; I know nothing about climbing but his stories make me want to give it a try, that can’t be a bad thing?

    We live in an age of soundbytes, and celebrity, and a soundbyte from a totem of the adventuring community like Ran is way too good to hide away, you’d be foolish not to brandish his opinion, and thats all it is, on your site. Its obviously not literally the “first great adventure”, of the millenium, just a nice soundbyte.

    The thing to remember is that to be able to afford go on a big adventure(like me) and make a living from adventures(like you) you have to catch people’s attention. And Jade Goody, or Kerry Katona are far more attention grabbing than you or I. To draw some overworked hack’s attention away from what’s “hot or not” you’ve got to break it down into a language that they can understand; and they like the word “First…” or “Fastest” and “Longest”. Otherwise you will be one of those “thousands of folk doing real adventures and getting on with it”, and there’s nothing wrong with that either. But those folk are not going to have any wider influence than their family and friends.

    But, grabbing some attention might start a little fire in someone else, it might inpsire an unfit asmathic to start to think that maybe if that pale english fella can cycle 80,000km around the world I can have a bash at 30. Or it might just motivate someone to have a bash at a marathon, and surprise themselves.

    Its a choice, just getting on with it, or getting on with it and the sharing it. Neither is better. One requires alot more thought and savvy though, and raising one’s head above the parapet risks negative comments.

    I’m not so sure that I would have bitten off, what seemed to me like, more than I could chew without having the tyre tracks and footsteps, pulk tracks, hand holds, and wakes of those who have bigger, bolder adventures than I ever will and “blow their own trumpets” about them, paving the way. And I’m sure I’m not alone.

    That’s worth the odd self blown trumpet and simplified soundbyte, I reckon.

    Incidentally, those films in Twid’s bio seem worth a look, any idea where to find them online? A google search didn’t turn anything up.

  2. Fearghal,

    Thanks for the awesome comment! Perhaps you should post your comment as a blog post on your own site – see what your readers think of it?

    I don’t know about Twid’s vids. I don’t know him. He was just recommended to me as someone who would be cool to get a guest blog from… I’ll try him again sometime!

  3. Paul Stanley Posted

    Al, I must admit I used to feel the same as they guy you speak of. But a trip to Cambodia a couple of years back made me reevaluate everything- and next year I’m off to Ethiopia for 2 years with the VSO. I’d like to thank you as your books have been one of the inspirations that have driven me to where I am now.


  4. There are billions and billions of people around the world who like to dream of escapes they won’t ever live. Out of them many,many billions, 1,2 or maybe 3 each day will rise up, they will read your blog/books, they will read many,many others from hundreds of sources, they will sit and day dream at work about escaping from the routine. They will lie at night tossing and turning over a better life then what they have. They will re-read, re-plan then plan again, read again until one day they awaken,they will stand up and rise above the billions of dreamers, they will take that first step out and become doers.

    As one of them minuscule few who each day reach out to live their destiny in life, who rise to the beat of their own drum even if it must be alone. I thank you for your adventures and for taking the time to share them…

  5. Great post Alastair. This is the type of stuff I like to read. It’s about you, but it’s about me and everyone else also.

    As I was reading, I was waiting to hear what your advice was going to be to this young man. I think it’s good advice, but I also know how some people think they are so trapped in their current lives/work that there’s no way they can escape. Looking from the outside it’s easy to see that they aren’t really trapped. But convincing them that they are not as stuck as they believe they are is the difficult part.

    Wouldn’t it be cool if you could follow up this guy (and all the other people you meet who say things like this) and see if he actually take any steps toward living the lifestyle he wants to lead?

  6. Rob Chambers Posted

    I continually struggle with this.

    After reading your books al, i have read about many inspiring trips and blogs (mainly linked through this one!), but they all have one thing in common, a flair for writing and/or public speaking. Unfortunately, something I do not possess.

    So, I sit at my desk still thinking of an inspired idea that would allow me to live the lifestyle I dream of… Full time, not just for a month or two every five years.

    • Hi Rob,
      If you’ll forgive me…. BULL$£!T !!! Do something cool and people will want to listen or read about it. Fear ye not! Do the deed first, then worry about the lifestyle later. That’s what all the quality expeditionists have already done. Forget the nightmare made-for-tv projects of the noughties…. YAWN!

  7. @Rob Chambers – writing and/or PS has nothing to do with stepping away from the desk and doing a adventure. That is just a minor by-product. Read Als ‘Bicycle Diaries’ 323 pages of very un-cut, personal, deep feeling writing. Not polished or edited, just what was happening on a certain day or week.

    If you’re concern that writing and speaking is keeping you from something, just get a ghost writer who will proof and polish what you write. For speaking the ones that I have herad and liked the best were the ones who just spoke with honesty and from the heart.

  8. Hi Alastair,
    Just a quick note to say that I really enjoy reading your blog posts – so much so that I end up having to bookmark every other one for further reference!
    The conversation you had with the 23-year old city worker is repeated hundreds of times a day in London on tubes (when people aren’t being awkwardly silent), in pubs, and in corporate canteens by people who all feel the same as he does.
    They want out – they want to do something amazing – but they don’t know how. Rabbit in the headlights syndrome. So as a result, they do nothing.
    I’m currently starting a project with a friend of mine aiming at helping young corporate workers who aren’t enjoying themselves to escape. It is called Thought you might be interested!
    All the best and thanks again for all the inspirational pieces.

