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Choosing a Life Less Ordinary


Once upon a time, I used to dream of adventure.

I sat at home, reading books, flicking through magazines, scrolling through blogs, and drooling over places like this:

Iceland campsite

Sand Dunes

Greenland Expedition

Atlantic Row

and even this:

Piles clinic

Chinese Food

Trouble is, they are the sort of places that other people go to. They are places for adventurers and travellers and lottery winners, or at least for just that once-in-a-lifetime trip. Not for me, in other words. I was just a normal person. I’md just get on with my perfectly nice, but normal life.

But somehow, little by little, something changed. The realisation that my days were ticking away, that my life was nice but not truthfully what I yearned for in life. And a growing determination that if adventure was what excited me in life, then I should go and look for it.

I might fail (I was not very heroic, tough, talented, well-connected or rich: prerequisites for all the adventurers I had ever heard about). And failure, I realised in a painful bout of honesty, was what frightened me the most. That was what was stopping me. I wasn’t afraid of mountains or deserts. I was afraid of failing and looking a bit silly.

And that was ridiculous.

A ridiculous little hurdle to be keeping me from living the life of my choice. The people who really mattered to me would respect me for trying, even if I failed. So I didn’t really have anything to lose. I was free to begin. I smiled, climbed onto my bicycle, and pedalled off down the road in search of adventure.

There is no road map for a journey like this. I was leaving behind the ordinary path of life – employment, promotion, pensions, evenings in the pub, Bank Holiday escapes from the city. One of the most difficult things I have faced since heading off on my own has been having nobody to show me what comes next. But that has also been exciting and empowering as well.

I cycled down my street and off around the world. Look at your own street – that’s the road to Africa! Or to China! Or to wherever in the world you want to go. It’s right there waiting for you. You just have to go…

Danger - wild animals next 50km. Mikumi national park, Tanzania

tropic of cancer

Tequila Mexico

That was the only hard part, really. Just going. Committing. Making it happen.
Since then I’mve cycled round the world, written a bunch of books, done some other big adventures (I took all of the “proper adventure” photos at the top of this blog post), and carved out a life that feels exciting, worthwhile and satisfying to me. I’mm my own boss. I’mm free and happy.

Here’s a few things I have learned:

  • Adventurers are not special people. They are just ordinary people who have chosen to do extra-ordinary things.
  • Deciding to change the direction of your life is daunting, difficult, and quite a lot of hassle.
  • You do not need to cycle round the world for 4 years to have an adventure. Sleeping on a hill one night after work with your friends is a genuine burst of adventure, a microadventure. Small but effective.
  • “Small but effective” is the most important way to make changes in your life. If you dream of, say, cycling round the world, you may never even begin because it is daunting, difficult, and quite a lot of hassle. So go sleep on a hill instead. Start small.
  • Doing something tiny is the best way to get yourself in motion, to build momentum, and to realise that you would like to do more things like this in your life. Building momentum gradually is far more effective than planning a giant leap that is so terrifying and momentous that you’ll never actually jump.
  • Sleeping on a hill and swimming in a river are good for the soul, whoever you are and whatever your dreams.

Dream Big.
Then think small.
Start small.
But do start.

running jump

This post originally appeared on the Not On The High Street blog.

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..!”

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  1. J MacMathúna Posted

    Fair play to you Alaistair you have been very brave in your life choices and are reaping the benefits.

    My dilemma is that I started adventure early, lots of sailing, trekking traveled interdependently through East Africa and South America while still in my teens (Reading your book you may have passed me on your bike in Arusha and again in Argentina) but am now in my mid 30’s and have done nothing adventurous since

    My difficulty is trying to balance a life with a job, mortgage, wife, young kids and all the obligations that that entails with having a bit of adventure. I struggle to get any time to do my own things (maybe a few hours a month). I am hoping to get a bit more free time as the kids get older but until then I will unfortunately be stuck in dreamerville. thinking of all sorts of adventures which I currently have no real hope of doing.

    • Alastair Posted

      Time for some microadventures…

    • Hi J
      I know exactly where you’re coming from – mortgage, wife, kids etc so it’s taken me a while to accept that until boys are off to uni or that my numbers (that I don’t do) on the lottery come in then it’s small scale adventures for me but to continue and enjoy reading / hearing about the adventures of others.

      It’s also taken me time to realise that my wife / kids don’t want someone who’s moping around and that sometimes you have to be a bit selfish for your own sanity. Therefore I’ve done a few micros, I’ve signed up for a navigation course and told my family that I will be doing some weekend challenges this year and next. I could be the kind of husband who’s out on the piss every weekend but I’m not and I have had to do these little things for me. It’s not to do with spending time away from the family but time that actually makes the family stronger.

      Al’s blog, books and site have been a real motivation to do these small things which in turn have had a positive impact on me and my family.

  2. Thank you so much for sharing this awesome post! I can’t even really express how much I loved it and agree with every single word you said.

    I used to do the exact same things, to dream of traveling, gaze at others photos, lament the impossibility of ever having adventures or seeing the world or anything like that. These last six months or so I’ve slowly come to realize the same things you have and now I’m working on getting out there myself.

