Shouting from my shed

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alastair humphreys rowing boat

Push, push, push. Expanding your Comfort Zone.

I’mm 12 years old, on a football camp. I’mm sleeping in a tent, in a field, with three boys I’mve never met before. They’re better at me than football. They’re cooler than me. They’re friends with each other. How am I ever going to get through three whole days of this?

I’mm 15 years old, cycling across England with two friends from school. We get lost and end up on the summit of Great Gable (the 10th highest peak in England: that really is stupid lost!). I wipe away tears and carry my heavy bike down what feels like an eternity of scree slopes. It’s so hard, we’re so lost, I’mm so much slower than the others. I don’t think I can do it.

I’mm 18 years old, driving into a place the like of which I’mve never seen in all my life. A shanty town of shacks, bullet holes on the walls, people staring at me. It’s my first day in Africa. I cannot imagine how I can live here for an entire year. I’mm terrified.

I’mm surrounded by porters, clamouring at me in Urdu. The night is hot and the air is heavy with sweat and curry and the crazy noise and music of Asia. It’s my first day in Pakistan. My first overseas bike journey. I need to get to a hotel, hide for the night, sort myself, take refuge from all this. A porter promises to help me get my bike and kit into a taxi. He carries it 20 yards to the car. I ask him how much I owe. £20, he tells me. I’mm too scared to argue. I’mm overwhelmed by the sheer foreign-ness of this place. I no longer want to cycle to China. I want to go home.

I’mm standing in front of a class of teenagers. One of them tells his mate to f*** off, loudly. I choose to pretend I didn’t hear it, to begin the lesson instead. Beyond the bored and rolling eyes of the bolshy teenagers are the impassive eyes of the assessor. He’s here to judge me today, to see if I can make it as a teacher in this tough school. Can I? Right now I don’t think so.

I’mm outside my Mum and Dad’s house. It’s a beautiful summer’s day. I’mve just said goodbye. I climb on my bike. I’mve told everyone I’mm going to cycle round the world. Can I really do this? Absolutely no chance.

I’mm at the front of a small room.  There are three rows of chairs, perhaps 30 people in all. They are looking at me. They’ve come to hear me give a talk. Me?! A talk about myself and my travels so far. I’mve been so nervous today that I haven’t eaten. I feel sweat trickling from my armpits. Not only have I got to remember what to say, I now need to remember to keep my arms clamped to my side! Speaking in public is terrifying. I vow never to do it again.

I’mm in an interview room. The window blinds are closed. I’mve sat exams for months and months to get this far. My final interview. The hardest intellectual challenge I’mve ever attempted. A panel of five introduce themselves. “Take off your jacket,” one man says. “It’s a hot day.”
“I’md rather not thank you – I only ironed the front of my shirt.”
They laugh, fortunately. It’s the only moment of laughter. I know these questions are going to be harder than any I’mve ever faced before, the stakes higher still.

I’mm in my boss’s office. I’mm about to quit my job. Jack in the salary and the pension and the sensible working hours. I’mm going to be self employed. “You’re going to do what?” says my boss.
“I’mm going to be an adventurer.”
No, I’mm not. Unless I can earn some money, I’mm going to be unemployed.

I’mm in a rowing boat with three men I barely know. I’mve been vomiting for days. The storm batters the boat. We’re locked in a tiny cabin, sweating against one another. We are at the mercy of the ocean. Ahead of us lie several thousand more miles of this. I’mm plumbing new depths of misery and helplessness.

I’mm in a cinema. Beer and popcorn. Lights off, film about to start. Comfy chairs. I’mm anonymous and surrounded by people. Strangers who are about to watch my first ever film. What if nobody laughs? What if they laugh in the wrong bits? Worse – what if they just fidget, a bit bored? I ought to be happy that my first expedition film has even made it this far. But instead, as always, I’mm afraid and out of my depth. At least this time there is beer and popcorn. So perhaps I am making a bit of progress, after all…


The point of all this? That continually pushing against my comfort zone means I have cajoled myself to do stuff beyond what I thought possible. At each stage in this narrative I would never have imagined that I would attempt what came next, let alone believe that I could accomplish it.

Looking back like this helps me appreciate how much I have grown. And I guess that gives me a bit more confidence that I’mll be able to work my way through whatever the next big, daunting hurdle is that appears before me.

I’mm not writing this as a showing-off story: I think everyone who tries to live by pushing against their limits will have a similar pattern. The limits you push may be physical, mental, business-related, artistic or musical. That doesn’t make any difference.  Each incremental challenge you overcome helps raise you towards where you want to be in life, even if you don’t really quite know where that is just yet. Think Small. Start Small. But do Start.

Think Small
Thank you, Derek Sivers, for the title and original version of this post.

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  1. good text Al

  2. Ju Lewis Posted

    Great stuff. Will be sharing with all my DofEers in school. In fact, will be sharing with the whole school.

  3. Al I’ve pushed myself more than ever before this year and it’s definitely down to people like youself inspiring me. Thank you.

  4. Al you make a great point. What makes yours such an interesting story is that you’ve been pushing your limits since a young age. We should all step outside our comfort zone every opportunity we get.

  5. Inspiring post, I’ll be sharing this across work and my school when I fish my studies.

  6. This was a very good one.

  7. Great piece Alastair.
    The biggest difference anyone can make in their lives is by just having a go, just making a start. Failure doesn’t matter, at least you’ll have tried.
    Life begins on the edge of your comfort zone right? Just F’in do it…! =)

  8. Al, this was such an amazing post, as expected and as per usual! 🙂

    I read Derek Sivers’ book Anything You Want a couple years ago. I highlighted this quote from it, “If you want to be useful, you can always start now, with only 1 percent of what you have in your grand vision. It’ll be a humble prototyp version of your grand vision, but you’ll be in the game.”

    I’m booking marking this one for rereads, and to send to anyone that’s on the brink of shying away from their big, scary ideas 🙂

  9. Get post, Al. Always an inspiring read but especially this one. It’s good to read that other people struggle when trying to expand their comfort zone. Sometimes it feels like such a battle and an unnecessary stress that it’s easy to give up. But then that’s the opt-out right there. The golden seed that proves that you are on the right path. If it’s stressful or uncomfortable, then chances are you are growing during this process and you should keep on going.


  10. I visited this link from Klara Harden’s (Story of a Shipwrecked Rambler) Facebook page and I’m very glad I did. After seeing some of her adventures and the short film “Made in Iceland,” her story and words served as a very poignant inspiration for a project of my own – a fantasy writing project called “A Knight Adrift.” It’s not a physical journey, but it has been a spiritual one so far and I can say with certainty that your words of advice are extremely pertinent and precise. There’s no other way to start an adventure than to start small and just keep pushing. I’ve been doing that with this project and enjoying every second of it. If you’re at all interested, you can check it out at Anyway, I’m so glad folks like you exist out there to inspire folks like me. Thank you (and Klara)! Keep on keeping on.

  11. Another really great post. Something I really should do more of, and something I encourage my kids to do every given opportunity!

  12. A most amazing and inspirational post, just I am preparing for a trip that will challenge me more than anything I have done before.
    Thank you, Al.

  13. Paul Gallagher Posted

    Absolutely phenomenal stuff. Vey inspiring.

  14. Jon Doolan Posted

    This has really hit a chord with me. 2 years ago I was falling through life with no direction and little to motivate me. Then I found your Microadventure book, completed the Year of Microadventure challenge, wrote and published a book and continue to do bigger and more scary challenges. Last week solo biked across Thailand on my own. I wouldn’t have been able to do any of it without your inspiration. Thank you so much for being just a normal bloke who pushes himself to do incredible things.
    Best wishes to you and all your family. Looking forward to seeing you again soon.



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