“You’re too young a man to be panning memories, Adam. You should be getting yourself some new ones, so that the mining will be richer when you come to age.” – John Steinbeck
Doing something fun is fun. There is plenty of space in life for it. But fun is not going to shape me. It won’t forge my direction in life or remain seared in my memory down all the years to come. The momentous moments in life are not merely fun. This is where the appeal of challenging myself comes in. It is what gives me my sense of identity.
A sceptical friend once described my masochism as “banging your head against a brick wall to enjoy stopping.” There is, I admit, truth in that. There is a warm glow of contentment when it is all over. But there is more to it. It is difficult to predict what challenges I will need to overcome during a day on the road. But I need to have the self-confidence to believe that I will be able to cope, or that I will muddle through. Or at least that I will be able to cope with the unpredictable consequences of not being able to cope with the unpredictable situation.
Each time I succeed at something I thought would be difficult I expand my boundaries and horizons a fraction. I am pleased to have succeeded. It fires my ambition. I want that feeling again. I set another challenge, daring myself to try things difficult and rewarding with my diminishing days and strength. It’s a vicious cycle familiar to all addicts: to get the buzz back you have to take a bit more, or take something stronger. My hope is that this is curable (the eternal delusion of the addict?) and that one day I will feel that I have done enough, that I have scratched the itch.
As well as striving for achievement and retrospectively relishing hard times, challenges help me to prove myself to myself. Overcoming something difficult is good for my self-confidence. I like fighting my weakness, laziness and nervousness in order to surprise myself and feel proud at what I have done. I store these experiences away in my memory to help me at some point in the future. Each one makes future challenges more attainable.
There is an element of using challenges to prove myself to other people too, either to win their praise, or as a metaphorical two-fingers to negative people. The “F***-You-Factor” is not the most noble of motives. But it is certainly effective. Thankfully, the older I become the less it features.
When thinking about which aspects of motivation to write about, I spoke to a fellow adventurer. An affable, humble man, he still confessed that earning bragging rights was an important part of why he did it all. The buzz of telling big yarns in the pub. To my surprise, for I am a secretly vain man, this aspect has never driven me. Perhaps I try to show off through my books (though I hope not). But I hate talking about what I do in pubs or at parties. I tell strangers I’m a teacher. I am proud that some of the most interesting things I have ever done remain unknown to virtually everyone else. There are no photographs of my journeys in my study. I don’t buy souvenirs. The memories are not terrifically important to me. It is the thought of what comes next that drives me, not sitting back trying to recapture the glory.
At university I developed two fascinations: travelling the world and taking on physical challenges. I joined the Territorial Army to earn money to fund my adventures. The TA taught me to move fast, travel light and live efficiently. I took the first steps towards an education in “hardness”. Being fit is easy, the saying goes. It’s being hard that is hard. I learned to be tough on myself and set high standards, discovering that the benefits would spill over into all facets of life.
Small incidents stand out to me now. They often did not seem special at the time in the torrent of experiences that rush past us every day. But one by one they set me down the road towards this hot, lonely one I am walking today. Which moment to choose… Perhaps this one: we were on a coach one Friday night, driving to some grim training base somewhere in Scotland. It was probably raining. There would have been Irn-Bru. The Regimental Sergeant Major, who terrified me, came down the bus to chat to a group of us. He was an impressive man, ex-Special Forces. He intimidated me, but I had huge respect for him.
He asked us about our plans after university. I had no idea. Everyone else spoke of joining the Army or jobs in the City. Sensible jobs. Ambitious careers. My turn came. My mouth opened. Mr Smart Arse.
“I’m going to be an adventurer.”
My pals burst out laughing at my daft audacity. The RSM looked at me. He was not laughing. He stared hard at me. I braved myself to hold his stare.
“That’s the best f****** answer I’ve heard all day.”
This is an extract from my book There Are Other Rivers. I’ll post the next chapter here at the same time tomorrow evening.
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..!”