Show/Hide Navigation
sky
 

The Proust Questionnaire

I enjoy writing blog posts where questions force me to think hard and be honest (like this interview and these 20 questions worth answering honestly.)

The Proust Questionnaire has its origins in a parlour game popularized (though not devised) by Marcel Proust, the French essayist and novelist, who believed that, in answering these questions, an individual reveals his or her true nature. Here is the basic Proust Questionnaire. I tackle my answers below. Perhaps you might like to copy/paste the questions and have a go yourself?

__1.__What is your idea of perfect happiness?

__2.__What is your greatest fear?

__3.__What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?

__4.__What is the trait you most deplore in others?

__5.__Which living person do you most admire?

__6.__What is your greatest extravagance?

__7.__What is your current state of mind?

__8.__What do you consider the most overrated virtue?

__9.__On what occasion do you lie?

__10.__What do you most dislike about your appearance?

__11.__Which living person do you most despise?

__12.__What is the quality you most like in a man?

__13.__What is the quality you most like in a woman?

__14.__Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

__15.__What or who is the greatest love of your life?

__16.__When and where were you happiest?

__17.__Which talent would you most like to have?

__18.__If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

__19.__What do you consider your greatest achievement?

__20.__If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be?

__21.__Where would you most like to live?

__22.__What is your most treasured possession?

__23.__What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?

__24.__What is your favorite occupation?

__25.__What is your most marked characteristic?

__26.__What do you most value in your friends?

__27.__Who are your favorite writers?

__28.__Who is your hero of fiction?

__29.__Which historical figure do you most identify with?

__30.__Who are your heroes in real life?

__31.__What are your favorite names?

__32.__What is it that you most dislike?

__33.__What is your greatest regret?

__34.__How would you like to die?

__35.__What is your motto?

Here are my answers:

__1.__What is your idea of perfect happiness?

It comes upon you when you are not considering it. Look deliberately for it and it will disappear. You can plan steps towards it, but you cannot plan the thing itself. The best you can do is build your life in a way that you feel is taking you in the right direction (whilst being willing and able to change that track over time). The old journey-not-the-destination bollox has some usefulness at its core here. I cycled round the world not so that I could feel happy that I had cycled round the world. I cycled round the world in order to expose myself to what (I came to learn) were so many moods of future joys.

There are so many facets to a full life that choosing one ‘perfect happiness’  feels impossible. Yet even considering the question has made me happy as I appreciate the different ‘happinesses’ in my life. There are the precious memories with friends and family. The explosions of tribal joy when your team scores in the last minute. The moments of ‘flow’, mountain biking downhill to the limits of your ability, the split-seconds of exultation and adrenaline as you leap from something high and dangerous. The low-burning satisfaction of doing something good, being generous, helping others. And the routine happiness that comes from building time and space into your life to escape from the city and sleep under the stars, to swim in rivers, to ride your bike to the coast, to plan an adventure and get out there into the wild for as much time as you can spare and afford, far from worry, envy, stuff, or cell reception.

All these things make me happy. Perhaps then my notion of a perfect happiness would come from a life filled with an appropriate balance of all of them.

__2.__What is your greatest fear?

I fear that old age, injury or illness will one day prevent me from running in the hills.

I fear the finiteness of life, and that my time is running out.

I fear wasting my potential and my opportunities in life.

I fear being trapped, confined, unable to explore any more.

I fear that our generation is ruining the world’s wild places.

I fear boredom.

I fear that, with the exception of the first two, all of these fears are within my own hands. It is up to me whether I do anything about them.

__3.__What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?

I really deplore in myself the need I have to win the praise of others. I am too often jealous of other people (particularly within the world of adventure – both their accomplishments and their accolades [which are often VERY different things]).

Acknowledging this has been a useful exercise for me. I remember a few years ago being invited on a ridiculously crazy, hardcore expedition. The guy who invited me was someone I admired very much. I was flattered. I was excited: if we pulled off this project it would make for a brilliant story. I was scared, too. It was an extremely dangerous plan, and misery and suffering were guaranteed. That was part of the appeal: in those days I rated my ability to suffer very highly and saw it as a point of differentiation and a badge of honour.

Yet something stopped me. I realised that there were so many negatives to this adventure. The more I thought about it, the more I realised that my excitement came almost entirely from how much I would enjoy showing off about it afterwards. It was perfect for my penchant for false-modesty, and would make a cracking book.

I asked myself a question which has been recurrently useful to me since I began adventuring, and particularly since I began living with any sort of online audience. “Would I do this if nobody ever found out?” I asked.

