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ExploreRGS 2014 Alastair Humphreys - Career.001
 

Thoughts on Becoming an Adventurer

I give presentations about the lessons learned in my career as an adventurer.
I’ve written a bunch of books about adventures large and small.
I post regularly on Twitter and Facebook.
And I’d really appreciate it if you signed up for my occasional newsletter:

So, you want to be a professional adventurer? You want to go beyond simply doing great journeys in your spare time, holidays or sabbaticals. Here are a few thoughts, for what they’re worth, about what I’ve learned over the last few years about turning my hobby into my job.

First things first. It did not occur to me to try to earn my living from adventure until I had already spent a year in Africa, done three separate expeditions each of three-months duration, spent three months working and travelling in Asia, written for my university travel magazine, written two books (only one of which got published), done a night-school photography course, and given more than 300 talks.

In other words, like in every other career (except for Being-a-Celebrity or Going-on-X-Factor which too many people aspire to as shortcut solutions), I’d served some sort of apprenticeship and built up some useful experience. It always worries me when people email me asking “how do I become an adventurer” before they’ve even done any sort of adventure.

Next, because I know that “adventurer” sounds like quite a fun job, and certainly a whole lot easier than nearly every proper job out there (except the two mentioned in the previous paragraph), here’s a few thoughts I penned to try to pour a little cold water [realism] on your dreams. And now, if you’re still reading, here’s a few more thoughts to help you clarify whether or not this is the job for you (because, if you decide to make your hobby a job, then it will become a job…).

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Why I am an Adventurer

Or, in other words, why I don’t just work a proper job and take a few months off occasionally to go on a big adventure.

  • I love almost every aspect of what I do.
  • I love being self- employed: the freedom and the responsibility and the pressure.
  • I think I’m probably now un-employable.
  • I love being creative.
  • I appreciate that building a profile helps generate exciting opportunities. (And I have come to accept -though not enjoy- the weird world of relentless self-promotion that being a career adventurer requires. I remain uncomfortable with people praising me more than I deserve, and I continue to get very angry and upset with the inevitable haters that your self-promotion will attract.)

Notice I don’t mention “going on adventures”, because there are loads of ways to do that in life. Don’t become a career adventurer solely because you want to go off on fun trips. There’s easier ways to do that.

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The Outliers

When considering trying to make a career out of travel and adventure, do not make the mistake of imagining your career path to emulate those of the outliers in the field. By definition you are unlikely to achieve as much as them.

  • You are unlikely to be as great a climber as Reinhold Messner
  • You are unlikely to sell as many books as Bill Bryson
  • You are unlikely to take photos as well as Jimmy Chin
  • You are unlikely to make films as successful as Paul Diffley’s
  • You are unlikely to be on telly as much as Ben Fogle
  • You are unlikely to be as rich as Bear Grylls
  • You are unlikely to have the biggest stroke of luck that makes great things happen
  • You are unlikely to have the best address book full of useful contacts who can make great things happen for you

That’s OK. Just be realistic with your dreams and ambitions. Assume that you’ll have to do everything yourself, starting at zero. And if you can do stuff that makes you proud, and earns you enough along the way… well, that’s enough, isn’t it?

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Money and Patience

Two things separate those who make long careers from adventure from those who fall by the wayside: Money and Patience…

Money

Three questions for you:

  1. How much do you need to earn?
  2. How much do you want to earn?
  3. How little money can you exist on?

You would be wise to embark on an attempted career as an adventurer only if you’re willing to live by the final of those questions, and be willing to do so for several years before you’re able to move on to the first question. If the answer to the second question is anything more than “enough to live on”, then this probably is not the job for you. Sure, a few adventurers are rich, but remember the Outliers above. Most adventurers are not rich. Consider also the fairly reliable correlation that richer adventurers live less adventurously than the poorer dirtbags living out of vans but climbing 300 days every year. Think about what you want. If you want to earn well, you’d be wise to get a different job and just spend some of your earnings on adventures. I know plenty of less intelligent, less driven people who earn many times what I do. And besides, wanting to live adventurously is almost the antithesis of wanting to be rich!

A few more points about money:

  • How are you going to earn what you need right now? I don’t mean in 10 years time when you’re a mud-streaked millionaire with a clothing range and a six pack. I mean this week, this month, this year. How are you going to pay rent, bills and taxes before your new career gets established? For most people the sensible option will be to have a “proper job” and fit your adventure stuff in on the side. Give talks on your days off. Write your book before breakfast. Plan your expedition at night. Burn the candle both ends. Make stuff happen. It won’t be easy, but if you can’t hack this busy phase then you won’t be able to hack the hours you’ll need to put in over the coming years to make your career as an adventurer sufficiently viable to reduce your other work hours and – eventually – quit your job and strike out on your own full time, with no support net if you screw up.
  • Bear in mind that even the rugged, glamorous adventurer you are dreaming of becoming will still need to file tax returns, log expenses, chase invoices and wonder (at some point, probably, hopefully, possibly) what the heck you are going to do about a pension. I can vouch from experience that the first three of these are agonisingly dull, and the pension security is still very far down my To Do list.
  • Is it wise to make yourself a Golden Goose? Adventurers, almost always, depend on their repertoire of experiences to be able to earn money. What will you do when your knees pack in? What will you do when you’re older and wiser and fed up of being miserable and cold on a regular basis?
  • If you like climbing or paddling, why don’t you become a guide and get paid by someone else to spend time out there doing what you love? Or become a scientist and get out on research trips? Or become a teacher and get paid to live and work in some exotic far-off land?

If you’re still keen, I write below about the ways that adventurers generally make their money. But before that, the second crucial characteristic for a sustainable career as an adventurer:

Patience

You need to be in this for the long run. It will probably take years before you write a good book, get involved with exciting projects, or earn much money. You need to enjoy the process and the journey. You’ll need to work many hours. You’ll need self discipline and to learn to manage your time, just like anyone running their own small business.

What you don’t need is any sort of idea about where your fledgling career is going. The path will twist and turn. So long as you are willing and make yourself financially able to serve a long apprenticeship, then you can enjoy this journey. But you must be willing to accept that things do not come about instantly. Too many people set the cart before the horse, seeking the honour and recognition but without first completing the hazardous journey on low wages in the bitter cold through long hours of complete darkness.

“Ready, fire, aim” is a great attitude for just getting started, launching in, and figuring stuff out along the way. It’s the way most adventurers operate. And it’s all good, just so long as you accept that it’ll probably take a long time before you hit whatever it is you’d like to hit.

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How to Earn Money as an Adventurer

If you want to make your career out of adventure then you’ll need to earn money from it. Some people think adventure is too pure a concept to monetise. These people will either find some other way to fund their adventures (which is absolutely fine), or they’ll just settle for criticising you online instead. By and large, these are the ways you can earn money.

Which one can you do? Which can you learn to do? Which will you enjoy?

  • Guiding. Do you have the skills and qualifications? Do you want to guide other people on their adventures? Will you be employed by someone else, or strike out by yourself? If you go it alone, how are you going to get anyone to book with you rather than everyone else who is already established?
  • Brand Ambassador. Unless you are a celebrity or uber-sexy, then this will not happen until you have served your lengthy apprenticeship. Ignore it for at least a decade.
  • TV. Unless you are a celebrity, lucky or uber-sexy, then this will not happen. Ignore it.
  • Blogging. There is negligible money involved in blogging (unless you become a renowned expert in a lucrative niche). But if you persevere with it, and do it well, then blogging is a useful way of making you more visible, known and respected online. This, eventually, might lead to earning some money from somewhere. I’ve written 1500 blog posts so far.
  • Writing for Magazines. There are few paid slots available for adventure articles. The pay is OK (generally a few hundred quid), but I struggle to get more than a dozen in a year. Magazine articles are useful though for leverage (see below), and for raising your profile. It’s very hard to get your foot in the door.
  • Writing Books. Very few adventurers can make a living from writing books. I have written seven books now, and still only earn about 15% of my income from the royalties. If you look at books in terms of an hours of effort to cash earned ratio then they are a terrible idea! But books make you seem more important than you really are, help raise your profile and – most importantly – can be incredibly challenging and rewarding to tackle. Self-publishing has removed many of the barriers to entry, but the problem of who will buy your book still remains.
  • Film-making. Even less lucrative than book writing, in my experience! Satisfying, time-consuming, intriguing, frustrating in equal measure. Good films can help you spread the word online if they reach a wide audience. Lots of skill, time, effort and financial outlay required.
  • Speaking. Speaking about my adventures is the only way I have managed to make what I do into a viable career. But it did not come quickly. I gave over 300 talks before I earned any money from it.  So did having a decent-sized trip to talk about (4 years cycling round the world). My first paid talks were for tiny fees in schools. Do lots of these, get better at them, get references, and gradually you’ll be able to raise your fee. Training as a teacher helped. Getting into corporate speaking took me several years of effort after getting pretty established as a schools speaker. There is a lot of competition. It requires effort, application and a concerted focus on how you present yourself online. Not everyone is comfortable with these things, or with speaking to large corporations in general. It is certainly possible to make a living as a schools speaker though. Talks earn me money, expose me to a larger audience (who may one day ask me to give a talk), and help me to sell books.

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Leverage

If you want to climb K2, first you need to get good at climbing small, local mountains.

If you want to write a book, you’ll do a better job if you’ve already been writing for blogs and magazines.

If you want a big publisher, it helps if you’ve already published lots with small publishers or by yourself.