  9. Hi Rob,
    Do you think the thing to do is to just head off on an amazing trip for a couple of months. Just do it first, rather than not starting anything until you have the way to make a living out of it?

  10. Hi Sall, Al,

    Couldn’t agree more that it is all about getting out there and doing it. Hopefully my ‘Esc’ partner and I are living proof of this mentality – I drove a 40 year old Series II Landy from Cape Town to Cairo in ’06 (considerably easier and more comfortable than a bicycle!) and Dom competed in this year’s Yukon River canoe race. A couple of weekends ago 4 of us (I was the support car!) cycled from London to Paris in 24 hours (just to see if it could be done). Doing it for the adventure’s sake – not for pre-arranged motives. Build it and they will come, etc.

    We want to inspire the many people like the 23-year-old that Al met (but not necessarily through our own adventures but through showing them the 1000′s of people out there doing exciting things). Through example and through advice. Lots of people (especially young corporate ‘prisoners’) have the desire to do something amazing but need that extra encouragement, advice, or inspiration. Money is a principal concern for many people – but if you want something badly enough you can do it – check out Dom’s escape plan (!

    Have good Fridays!

    All the best,


  11. Great post Al.

    Maybe the 23 year old chap, let’s call him Nigel, was a little too comfortable in his current lifestyle and perhaps was reaching a tipping point where the level of dissatisfaction was beginning to outweigh the comfort with which he had become accustomed.

    Would be great to follow-up on him like Darren suggests to see if he has broken out of his comfort zone and plunged into the abyss. Anyway, if he’s reading this: Good luck Nige!

  12. Hi Al,

    I first heard of you a whilst you were still actually on your adventure and i was sat at my desk working at a call centre reading your blogs between calls. You certainly awoke the adventurer within me and just like the guy who aproached you saying he wish he could do what you do, I can relate to that, I was in same situation wishing I could do what you did but had no real reason stopping me, just convincing myself oh its what other people do but certainly I, me and not capable of that, the fear of all the variables of such a journey and what could go wrong, play it safe here!
    Cutting a long story short I have gone from dreaming of travelling the world on a bike to someone who today is doing just that as I right this post from my 20th country!
    What keeps one going? You miss home, family and everything your familiar with back home and at times have very hard moments in the journey and homesickness that at times bites so bad that it just makes you wanna get on a plane and go back home! for me it’s been a rough ride from narrowly missing a bullet and having a gun held to my head in Bosnia to having been robbed of $900 in Iran, why dont i just go home? beacause even with all the hardest stuff comes out postivity, what else in life can I think of that will ever define a life lived and a journey to use as a reference point for every aspect and the rest of your life, the curiosity and wonderment of the world is what keeps me moving and of course the hospitality of people you encounter.. if not now only in time one will realise what an amazing adventure they had for better or worse!
    Thanks Al you inspired me alot with your stuff and I hope I can do the same!

    • Alastair Posted

      Hi Imran,
      What a great post! You too will be inspiring new people to adventures now. Because I am sure you have realised ‘our’ secret – that we are ‘normal’ people and that anyone can go have a great adventure if only they make it happen…
      Well done!

  13. Liz Hurley Posted

    and then there are those of us who really”can’t do that” We have children, we have elderly dependents, we have physical restrictions. For some these are choices that we made, for others they are choices foisted upon them. However it ends up it means that we squeeze in mini-micro adventures, we grab tiny hours and we just love to read about what others can manage and we dream and one day we’ll get there.

  14. jane smith Posted

    To add to the Rob Chambers comment from 2 years ago: to sustain the desired adventure lifestyle you have to do talks and write and blog. There is no other way. I can have a great adventure yet if I stutter and fail in front of an audience or write a mundane blog with OMGs and WTFs I will never make it as an adventurer. yes of course we can all have adventures hence you proclaiming the microadventures which is what most people who want a lifestyle away from the mundanity of life yet don’t have the flair for public speaking and writing do. Or they save their money and do their trips and share only to those who will excuse them for the lack of poetry in their writing and fluidity in their speaking.
    so going back to Rob’s comments, yes he can still have adventure but he can’t make his life as an adventurer? I am probably a Rob too. My idea of hell is publicising myself and gaining a ‘following’ to sustain a life of adventure. So I am curious.. how does one have the life of a full time adventurer unless they write blogs/books and do public speaking?

  15. sion brooks Posted

    Great down to earth post!

  16. sion brooks Posted

    I, like many others are very glad Al shares his adventures. I think if he did them and then kept them to himself then he’d lose at least 50% of their worth. I mean it’s a bit selfish really doing adventures just for yourself. At the end of the day you’re bound to have learnt something from the trip (maybe alot) and it’s valuable sharing that. I’d be far less inspired if so many adventurers big and small kept their trips to themselves



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