The answer was ‘no’.

I turned down the invitation.

__4.__What is the trait you most deplore in others?

I cannot stand people who make excuses, who fritter their time and opportunities, who are willing to tolerate living a “woulda, coulda, shoulda” sort of life.

I am extremely grateful that I have spent years in very poor parts of the world. I regularly met people with so much drive and lust for life who will never be able to do all the things that I take for granted, simply because they did not have the cash, qualifications, or passport that I have been handed on a plate simply by being born in Britain.

Stop making excuses, stop wasting your life. Set higher standards. Set the alarm clock. Stop moaning. Start doing.

Agh! Even just writing this makes me angry!

__5.__Which living person do you most admire?

I admire rich people who do good things with their wealth.

I admire famous people who use their platform to make stuff happen. (In football, for example, Juan Mata is campaigning to get footballers to give away just 1% of their earnings. I now do the same thing. And I think just how amazing it would be if Ronaldo and Messi sat down over a coffee and said, “you know what, we should end Malaria.” And then leveraged their vast power to do so.)

I admire single parents.

I admire people driven by a vocation to do something good with their lives.

I admire anyone who has run a marathon, or been on a trek or cycle journey longer than they thought that they could accomplish.

I admire people who begin and persevere with projects when all around them are saying, “it’ll never work. You’ve got no chance.”

I admire anyone who finishes writing a book.

__6.__What is your greatest extravagance?

I buy a lot of books.

I no longer buy cheap baked beans or cheap sausages.

__7.__What is your current state of mind?

My current state of mind is pretty decent. I’m no longer driven to mania by ambition, competitiveness, and restlessness.

I don’t take myself or my life very seriously. I find more things amusing than irritating.

I’m curious, keen to go to new places and do new things.

I’m calmer, more settled, and happier than I have been for years.

__8.__What do you consider the most overrated virtue?

I enjoy thinking about questions that I have never considered before! This has never occurred to me before.

I dislike people being feted for things that they did not earn. I know this will sound like envy, but being praised for your beauty or for being born a prince is ridiculous.

I know that beauty is not a virtue, but society often behaves as though it is. In fact, I don’t really know what the ‘virtues’ are and therefore can’t really answer this!

__9.__On what occasion do you lie?

I lie a lot! Dozens of ‘em, daily. Generally, though I keep my lies to the white variety, doing it to make my days simpler or to save people’s feelings. I try very, very hard not to slide into the temptation of lying about my adventures for the sake of glossing an accomplishment. However, I give a lot of talks, and I am well aware that over time the tales I tell are often polished (for simplicity, for effect) to within an inch of the truth. I try to imagine, every so often, that a peer who I respect is sitting at the back of the room with his Bullshitometer held high!

__10.__What do you most dislike about your appearance?

I am so vain that I hesitated before even answering this question, and began to delete it!

In my youth, I hated being not very handsome, pale, skinny and ginger. Now that I am heartily into middle age I am now simply happy to be neither fat nor bald! One of the few genuine joys I experience of getting older is giving far less of a flying fuck about things which had me in lathers of anxiety as a teenager…

__11.__Which living person do you most despise?

Donald Trump. Obviously.

Narcissistic motivational gurus professing to be helping the world but actually just crying out for attention and to be told they are wonderful. (Do I include myself in that category? I hope not, though I probably sailed a wee bit close to the wind a few years back.)

__12.__What is the quality you most like in a man?

Humour, and an adventurous spirit that says “sure, why not?” to ridiculous suggestions. 

__13.__What is the quality you most like in a woman?

Humour, and an adventurous spirit that says “sure, why not?” to ridiculous suggestions. 

__14.__Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

Great, awesome, “I’m too busy”, “sorry, I can’t.”

__15.__What or who is the greatest love of your life?

My family.

__16.__When and where were you happiest?

One thing that might surprise an outsider to the adventure world is just how many emails I receive from people along the lines of, “I went on a massive adventure. But now I am back home and I am not happy. I thought that adventure was going to be the solution to all life’s problems and reveal the meaning of life to me. What should I do?”

This has certainly applied in my own life. One of the reasons I began travelling the world was because I was disillusioned with life and thought there must be more to it all than, well, this. This restlessness has driven generations of men and women to achieve bold and marvellous things.

But wherever I go, there I am. Running (or cycling) away is not going to resolve that. Similarly, going off into the yonder to slay a dragon of an expedition does not mean that anything or anyone is different when you wake up the next morning back home in your bed.

