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Deciding to Change the Direction of your Life

I prepared my thoughts and slides for a talk about the decisions that led me to begin making adventure my life.
Then the venue had a technical hitch so couldn’t use my slides and my talk became a Q&A session.
I thought it was an interesting topic, so here is the essence of what I planned to say (video at the bottom recorded, in haste, in my shed).

People tend to focus on the big, exciting headline stories of Adventurers and their adventures. The guts and the glory. The winning sunset shots. The mystique of the “Adventurer”, out there doing his or her thing, far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife.
Subsequently this can all seem very removed from real life and ordinary people. Cool, perhaps, but not achievable.

But, one thing that has become apparent to me from spending a couple of decades hanging around with so-called Adventurers, is how ordinary they / we all are. Not particularly talented, athletic, or rich. Without exception. So how come they are off doing fabulous adventures whilst all the similar people who enjoy their stories are not?

I believe it comes down to boldness (not baldness, Ben…). Later down the line you certainly need resilience, optimism, motivation, curiosity and ambition. But that all comes later. To get started, you simply need to make a bold step towards where you want to be.
There’s never a perfect time. You’re never as rich, prepared, fit or free as you’d like to be.
So you just have to get on and commit to changing the direction your life is going in.

For me, this moment was turning down a good teaching job, in a school that I liked, and declaring – to the school, to the world, to myself – that I was going to go down a different route.
If you’re a woulda, coulda, shoulda kind of guy, you’re never going to get started. You can make whatever excuses you like, blame whatever you like. But, in the end, if you’re going to cycle round the world (or whatever your personal equivalent of that is), then you need to commit to it.

And so I toddled off round the world, had myself a big adventure. Came home. Wrote a book. Got invited to speak about my book at one of the most prestigious of all literary festivals. Which I try to say nonchalantly, but secretly I’m thinking “Kapow!” This is everything I dreamed of! Doing big trips, writing books, getting my ego massaged. Kapow!

But, once again, this isn’t the reality. People tend to focus on the success stories (though, by the way, what a ‘relative’, murky word is ‘success’…)

Here is the reality. I toddled off round the world, had myself a big adventure. Came home. Wrote a book. And it got rejected. By every publishing house under the sun. I failed. I cried. I was depressed. I gave up. Excuses and blame were flying around, trying to protect my crushed self-confidence.

I gave up.

But then a friend of mine (thank you, Paul), suggested I should self-publish my book. I’d already written it. It might as well see the light of day. Who cares if only your Mum reads it. At least the project will have some completion.

So I followed Paul’s advice, and self-published my first book. It’s a bit rough round the edges, crying out for a decent editor, but at least I could now call myself “an author”. When I held the book in my hands for the first time I was ridiculously proud.

Next step: stick the book on Amazon. Once you have a book on Amazon, you’re a legitimate writer, right? A pro! So, laboriously, I jumped through all the hoops of getting my book listed on Amazon. I was a pro! This was brilliant!

Take a look at my first Amazon listing. When I re-discovered this a couple of years ago it made me laugh out loud. The flash of my camera dazzling on the cover. My dodgy blue bedroom carpet visible round the edges. It’s terrible! Awful! Embarrassing! I laugh at it now.

But here’s the thing. Ten years down the line, I’m so proud of that Amazon posting and that self-published book. Because I just got on and did it. I said “screw you” to everyone in the publishing world, the so-called experts, the gatekeepers who had turned me away, and I said “I’m just going to do it anyway.”

Today that book’s still in print. It’s sold tens of thousands of copies, is rated five-star on Amazon, and it began the journey that got me to poncing around at fancy literary festivals.

Begin, Begin, Begin.

Once you have begun, then you can move on to consider the next phase: turning what you love into your life. Earning the money you need to live from your adventures.

After that first book I began a cycle that lasted for many years. The plan, loosely, was to save up my money and go do an interesting adventure each year. Then I’d come home and write books, write articles, give talks in order to start earning money for the next adventure.

Books, articles and talks all make total sense for an adventurer. You do some work. Then you get paid.
What makes less initial sense is all the work you choose to do that does not earn money. I spent several years treating my blog as a half-time job, 50% of my time and effort, despite not earning anything from this. I was trying to build an audience, build some credibility. Both those things are important. And both take time. Lots of time. There’s an archive of 1600 articles on my website. They’ve resulted in so many bookings for speaking engagements and so on.

Around that time I also spent £1600 on a new video camera. The fact that I still remember the price eight years on shows how terrifyingly expensive this was to me at the time. Extra terrifying because I had never filmed anything in my life. But I saw the beautiful filming capabilities of this brand new invention – the digital SLR camera that could record movies, and I took a punt. I said to myself, “if I could get good at this, filming my adventures, then surely this will help me, somehow, somewhere, some day.”
I gambled that if I could learn how to make nice films about my adventures, before everyone else learned how to do it, then that might give me a little advantage.

And so I spent years teaching myself on Google and YouTube how to use a camera, how to film stuff, how to edit a film. My films weren’t very good (of course they weren’t – I was a beginner! Why do we assume we must be brilliant straight away or quit if we are not?). Hardly anyone watched them. But I persevered. I persevered because I loved it, and because I wanted to get good.
Finally, now, I’m in a position where I have begun to earn money from making films. People pay me to go and do awesome stuff – build rafts, see the Northern Lights – and to make films about it.
That £1600 today feels like an absolute bargain. £1600 and eight years of learning.

But there are caveats to this story. Yes, I earn my money entirely from adventure-y stuff. Yes, I get to spend weekdays running over the hills that I love.

But, but, I have to turn that run which I love into something sellable. Or, at least into something of interest for the internet. I don’t just run over the hills. I plan my routes, think about sunrise timings and angles, set up tripods, run past the camera, collect my tripod. And repeat over and over again. And then I go home and spend days cooped up behind a computer editing the film, working at a desk, just like most ordinary people do.

Adventure becomes less pure when it is your job.

At times you need to commercialise things which in your heart you’d like to be purer than that. Your bank account doesn’t lie though. This is work now.
You spend a hell of a lot of time at a desk in order to make it look as though your life is not spent behind a desk.

Is it worth it? For me: yes. I love nearly every part of what I spend my days doing. I’m thankful for that.

So, how do you make a living from adventure?
I get asked this question a lot.
In fact, I used to ask other people this question a lot.
Many years ago, I emailed Bear Grylls to ask him this question.
His reply?

Hard work.
Do your job well.
If you do the job well, the rest will come.

This was not the answer I wanted at the time. I wanted a magic solution to fame, fortune, and a mud-smeared handsome face.
Alas, or perhaps I mean, thankfully, it’s not how it works. You simply have to put in the time.

Here’s the best summary I have come up with for making your living out of adventure.
It boils down, in the first place, to doing something big, exciting and meaningful in your life. If you’re not willing to graft anonymously and skint for that phase, then you’re in the wrong game.

But the problem with this cycle is how do you begin? How do you get the money you need for your first massive adventure?
Well, you don’t. You just go do something cheap and within your means, and you begin anyway.
You don’t need a lot of money to have a cool adventure.
Last summer I bought a cheap return flight to Spain. Then I turned up, with no money at all, and spent a glorious month walking through northern Spain, earning all of the money I needed by busking on my violin. I’m a terrible violinist, but I earned €125. That shows that a RyanAir flight plus €125 (or a violin) is all you need for your first adventure.

Don’t make excuses. Don’t play the blame game.
Make a plan, make something happen.

And, if you don’t wish to commit to a big adventure, then at least squeeze in some microadventures. Swim in rivers, walk under the full moon, sleep on your local hill. You can certainly live adventurously without having to call yourself an Adventurer.

“The life that you could still live, you should live.”

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  1. Hi Al, you’re motivation to make me want to do different things just gets better and better. Its so easy to just let life drift by the same. But if one is not too happy with that then something must change.
    Your talks yesterday were absolutely brilliant. I always enjoy reading, listening and looking and your work.
    Thank you for your kindness yesterday with the free book and your encouraging wording signing in my tatty, but most favorite book.
    Thank you for the suggestion too. I will think about doing what you said…I was thinking of doing more retreats anyways so this may be a different option. cheaper haha 🙂
    I really appreciate everything you do for everyone! Such a kind person.
    Thanks Al! Have a great week! Hope to see you again soon. Bev 🙂

  2. This is so inspirational. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Thank you for this great article. You are so inspiring.
    Your story here is a great example of growth mindset that I’m hearing about everywhere at the moment and applies to all aspects of life.
    Thanks again.

  4. Inspirational stuff. I wish more British people believed that they have the power to shape their own destiny. Here’s to activity over apathy!

  5. Dear Alastair,

    I have followed your travels for some time now. I often have an enormous aversion with some persons that brag about the worlds firsts, fastest and hardest on social media. What I really appreciate about you is the openess and reflective view that you have about your work. I am actually very happy that some people can make a living with adventures (maybe a bit jealous too since I am stuck for too many hours a day in a hospital and thinking about my next cycling or walking tour). So keep on doing what you do!

    Greetings from Germany

  6. Agree with everything in this post. What you said about not making excuses is so true, sometimes all it takes is a little bit of courage.

  7. I love this post, the guts and the determ8nation to make your own way. It never goes as planned but always go the way of the heart if you push forward.

  8. Hey Alastair, I’ve always womdered how your family fit in with all this. Up until a few months ago I didn’t know they existed. I read your posts and said to myself “it’s easy for him to say, he doesn’t have a wife and two children” I think this should be your next direction. How do you fit this in around a wife that doesn’t necessarily want to be involved.



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