  3. Al, thank you man.

    Your last few posts have really hit home and were just what I needed for a project I have been procrastinating about for too long….

  4. I read this and I can’t even begin to describe how intensely it resonates with me. My struggle/challenge is that I am a woman, and that I my fears aren’t just related to the uncertainty/social pressures/financial pressures of leaving a place and traveling, but in addition to all those, I have fears of traveling solo as a woman. Even in a place that I know well and have a lot of familiarity with, there is still a fear/anxiety that I feel when being alone, walking alone, traveling alone. I’m sure you’ve probably heard this response before. I’m just curious if you have any kind of response yourself to addressing these kinds of fears from your female friends/travelers. Thanks! Very inspiring.

    • Alastair Posted

      I recommend you read Emily Chappell’s blog – she writes very well about these things from a female viewpoint.

  5. Erika Posted

    A great post, thanks Alastair – it’s reassuring to realise the experts don’t necessarily have it all worked out either! I agree, starting is key.

    Having recently embarked upon a quest to see every national park in Australia, I very nearly didn’t begin, feeling I had to have it all mapped out first – a definite plan, a website, a logical reason for doing it, the right kit. It’s very easy to become bogged down with fear and overwhelm! But I wanted to start on my 40th birthday, so I just threw my tent in the car and thought, just start with the first one and work the rest of it out along the way. One down, 743 to go!! Plus the confidence gained from taking that first step (for me, hiking on my own for the first time), propels you on to the next one.

  6. That is me. I am the one sat at home looking at other people’s photographs, wondering if I’ll ever get to see those things with my own eyes or have those experiences.
    I’ve had a little taste of travel and adventure in recent years, and I love it. I want it more. Loads more. Yes I have a mortgage and full-time job and a pet rabbit, but I also have an inner desire to go off an explore. At the moment adventure is confined to a couple of weeks holiday exploring somewhere on my motorcycle, or visiting a new city, or setting myself a silly challenge like the Lyke Wake Walk. Maybe one day I might be a proper adventurer with an expedition and a book and some speaking engagements, but at the moment I am just trying to make the most of the time, money and fitness that I have.
    I’m definitely up for sleeping on a hill and a spot of wild swimming; I put it on my goals list for 2015 but haven’t had chance to actually do it yet. I will, before the year is out.

  7. Your photography has improved exponentially over the last 5 years or so that I have been following you.

    May you have many more adventures.

  8. Sara Posted

    Great article, thanks. I have a messaged for MV as a female I did my first tour with friends to Norway looking forward to seeing the Lofoten Islands. My friend became I’ll and had to rest for a week. I had a week left before my flight home, decision stay ‘safe’ with friends or go and see the islands. I went solo, it was amazing. I have done small solo tours since then as well as touring with friends. Go for it and I agree starting small helps.

  9. Hi Alastair,

    Your comment about your fear of failure made me wonder: Have you ever read about approach and avoidant personalities?

    This is the idea from psychology that people are born with a tendency to motivate themselves either positively (approach: “Cycling around the world will be the greatest thing that I ever do, I’m going to enjoy every moment!”) or negatively (avoidance: “I’d better not screw up this round the world cycle ride!”).

    Stumbling across this concept made me realise that, although I approach goals positively, I tend to tackle those goals in an avoidant manner. Example: In 2011, I cycled around Britain. This was, as you can imagine, a stunning experience; rarely a day goes past without a glorious memory or three dropping in to say hi. However: I cycled the 4000+ miles in less than two months. Why? Because I was terrified, all the way around, that I would fail. I wanted to get it done ASAP, so that I could enjoy not having failed!

    Slightly disturbed by this realisation, the following year I cycled around Tunisia, forcing myself to cycle much more slowly and to enjoy the process.

    I was successful on this trip, but a lifelong tendency for avoidant motivation is not so easily overturned!

    Would you say that you still had that fear of failure when planning your adventures (or in life, generally)? If so, how do you get over it? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the approach/avoidant concept. Perhaps you think it’s a symptom of psychologists overthinking things!

    Staying on a medical theme, I like that microadventures are the “minimum effective dose” for adventure!

    All the best and thanks for the thought provocations,

  10. This is brilliant – It is hard to balance everything but I don’t want to look back on my life and say “i wish I had done…”

  11. This is really inspiring Alastair, I’ve got a trip upcoming and this has definitely made me want to be more adventurous with it.

  12. Matrix Posted

    This is so cool. I just began my adventure in early April. I started in Denver, Co coming from upstate NY Finger Lakes region. Although I’m beginning with an abundance of micro adventures my idea is to gather momentum with true adventure. I will start in the state’s and want to do some research on some overseas adventure. I really have set my life up for this, I just had to take the leap and now that I have, my vision for the after future adventure is developing. Wow, life can just be so sweet if you want it to be.

  13. Yep totally agree, even after some big trips over the years, I’m still super excited about a little camping trip in Donegal this weekend.



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