When I am here, I want to be there. When I am there, dragon slaying, I want a life less lonely, less solitary, less pointless.

When I was cycling round the world, I wrote this one evening in my diary, “I missed many things, even after so long away from home. Family, friends, a girlfriend and familiarity. To know where I would sleep each night. To have food in the fridge, an income, beans on toast. Barefoot breakfasts, Saturday mornings and sport on TV. Cereal, toast, newspapers. Knowing how the remote control works. The postman. Salad. Toast. Coffee. Ice cream. Running through the rain across the moors. Football matches, mud and friendship and vicarious hopes and fears on the terraces. Cricket, summer evenings and warm walks home from the pub in dark. Text messaging a meeting point, laughing about the night before. I miss all that. But I will miss all this so much more.”

There have undoubtedly been moments of joy and bliss on my adventures: think somewhere wild and beautiful when nobody on earth knows where I am; the thrill of open oceans; the eye-opening wonder of immersion in foreign cultures; the vagabond delight of a life of freedom, creativity and being accountable only to myself. But I certainly do not have a formula for happiness.

One moment stands out here: busking across Spain, (an exercise in simplicity, vulnerability, and comedy) I lay for a siesta one afternoon on a wooden bench in a cobbled plaza, hidden from the shade with my toes tickled by geraniums in a window box. I looked up at the blue sky and thought to myself, “this is the happiest I have been in many years.”

The happiness came not simply from being on a cracking adventure. It came from being on a cracking adventure whilst also realising that my life at home was wonderful too. I was, for once, not running, not seeking something better. I was just lying on a bench on a sunny afternoon, and I was happy.

__17.__Which talent would you most like to have?

To be wonderful at the violin.

Or drawing.

Or making properly good films.

Or the cover drive.

__18.__If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

This is degenerating into a job interview! “My biggest weakness is that I just work too hard, am too much of a perfectionist, and occasionally am just too much of a darn friendly team player.”

A more serious answer might be that I wish I was better at allowing other people into my life. Personally, certainly, but practically as well. I get obsessed with doing everything myself – to save money, to save time, to save the glory. But I’m not good at everything (though I think that I am), and it gives me great pleasure to collaborate with people who are better than me. I just do not do it enough.

I also wish I was able to relax. I literally never ever just flop and “veg out”. Every waking minute is planned, busy, obsessed. It’s a bit ridiculous.

__19.__What do you consider your greatest achievement?

In terms of actual stuff I have done, I really never reflect on anything with pride. This is not because I am disappointed by everything that I do. It is more that once it is over I lose all interest in it and move on to the next thing. In my home, there are no graduation certificates, or mementoes of expeditions, or anything to do with the books that I’ve written. I’m happy enough with all those things but they rarely cross my mind once they are in the past.

I suppose then that I might consider my greatest achievement to be carving a career out of what I love, meaning that I spend my days (and therefore, of course, my life) doing things that are enjoyable, exciting, rewarding, and meaningful to me. That has been hard to do, and it does make me proud.

If, one day, I am able to look back on my life and say that I raised a family of good, kind, adventurous, happy people, that will trump everything.

__20.__If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be?

I would like to come back as a Giant Redwood tree and live for 2000 years of beautiful, majestic simplicity in the California sunshine.

__21.__Where would you most like to live?

Having travelled round the world I know that I would enjoy living in almost any country on earth – for a time. In fact, the overwhelming choice of fabulous places to live, and the variety of lives that would unfold from that, so flummoxed me that I realised ignoring the choice was also a valid choice. And so I live in England, where I grew up. It has advantages: my friends and family are here. My roots are here. I understand the culture. There are downsides, too. The weather sucks. The hills are small. There are 200 intriguing countries that I am NOT living in, and NOT knowing.

That is somewhat of a politician’s answer, so instead I will say: the Lake District. Or northern California. Or a Spanish hill village.

__22.__What is your most treasured possession?

My family photographs and my wedding ring. I don’t really care about much else. I would be sad to lose all my books, but they’d probably all fit onto one new Kindle. I’d be gutted if my shed disappeared. But in my early days of travelling, I realised that one of the many delights of the open road is that you carry all your possessions with you, and yet you are not bound by them. I therefore began deliberately never buying souvenirs from any of my travels.

I remember when I got back from cycling round the world that I got sentimental about throwing away a 1.5 litre plastic Coke bottle I had carried and used since Mexico. I’ve never quite got round to tossing out the baseball cap I wore for over three years on that journey, either.

