This weekend is the Explore event at the Royal Geographical Society, one of the big annual events in the expedition world.
I’ve been asked to do one of the opening talks. I’m talking about why Explore / exploring matters, and taking the first little steps to turn dream into reality. Here’s some of what I’ll be saying:
Why Explore matters: from dream to reality
I’m speaking today because I’m somebody whose job revolves around expeditions. On my business card it says “Adventurer”.
I pay my bills and taxes solely through money I earn on the back of my expeditions by giving talks (today unpaid) and writing books and articles. When I first attended Explore that would have seemed like an unimaginably cool thing to do, and when I first came to Explore I got so ridiculously excited by everything that the RGS stands for that I found myself dreaming not only of cycling round the world, but also of one day maybe standing on this stage and giving a talk. So I am very grateful for Explore and everything it has led to.
I mention having “Adventurer” on a business card because I am sure that when I first came to have Explore I would have thought that would you would be amazingly awesome and would know everything that there was to know about expeditions. Sadly that isn’t true on either count! In the 16 years since my first big expedition I have certainly learned a lot about every aspect of adventure.
But here’s the thing: I am still learning. Whatever it is that you want to do in life, you will be a beginner at it when you begin. This sounds obvious but it is really important to remember today. I came shyly to my first Explore, felt out of my depth on my first expedition, gave my first scary talk in front of a big audience… Things are always new.
There are still a lot of people who know far more than me about each specific aspect of expeditions, including many people at this event. What this means is that it doesn’t matter at all where you are on the scale – all of us are improving and all of us can learn from people with more experience in different fields. You will get no better opportunity for beginning that process than here at Explore this weekend.
A quick aside: I recently stumbled across this email from Bear Grylls. I had written to him asking for advice about getting publicity for my trips, increasing my online presence and giving more talks. It amuses me because now, about 7 years after I sent this email, I send the same message out every week to people who are emailing me asking for the Magic Bullet solution for turning your hobby into your job.
“Man I wish had some magic solution for you!
I guess it is a mix of hard work, good luck, & a few prayers !
Just focus on doing your job well and the press & speaking will come- much better way of doing it than trying just to get press & speaking!
If you do the job etc well the rest will come
Follow those dreams but don’t be under any illusions- it is a rocky road and hard, …I do it because I would be useless at anything else”
Expeditions are a chance to learn, about the world, about ourselves, about whatever our passions might be. (And, by the way, you’ll learn so much more “out there” than you can ever learn on line or at conferences. The learning might be more painful, muddy or expensive out there, but it’s effective and it can be funny and wonderful too).
Expeditions are a chance to live harder and more vividly than the real world often permits, escaping from the constraints and conventions of normal life and getting out into wild environments where your success depends on you and your team mates. It’s up to you. No excuses. It’s up to you, of course, unless Lady Luck chooses not to smile upon you in which case you learn the best lessons of all: of perspective and humility and an ability to laugh at the absurd. I love expeditions and all that they have given me and taught me. I hope you will soon be heading off on journeys of your own.
Look around this hall. The names you see are the Society’s Gold Medal winners. These are the heavyweights in the history of British expeditions. This society has an impressive legacy. But these people were all once like you and me. They all began somewhere. They all did their very first expedition, with varying degrees of success and confidence and competence. Today – don’t make the mistake of being weighed down and intimidated by names such as these. Instead, be inspired by them. Remember that they all had to begin learning. And draw confidence from knowing that you are in the best possible place to kickstart your expedition than. Don’t waste the opportunities of this weekend by feeling intimidated. You may not even know yet what adventure you want to do. That is completely fine. This weekend is a license to dream, as well as gaining knowledge and meeting new people.
And that is why Explore matters. This weekend is the bubbling cauldron which can begin to turn your dream into a reality.
A few words of caution now.