If you want the BBC to commission a series about your idea, it makes sense to have filmed plenty of short pieces yourself first.

If you want to speak at TED, get started now by speaking at your local Rotary Club, village hall, primary school, small business and so on.

With each rung you climb people will perceive you as being more competent. They’ll take a punt on you with a bigger project next time.

And do not be afraid to ask for help. Cold calling does not work, or at least not at first. So ask your Mum to ask her friend who can ask her boss who can ask someone else who, eventually, might be the person to help open the door for you. Be grateful. Fulfil your promises. Deliver more than you were asked for. Make each talk your best ever. Make each journey bolder, richer, more imaginative, fresher.

In other words, do the very best that you can achieve right now. Get started. Creep up the ladder. Improve. Don’t just sit around waiting, feeling like life is unfair, looking enviously at others.

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Social Media

Much of your viability as a career adventurer depends upon the oxygen of publicity. You need to do good journeys, or course, but if nobody knows about them you’re not going to be able to earn a living. So you need to build, grow, and keep an audience of supporters.

First up, it’s essential to understand the principle of 1000 True Fans. The theory goes that you can make a living if you have a loyal support of 1000 people who’ll buy all your books, attend all your events, and so forth. How to get that audience? Do good stuff. Be different. Build a Tribe. This takes a long time.

Which brings me to social media… For social media is seen as a quick-fix solution, a way to get a big audience quickly and without effort. Sure, you can buy a gazillion Twitter followers, but that is totally missing the point. You need to produce quality content, and deliver it to people who actually want it (i.e. not Spam).

Whatever numbers of “followers” you have on social media, the actual conversion rate [making them buy stuff, to put it crassly] is minute. And every time you ask, you use up a little of your goodwill capital. So it’s far better not to consider social media as a magic wand. And it will never, ever work unless you do cool stuff. Nobody will care until then.

Social media can help your growth, but slowly. Here is how I think you should try to use it:

  • To entertain and inform
  • To help people in your niche (answer questions, don’t just self-promote)
  • Generating a presence – comment on blogs, help people on forums, offer advice

Process Summary

My advice on how to turn your adventures into a career distills down to these few points, written in decreasing order of importance:

  1. Do good stuff. (Without this, you have nothing)
  2. Repeat Step 1
  3. Work out your USP (unique, original, fresh, different, useful, but not a gimmick)
  4. Generate great content
  5. Repeat Step 4
  6. Focus on substance over style
  7. Tell people about it

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Checks and Balances

Finally, keep yourself on the right path by paying regular and rigorous attention to these points:

  • Why did you set out down this path in the beginning?
  • What are your true aspirations?
  • What Would …. Do? [Insert name of person you respect the most]
  • Don’t believe your own bullshit!

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What other advice would you have? Please have your say in the comments below…

 

Thank You

Thank you to the many people who have kindly "bought me a coffee" for just £2.50 as encouragement to keep this blog going. "Yes, I too would like to donate a couple of pounds to this site..!"

Read Comments
 

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Comments

  1. I read this on my way home from Ghawdex (Gozo) today.

    I stand and applaud you. It’s real, honest and true article.

    I’d like to add that at times one needs to break hard, stop look back and start again if all goes pair-shaped.

    Persistence! Amen.

    A great blog Al.

    Reply
  2. Nice article Al. You make some very interesting and sensible points to anyone wanting to pursue adventuring as a career. Couldn’t agree more about the section on Social Media – too often it is thought of as a shortcut to success.

    Nothing good in life comes easy…

    Reply
  3. Cheers Al,

    The best point for me to take away from this is understanding your WHY? Remembering at each stage why you begun and why you want this lifestyle of so many others. Cheers – Tarran

    Reply
  4. Lovely advice — thanks for sharing!

    Reply
  5. Jason Clark Posted

    Another great article Alastair, a very informative read!

    Reply
  6. Great post and glad to meet (in cyberspace anyway) a fellow traveler. Will have to “buy you some coffee.” I’ve been without a day job for 22 years because like Alastair, I’ve learned to make a living from my hobbies. Nine of them so far: gardening, design, politics, stone masonry, carpentry, sculpture, writing, photography and most recently, foraging. Never thought I’d make a dime from foraging, but now I’m writing a column about it for a magazine and making over $100/hour from selling to chefs. Wrote about my avocational adventures and offered some tips in an essay for the NY Times a few years ago (pre-foraging): http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/09/jobs/09pre.html?_r=0

    Reply
  7. Nice piece. I can’t help but think how one person’s adventure is another person’s normal day. Make it an adventure.

    Reply
  8. Al,

    As always, you’ve hit the preverbal nail on the head. I don’t think I’ve ever had a proper job, even including the 6 years in the Army.