Ultimately my most treasured possession is my time.

__23.__What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?

I am going to set aside here genuine misery: grief, fear, pain, oppression, hunger etc.

Within my world, so fortunate that it is, I see the depths of misery to include bereavement, grief, stagnation, and unfulfilled potential.

__24.__What is your favourite occupation?

There are so many things that I love to do! To watch sport in a pub with friends. To arrive somewhere I have never been before. To sit in a cafe in a town where nobody knows my name with a notepad and a good book. And many things besides. Editing a book I have nearly finished writing. Filming an adventure. Cycling downhill. Running uphill. Watching the sunrise. Swimming in rivers and waterfalls and oceans. Eating spicy food. Buying a map. Waking up outdoors. Cooking on a fire. Laughing round the kitchen table.

__25.__What is your most marked characteristic?

Apart from my good looks, wit, and intellect, it is probably my modesty.

I have an inability to take things too seriously for too long. Mostly that is a good characteristic. I am also very restless and hatch too many new plans.

__26.__What do you most value in your friends?

Making the effort to organise meetups. Turning up. Being funny. Not being boring.

__27.__Who are your favourite writers?

Hemingway, Steinbeck, Dillard, Laurie Lee

__28.__Who is your hero of fiction?

Robert Jordan. He lives a short life, but he lives it fully. He notices, he savours, he drinks deep from the well.

__29.__Which historical figure do you most identify with?

Apsley Cherry-Garrard. He was not the archetypal ‘adventurer’ – no tough guy alpha male. Cherry was weak, insecure, lacking in confidence. But he was also driven, hard-working, and utterly enchanted by the majesty of Antarctica and the characters of more overtly tough and wise members of his expedition. Ironically, this made him both tough and wise (yet still vulnerable). His articulate rendering of Captain Scott’s flawed and fatal final expedition has stood the test of time as one of the greatest pieces of travel / expedition writing ever.

__30.__Who are your heroes in real life?

Apart from the explorers / adventurers I admire (and I generally limit this these days to Ranulph Fiennes and Benedict Allen who awakened in me the idea of big adventures), I have not really had a hero since Lance Armstrong let me down and Nelson Mandela died. I admire sporting excellence (the All Blacks), particularly when it is coupled with grace and humility (Federer). I love the lyrics and perfectionism of Bruce Springsteen. In my little world of trying to generate some change via the internet, I suppose Seth Godin sets me a good example of being decent, generous, and persistent.

__31.__What is it that you most dislike?

Paperwork. Meetings. Jazz. Parties where you have to walk around and talk to people (also drinks receptions, networking events etc.). Airports. Wasting time. Boredom. And big stuff like trees being chopped down to cover the world in concrete.

__33.__What is your greatest regret?

Pulling out of the Scott Expedition.

__34.__How would you like to die?

Suddenly, in the wilderness (so that no ghastly suburban crematoriums need be involved), on the very last day before my life moves from being fun, interesting, and mobile to becoming infirm, unwell, and doolally.

__35.__What is your motto?

“Begin. Try it. Laugh.”

Also maybe, “35 questions is too many questions.”

Read Comments

You might also like

Fear “Let me list for you some of the many ways in which you might be afraid to live a more creative life: You’re afraid you have no talent. You’re afraid you’ll be rejected or criticized or ridiculed or misunderstood or—worst […]...
A 63-year-old Woman’s take on Fear and Adventure I wrote about Fear and what stops us living adventurously in yesterday’s email newsletter (what do you mean you don’t subscribe?! You should.) This morning I received this fabulous email from a 63-year old lady called Lynda. She has given […]...
The World Cup and Cycling round the World Here is the story of how the World Cup began for me when I was cycling round the world. The World Cup, at last, was only hours away. France, the World Champions, were playing Senegal, the African lions, in the […]...
 

Comments

  1. Awesome Alastair. I think I’ve learnt more about you from this one post than the last few years 😉 Funny thing, we’re not dissimilar in many ways, but I’ve never looked at those answers in the way I do now. I guess sometimes, rather than writing them down yourself, one needs to read them from someone else 🙂

    Reply
  2. Great read I did my own list before reading yours so that I wasn’t influenced by your answers.

    The best takeaway from this was you mentioning your respect for anyone who has run a marathon, which reminded me to enter the London marathon that has just opened for next year! Thanks for the nudge =]

    Reply

 
 

Post a Comment

HTML tags you can use: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

 
 
 
© Copyright 2012 Alastair Humphreys. All rights reserved. Site design by JSummerton