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?
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
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.
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.