    Moreover, since going self-employed and attempting to build a career through my hobby (doing ridiculously hard endurance races around the world), I’ve never worked harder. And the really tough bit is knowing when you’ve ‘made it’. Because if you ask anyone who in your eyes has ‘made it’, they’ll tell you they’ve not. That they’re still searching for more.

    Writing for magazines and newspapers is an excellent way to gain exposure and a rubbish way to earn a living. And although you will never by financially rich, you might, if you’re very lucky, be exceptionally rich in life experiences, travelling the world in the name of ‘journalism’.

    It’s the best job in the world. But also the toughest! Reading this article, it’s a relief to know that I’m not alone.

    Cheers,

    Tobes

    Reply
    • Alastair Posted

      Thanks, Tobes – plenty of wise words there.
      If you enjoy what you do, and if it’s sustainable, then you shouldn’t yearn for more (that’s what I’ve been telling myself for the last few years and the message is finally getting through!)

      Reply
  9. The hobby into a job thing has kind of crept up on us Blondes. Our first love is leading groups of youngsters on Dartmoor, then came Two Blondes Walking the blog (over two years of daily posts now) and finally, more recently, Two Blondes Walking Limited and a self-published book (The Dartmoor Christmas Tree).

    Your article is right on many counts. We love what we do which helps enormously, we have built up a loyal blog and social media following, we have worked very hard at what we do for a long time, we didn’t make too many plans and are excited about the future.

    What you neglected to mention was our favourite new Blonde word – “jobby”. This is a hobby that is a job (or maybe a job that is a hobby). No money but requires the same amount of patience and commitment.

    Reply
  10. Great article, too many people today are looking for the shortcuts – it’s refreshing to see the realism injected and yet still seeing you’re still driven to do it through your passion.

    .. Ken

    Reply
  11. I was in the audience for your talk on this subject at Explore last year. It was great, and it’s obvious that you’ve earned your speaker’s stripes. You’re not the easiest act to follow 😉

    But getting the detail down and making it permanently available is a different thing altogether. It’s posts like these (apart from seeing what you’re up to) that make me follow your blog and recommend it to friends.

    It’s incredibly generous of you to put so much effort into distilling your experience into real, honest, and detailed advice for others, and to share it so freely. I’ve clipped it to my Evernote library and will be sharing with abandon.

    Big love

    Reply
  12. This is immensely helpful.

    Reply
  13. The best article I have read on the subject. The most real and down to earth explaination on important topics to help guide people like myself in deciding if this is the right path for me, which i have decided it most definitely still is. Great work Alaistair.

    Reply
  14. Neill Wylie Posted

    Great one Al. Enjoyed this.

    Reply
  15. Patrick Holladay Posted

    What is USP again? How did you find small speaking engagements starting off? How did you set a fee? When they got bigger did you use a speakers agency or anything?

    Reply
    • Alastair Posted

      USP = unique selling point.
      I started by speaking at local schools. First for free, then go up in increments of £50 till people start complaining.
      Yes – I’m on the books of many agencies, though they get me very little work. Most comes direct.

      Reply
  16. Nathan Shirk Posted

    Thanks for that honesty. It was great to be tempered with realism and yet still be encouraged. Thank you for your work. I’m looking forward to following you now that I have found and read some of your stuff. The part about just starting is so key, don’t run a marathon before you run a mile.

    Nate

    Reply
  17. A good read. I have just discovered that adventurer can actually be a job if you put in the hard work. Now you have got me thinking…… thanks

    Reply
  18. Partha Posted

    Dear Alastair,
    Please answer my query: How did you manage to bike around the world? is there any concept of a global visa?
    Thanks and Regards

    Reply
  19. Al, what an excellent eye opener in to what is my dream job, however I’ve realized many small adventures or micro adventure s offers so much reward for a night in the sticks and a excuse to day dream at work,

    Reply
  20. Jason Elsworth Posted

    Spot on in my experience and in those I have seen “make it”. I had started to make some progress through sheer persistence and patience, but stopped in order to put my time into other areas of my life that had become more important to me. I had some great experiences along the way though. Persistence and patience fuelled by energy, passion and commitment can take you a long way.

    Reply
  21. Very nice and informative post Alastair! Thanks for the guidance. I am from India and wish to amalgamate ‘Adventure’ with ‘Cognitive Enhancement’ as my niche. I am a Writer and i wish to monetize and earn a living through my books and online course. Its nice to connect with you and wish you all the best in your endeavors!

    Reply
  22. Hay, ma friend . i am an engineer student. I Do wish to be an adventure. But a question how to make up money in adventure, as i do have a great responsibility on my family. would u pls clear me out. thanku.

    Reply
  23. I started blogging around four years ago and have been on and off for awhile, but reading through this article has reminded me why I do it. I’ve always loved writing, and the lure of adventure has been ever present in my heart. Next year I’ll be adventuring through New Zealand, and I will be sure to produce quality stuff!

    Reply

 
 

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