If you were a young person starting out in business you would not immediately become CEO of a FTSE 100 Company. If you wanted to be a musician you would start out playing in pubs, honing your craft and building your audience. If your aspirations were to be a professional athlete, you would begin by representing your school, then your town, county and club before arriving on the international stage. Expeditions should not be any different. I receive so many emails from aspiring adventurers (and I love receiving them). But too many are from people looking to fly before they can walk.
Whether you are interested in physical endeavour or scientific research I believe that serving an apprenticeship is important.
Your first trip does not have to be a million-pound extravaganza with press releases crammed with cliche and tenuous science and superlatives and claims at world firsts. I am not being an old curmudgeon here – I love epic endeavours. I’m actually trying to encourage rather than discourage.
For you shouldn’t feel downhearted or inferior if you are planning something smaller than epic. Not at all! The crucial thing is only to begin. To get started with an expedition that excites you, challenges you, feels worthwhile and significant to you. Make do with the skills and the time and the money you have available right now, and get started.
You know, it may not feel this way when you are young and itching to get going with your expeditions, but life is long (Jeez, this speech is making me feel like an old man!). There is, believe me, time a-plenty for that superlative-crammed extravaganza. The smaller things you do to get you started will all be of benefit to you. And when you pull that epic off I will be applauding and thrilled with everyone else. Because I love the world of ground-breaking expeditions, adventure and travel.
So this weekend, Dream big, of course, but start small – take the first steps towards wherever it is you dream of getting. Explore is a brilliant starting point for this.
People come to Explore for varied reasons. There are many different interpretations of expeditions and travel and adventure.
Expeditions might be about discovering new places – the world of cave exploration, for example. It might be about furthering discovery in science, geography or anthropology. It might be about personal challenge: pushing your limits whether physical, mental, or creative story telling ones. We are not here this weekend to judge on who is right or wrong or what is “better” in some way. (Though I suspect that if you combine some of all those aspects then you’d be on to quite a winner!)
In other words, be confident that if you are here then you have a right to be here. It’s all valid. Don’t worry!
But what is a useful thing to do is to begin to work out in your head why you are here. What is it about the world of expeditions excites you? Where in the world would you like to explore? How would you like to do that, and why would you like to do that? And what assistance do you need to make it happen? You may not know any of these answers yet. That’s fine! But at least bear the questions in mind throughout the weekend. They can help ignite a spark or help an idea evolve.
The most important thing you can do this weekend is to meet new people, to share your ideas, and to realise that you are not alone, you are not a freak and that without question there is somebody in this building right now who can help you make your expedition happen.
5 Things I wish I’d done at my first Explore weekend:
1. Ask more questions
2. Spoken with more new people
3. Chatted less to people I already knew
4. Taken photos and written a diary
5. Stayed later at the bar
5 Things I wish I’d done in the years since then:
1. Travelled more slowly
2. Kept more decisions in my own control
3. Written fewer blog posts and more books (and all that metaphor implies)
4. Filmed more
5. Discussed things more with my peers (a.k.a. Stayed later at the bar)
I arrived at my first Explore with an enthusiastic but vague daydream. I was ambitious and determined but I also had an inferiority complex. I hadn’t done anything, so what right did I have to be here? That was really stupid. I was too shy to speak to anyone – I listened a lot and took a lot in, but I didn’t speak up.
The most important thing that I took away from my first Explore was the realisation that I was not crazy in wanting to cycle round the world. Or I might be crazy, but I wasn’t alone in being crazy. I was surrounded by crazy folk burning with ideas.
I realised that I was not crazy and I learned that it was a dream that was actually achievable.
A month later I was offered a job for when I graduated.
I wrote a reply to a job offer saying,
“Dear Sir. Thank you very much for the job offer. But I’m going to cycle round the world instead. I know that this job is probably the sensible option. However, even deeper down I know that if I have the chance to do something now and don’t take it, I may always regret it.
You can do that too.
Enjoy the weekend.
If you are too shy to speak to anyone else then come say hi to me or Tweet me!
Here’s an interview I did with a journalist later that day: