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An Adventure Manifesto: Adventure Is a State of Mind


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Think of this as an “Adventure Manifesto” in progress. A way to think about adventure so we might infuse it more happily into our everyday lives.

Who would accuse Helen Keller of not leading an adventurous life even though she never went skydiving, bungee jumping or mountain climbing?

While I was recently free climbing sandstone walls in Northern Ethiopia en route to a 2000 foot-high cave church, a question occurred to me: “What constitutes adventure in practice? Where do we draw the line, and how do we draw it? And why?”

Does hiking to a hair-raising cliff-side church in Ethiopia qualify? Some might answer yes, while others would answer no. For me, it certainly felt like it. I was testing the limits of my own fear of heights. Meanwhile, around the world, people are facing up to hazards, uncertain outcomes and risks in all manner of ways.

To some degree, our society often views adventure primarily as a physical act — our colleagues summit mountains, the Red Bull guy jumps from outer space, and friends throw themselves off buildings and bridges. Since we focus so much on the physical, however, we insufficiently acknowledge or altogether discredit all the emotional facets of adventure.

We often hear that people want more adventure in their lives. But why? What makes adventure desirable?

Adventure Inspiration
A crumpled bit of inspiration I hijacked from Audrey early in our relationship hangs above my desk.

In the circles I run, adventure is assumed to be a positive force — and I agree with that — but the traditional sense and image is akin to conquering Mt. Everest a la John Krakauer’s Into Thin Air. Huge hurdles, push and transform. At the same time, the definitions of adventure and adventure travel are broadening to experiences that constitute almost entirely non-physical, emotional activities. In this way, some might even say that adventure is a bit like porn: hard to define, but each of us is pretty certain we know it when we see it.

Based on my own experience – in adventure travel in particular — and listening to and reading others, here’s my attempt to unpack what adventure means and why.

Adventure: A Working Definition

As I considered the meaning of the word “adventure” I consulted my old friend the dictionary to find that adventure comprehends a handful of accepted meanings that converge on the themes of excitement, risk, and uncertainty.

1. “An exciting or very unusual experience.”
An exciting experience? A 3-D horror movie might qualify, no?

An unusual experience? Have you ever eaten bugs? Maybe bug eating is an adventure, too? I'm surprised to find a definition so bland as to garner it the first entry.

2. “Participation in exciting undertakings or enterprises: the spirit of adventure.”
There’s the excitement again. But “undertakings or enterprises” begins to suggest that adventure can be found in our life choices — in arenas like education, personal development, business, and family. And it follows with an example of how we might use the term “the spirit of adventure.” This is where I imagine “adventure” really begins to resonate with each of us, for it’s a spirit, an attitude, one’s character.

What is the spirit of adventure to you?

3. “A bold, usually risky undertaking; hazardous action of uncertain outcome.”
Oddly enough, this entry is the third one down. It is broad and encompasses any sort of undertaking that involves hazardous action. But what is hazardous action? Is it something only physical? Or does it imply an activity that may begin to involve and chip away at such things as our emotions and comfy prejudices?

“Uncertain outcomes” speaks to uncertainty and vulnerability — terms that are de rigeur, in fashion for everyone to agree are helpful to embrace in building our resilience.

Adventure: The 10 Dimensions

Adventure

1. Adventure is less about what you do and more about how you do it.

Adventure is an orientation.

I remember hang-gliding for the first time in New Zealand. For some, tandem hang-gliding with a hang-glide master is obviously adventurous. For others, maybe not so much — “You should hang-glide on your own; now that’s an adventure!” They might add.

Then, my hang-glide master told a story of a 96-year old disabled man he once took on a ride. Can you imagine? And I thought I was overcoming my fears and barriers.

2. Adventure is personal.

My adventure may not be your adventure.

What might be adventurous to Helen Keller because of her life circumstances may only be life’s baseline for you or for me. Adventure is relative to one’s individual situation, limits, constraints, and boundaries.

Take, for instance, para-olympians and the limits they overcome. Would anyone in his right mind accuse them of something other than adventure?

Sometimes we’re born with those limits, sometimes we develop them, sometimes we unknowingly foist them on ourselves.

3. Adventure is not only physical, but mental, emotional, psychological.

The first step in unpacking this is easy: any ostensibly physical, obvious adventurous activity — say, like climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro or running your first marathon — is often quite accurately referred to and reframed as a challenge of the mind, one that is more mental than physical.

I can attest firsthand that this is true. Some of the greatest challenges we must overcome during an adventure are not those involving whether our bodies can take on the task before us, but whether our minds are adequately prepared to handle the setbacks stacked on top of the entirely unexpected.

4. Adventure is about the courage to envision something different in our lives and in our world.

There are three steps to consider in this journey:

A) Courage to embark on experiences that will introduce doubt and cast into question your values, your preconceived notions, your prejudice. Your views may be reinforced, or they may be tipped upside down.

B) Courage to place yourself on the edge of the cliff not only to understand how you will respond to the danger, but also how you will emerge transformed.

C) Courage to see the world differently. Work and struggle to advocate for your values, placing yourself in mentally and physically precarious situations to do so.

What sort of physical, mental and moral precariousness am I going to place myself into in order to champion and fight for the things I believe in?

Take a moment to think on this. Come back and continue reading, if you must.

“What is he talking about, here?” You ask.

The true great leaders of the last and most recent era of societal transformation — people like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr., Vaclav Havel — they were adventurers.

5. Adventure is inherently discontinuous.

Adventure forces disturbances in what we understand about the world and ourselves. Adventure is a break in the cycle.

You can’t adventure by doing the same thing over and over again, because then it’s no longer adventure. It’s inertia.

Adventure forces us to examine fears and feelings. We conflate them, we rationalize them, we package them, solve them, unpack them, reflect on them, and enjoy them.

6. Adventure is about uncertainty and embracing discomfort.

I’m not talking about discomfort for its own sake, but discomfort that results in a stretching of ourselves to build adaptability and resilience. If you think about it, “adventure” implies that precariousness is a prerequisite of permanence. Likewise, as we build stuff of lasting value, we also must accept that to varying degrees, all that stuff is fleeting.

It can – and likely will be – gone someday sooner than our choosing.

Similarly, adventure implies some level of inherent danger. If so, there’s risk, there’s reward. The idea: I’m going to face the danger so I can reap the rewards, often mental, on the other side.

Adventure in travel, adventure in life is about accepting this equation, this exchange.

7. Adventure is a bias to action.

We can't adventure without doing. Nor can we adventure without doing differently.

In this way, adventure requires a certain amount of forward-leaning. That posture implies a sense that as we venture forth, we can rarely venture back.

8. Adventure is a balance.

We can’t successfully bring ourselves to state only by push without pull.

I believe it was Pico Iyer I overheard saying: “One hand to hold on, the other to let go.”

The wise adventurer understands who he is, so he can adequately question himself.

Adventure involves a sense of appreciating limits. No dragon slayer ever disrespected the dragon. Adventure is about the smart stretch, calculated risk and sense. You don’t go to the top of Mt. Everest without the right equipment. Also, you carry with you a sense and prepare for letting the dream go at the right moment. If the storm comes along, you test your limit and know when to turn back to take the mountain another day.

And even once the dream is achieved, you carry an appreciation that your victories are not permanent, but ones that must continually be built upon – by you and by others.

9. Adventure is an ability that is exercised like a muscle.

Adventure opens, stretches, enables, expands and transforms our knowledge, capacity, perception, and endurance.

Sure, there are some activities for each of us that will always be a challenge, but the more we adventure, the more we are able to endure what those adventures may throw our way.

Adventure is the tearing of mental and physical tissue. Adventure is rebuilding.

Not all adventures are certain to pay off. In fact, what makes a real adventure is that there are no guarantees. In this way, life is an adventure. Adventure is as much a comprehension of failure as it is the relish of success.

Adventure is knowing that once you’ve surpassed one limit, you’ll likely face another, if not seek it out. It follows that adventure is a function of deliberate and conscious practice.

10. Adventure is for everyone.

It’s easy to look around Facebook and watch all your friends jumping off bridges and summiting mountains. Sometimes their actions and stories inspire, sometimes they overwhelm.

Do yourself a favor and set social media aside. Look at yourself, alone. Examine your limits and ask yourself how you’ll begin to stretch them. Then act.

Adventure is there if you choose.

About Daniel Noll
Travel and life evangelist. Writer, speaker, storyteller and consultant. Connecting people to experiences that will change their lives. Originally from the U.S. Daniel has lived abroad since 2001 and most recently has been on the road since 2006. When he's not writing for the blog you can keep up with his adventures on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. And you can learn more about him on the About Page and on LinkedIn.

31 thoughts on “An Adventure Manifesto: Adventure Is a State of Mind”

  1. I love this, Dan!

    And I love that you talk about Hellen Keller as adventurous. I subscribe to the being out of the comfort zone definition of adventure most, particularly the past couple years when the more traditional definition of adventure wasn’t really possible with pregnancy and new baby and all.

    So Audrey drew and wrote that art you have above your desk? It’s really beautiful. Another talent of hers.

    I hope you’re both doing well and loving life. Besitos to you both!

    Reply
    • Thanks, Leigh. That was one of the ideas, being out of the comfort zone. I was also hoping to examine what that phrase means, too. And to what end each of us seeks to get outside of his/her comfort zone. To stretch ourselves individually? And this is ridiculously idealistic — to stretch ourselves as a society?

      By the way, having children is an adventure all its own. (So I’m told.)

      As for the artwork, I’m not sure who drew it (wasn’t Audrey). I just know that it was headed into storage when, just after Audrey and I met, she was shipping out to the Peace Corps in Estonia. So I decided to take it and keep it active, hanging above my desk (at that time, San Francisco). Having said all that, I’m sure Audrey could create something just as good. Keep an eye out. It may be coming soon 🙂

      Abrazos and besitos right back at you!

      Reply
  2. I like this Dan! I agree with you totally, adventure is very personal and what might seem very adventurous for me it might not be for others because we are all different, with different limits too. I personally don’t feel like I have to jump from the highest bridge, it’s not the kind of adventure I’m looking for..
    Travelling after quitting my job and getting out of my comfort zone is already an adventure for me 🙂

    Reply
    • Thanks, Franca. Traveling after quitting one’s job. I’m familiar with exercising that comfort zone. 🙂

      Your comment reminds me: adventure is definitely not one size fits all.

      Reply
  3. Long-time reader, first-time commenter. I loved this!! A reminder to me that we’re each on our own adventure, and it’s important to remember what you yourself are achieving vs comparing yourself to others.

    Reply
    • Great to see you here, Kristen. Absolutely agreed — keep your eyes on your own prize, not others’. Thank you for taking the time to comment.

      Reply
  4. This is really great. I’ve never thought in depth about what adventure is. I know it when I see it. But you’re absolutely right that it’s different for every person. Sometimes adventure feels out of reach because I think of it as a huge life leap or a daredevilish act. Adventure is certainly found on a smaller level, and it helps to be reminded that everyday steps outside our comfort zones can add adventure to life. Those acts are the ones that most often help you grow and learn about yourself.

    Reply
    • Glad you enjoyed it, Natalie. Absolutely, little steps to big leaps outside of our comfort zones.

      Your comment reminds me: adventure is never really out of reach!

      Reply
  5. Daniel,

    Thoughtful piece. We have re-posted on our FB page. Fits AP’s approach to the this somewhat loaded word. Thanks!

    Best,

    Mike

    Reply
    • Glad this resonated with you, Mike. That the term “adventure” is loaded was in part what motivated me to write this piece. Easy to throw around the term, more difficult to understand what it really means, especially in practice.

      Reply
  6. I’m so glad to see the post. People often define ‘adventure’ solely as thrill-seeking experiences, but it doesn’t have to be restricted to that. Being adventurous is exactly how you describe it – a state of mind. It’s possible for everyone to bring adventure into their daily lives – travelers or not – all it requires is an open mind and the will to go out of our comfort zones. Thanks for bringing this subject up.

    Reply
    • Thanks, Miriam. Good to see you here. The definition of adventure is certainly broadening and headed in the direction of aligning mind and body.

      Reply
  7. Dan, this is awesome! I love how you define Adventure. I agree how it is difficult at times to define adventure however it is a personal definition that makes adventure for each and everyone of us. #4 Adventure is about the courage to envision something different in our lives and in our world; resonants with me a lot. I feel that adventure does come when we see and seek something different in our world. And it is in that exploration and the road to seeking the different that the adventures comes. And #6 6. Adventure is about uncertainty and embracing discomfort. I believe it is this unknown that brings about the best adventures to life. We can plan for as much as we can however the “fun” comes with those unexpected serendipitious events that you didn’t plan for. Adventures don’t come until something go wrong and forces you take a different path.
    I absolutely love this post. Thanks for sharing it Dan! Keep rocking out those adventures. 🙂

    Reply
    • Thanks, Oliver! “Adventures don’t come until something goes wrong and forces you take a different path.” Love that.

      Your comment reminds me that the essence of adventure is not just about taking the road less traveled, but when the outcome of taking that road is unknown.

      Reply
  8. Thank you so much for posting this. I have been following your blog for a little bit now, but felt compelled to reply to this because the timing was just too perfect. I recently moved abroad to SE Asia to start my own adventure and am struggling through pushing past my comfort zone. I was letting myself be consumed by my fears in my initial culture shock stage and have decided to reclaim this adventure and adapt, as we all must in new situations. Thanks for reaffirming my choice to move here and giving me inspiration to keep at it. Means a lot. 🙂

    Reply
    • Morgan, thank you so much for sharing your experience, your struggles and your fears. We were recently being interviewed for a podcast and it occurred to me to mention something that is maybe not so obvious (it has not always been obvious to me, at least): it is acceptable — regardless of where we are at and how far we may have come — to have fears. They are there for one reason or another and its productive to acknowledge them and digest them.

      While acknowledging most of my fears in life, I have realized in one way or another that I’m not alone and so many others have struggled similarly, and quite often come out the other side transformed. That’s not in any way meant to diminish what you are going through. On the contrary, you are in good company. I remember the first time (and maybe the first couple of times) in SE Asia, struggling with some new bump in the road, thinking it was crazy to have uprooted and carried on halfway around the world. Regardless of the outcome, had I not done that, I would never have known. I would always be left wondering, “What if…”

      Pushing beyond our comfort zone shows us what’s on the other side. That’s where we get perspective. The search for that perspective, that’s the real adventure.

      Good for you for reclaiming your adventure — and maybe even re-shaping it a bit from its earliest forms. You are there. You are meant to be there. I’m looking forward to staying in touch and hearing updates about your journey forward!

      Reply
  9. Great post Dan! So much of it for me is mental. I doubt myself and I get overly worried/scared/anxious about so many things. I definitely need more adventurous situations to break myself out of my comfort zone. As you said, adventure can be so many different things, and so much of it hinges on the person doing the adventure and their personal experiences and circumstances.

    Reply
    • Ali, I think you are in good company. Many of us have doubts. I think it’s a matter of acknowledging them, then finding ways to navigate them like choppy waters. Definitely not a one-size-fits-all affair. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

      Reply
  10. It’s all about doing something that makes your heart skip a beat, whether out of excitement or fear (or both) to me. Great post, you put a ton of work into this one guys!

    Reply
    • Thanks, Selma. I’m glad the post reflects thought and work and a bit of experience, too. When your heart skips a beat or your breath is literally taken from you, that’s what adventure feels like.

      Reply
  11. I totally agree.. adventure is not only physical.. it doesn’t only measure how much bruise or wound you took from that activity, but how different it made you feel. Adventure is about doing something in different form, in different way, and overcoming your normal self.
    And I think I need to be more adventurous and face my fear.. like when I was sort of forced to jump off the highest tower I’ve been. I though I was gonna die, but I made and I haven’t been so proud of myself.. but yeah, that could have been really genuine if I did myself.

    Reply
    • Your comment raises a good question, Rachel. How do we measure adventure?

      I suspect we use different gauges and measures as our life experience increases — just as you have done with jumping off the highest tower.

      Reply
    • Thanks for your comment, Mian. Made me think and I might actually disagree with you a little bit on this. Although some of us may be inclined to adventure, I think our adventure muscle can actually be exercised, so that we grow and develop a desire for adventure and getting outside of our comfort zones — beyond our natural inclination.

      If adventure was something that just came naturally (or maybe we were born with), I’m not sure I would have undertaken all the adventure I have in my life.

      I also add this as a hope to others. Although we may not feel adventurous at any one moment, significant life experiences can help change that.

      Reply
  12. T totally agree with what Daniel said ” our adventure muscle can actually be exercised, so that we grow and develop a desire for adventure and getting outside of our comfort zones — beyond our natural inclination.”
    I would say coming out of your comfort zone.and doing something new is adventure, I remember 2 days trekking to Nanga Parbat base camp up the Fairy Meadows and I feel and remember as it happened last week although it was back in 1984 (my school trip) but after that I crossed Taklamakan, trek to k.2 base camp 22 days and almost of all the wild treks of the Karakorums that I feel lesser adventures then the first one.
    Najeeb Ahmed Khan

    Reply
  13. really liked this post!
    the truth is I am trying to decide if I should go travelling solo in europe (I am from Argentina) and this is a good inspiration to overcome my fear.

    Reply
    • Glad you enjoyed this, Evelyn. We’ll look forward to hearing more from you as you decide, prepare for and embark on your journey!

      Reply
  14. This is really interesting and something I’ve been thinking about lately. Funny to as my blog has the word adventure in the title. I’m not into the standard definition of adventures, physical thrills and challenges – mountain climbing – for example. At first I thought maybe I shouldn’t have used the word adventure, but as I travel more and learn more about myself I’ve realized that is the adventure. And I loved what you said about, “you can’t go back.” Nope. No way. I think my next adventure is to move to Europe, but I’ve been afraid to do so. The way I’ve decided to manage it is, one month at a time. That seems manageable. Otherwise I’ll talk myself out of it. To the woman from Argentina, Go! I’ve been traveling solo for years. Best thing I ever did!

    Reply
    • Thanks for your thoughts, Penny. Adventure is step-wise. One step at a time, until you realize that you’re there, you’ve done it. Having moved to Europe twice now (once to Prague from San Francisco in 2001, when we stayed for five years) and again to Berlin (in 2012 after being full nomadic for six years), we realized at the time and now that it is challenging, doable, enjoyable — all the things you might expect of a life experience, of an adventure of the personal sort.

      Don’t talk yourself out of it. If you do, you might just be looking back and wondering What If:
      https://uncorneredmarket.com/story-filled-life-what-if-tedx-talk/

      Reply
  15. Thanks for sharing the post. I also believe that adventure is nothing apart from going outside one’s own comfort zone. It is about breaking the constraints both physical and psychological and emerge as a new and changed human being!

    Reply

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