Debunking The Myth Of The Modern-Day ‘Adventurer’

I’ve noticed something recently, which is that I often get referred to as an ‘adventurer’.

Something about this doesn’t ring true. I’ve never used the word to describe myself – not in real life, nor in my blog’s ‘about’ page, my social media profiles, my email signature, nor anywhere else.

The first time I actually told someone in person that I was an adventurer, the response was:

“Oh, so you, like, climb Mount Everest and stuff? Cool! Ha-ha!”

Needless to say, it was the last time.

* * *

What does the word ‘adventurer’ even mean, anyway?

It’s an interesting question, especially as it seems there are a growing number of self-styled professional adventurers in the UK. This includes many good friends who I count myself lucky to know. Their work has given rise to a kind of template for being an adventurer, and in my experience it’s largely from this context that the word has derived its contemporary meaning.

Here, for the sake of reference, is that template:

  1. Go on an adventure.
  2. Start a blog, take a rugged-looking profile picture, and post inspirational quotes on social media.
  3. Craft a narrative of realising there’s more to life, leaving a well-paid job, and embracing the unknown.
  4. Create an income by talking to schoolchildren, and build a profile by appearing at events and festivals.
  5. Spread the word by writing articles, hustling for media coverage, and asking other adventurers to tweet about your blog.
  6. Create a motivational talk for corporates, whose message boils down to never, ever giving up.
  7. Get sponsorship deals with outdoor gear & clothing brands and feature their logos in your photos and videos.
  8. Write a book or make a film about your adventure and sell it at events and on your blog.
  9. Conceal your personal life/day job, publishing only what consolidates your brand.
  10. Repeat steps 1-10.

This is not a cynical exercise. It is a working model for how to make a living as an adventurer. It brings entertainment, education and inspiration to a great number of people, and has allowed many of my friends to avoid getting a ‘real job’ for years – a flagrant luxury in the UK’s work-obsessed society (though don’t get me wrong, being a professional adventurer is a surprisingly hard job in itself).

But it does a terrible job of describing what I do. And so from a cultural-semantic point of view, the word in its present-day context carries baggage which doesn’t belong to me. It infers falsehoods I would waste (and have wasted) precious time attempting to deconstruct.

Yes, I go on relatively regular adventures. And I write about them on my blogs. And yes, I did realise there’s more to life, though I had no well-paid job to leave at the time.

But I don’t give talks. Free or paid, educational or motivational, whatever – I just don’t, because I can’t stand the thought of public speaking. Occasionally I am forced into it. On those occasions I tend to enjoy it. But the benefits are outweighed by the days of dread that precede it.

Nor do I have any sponsors. Not any more, at least. A few companies used to give me the odd bit of equipment, but (with one very early exception) nobody has ever given me money to go on one of my adventures.

[Edit: Funny how things evolve: this year I’m leading an ambitious research expedition with an RGS grant behind it, where for the first time I’ve felt the ends justify the means. More in a future post.]

I write very few articles outside of my own blogs, and almost never appear in the media. And having released a feature-length film about how I met my wife, hiding away my personal life clearly doesn’t figure very highly either.

So there’s one reason I don’t feel comfortable being referred to as an adventurer – I really don’t fit today’s commonly-understood template, and have no wish to explain ad infinitum why this is so to everyone I meet.

It’s also worth mentioning that if job titles were based on direct sources of income, then I would be a publisher, and most of my friends would be lecturers. And if job titles were based on actual time spent doing things, I would be a writer, and a surprisingly large proportion of my friends would be househusbands.

The point is that ‘being an adventurer’ is rarely as glamorous as it sounds. If you think otherwise, you’ve been sucked in by a powerful mythology.

* * *

Another issue has to do with the fact that – if you’ll cast a glance back at the list above – only 1 of the 10 steps actually involves going on an adventure.

The other 9 are marketing, positioning and salesmanship, which usually entails spending endless days at home in front of laptops and travelling mainly for business purposes. In that sense, there is little to distinguish a modern-day adventurer from any other kind of knowledge worker or digital entrepreneur in the free market economy, with the exception of the occasional trip away – the actual adventure – which is, in effect, a product development exercise.

I too spend most of my days in front of my laptop. I too travel regularly for business purposes. I too only occasionally go on an ‘adventure’. I don’t wish to pretend any different.

I understand well that ‘being an adventurer’ is a necessary label for public speakers who are their own product, and who wouldn’t be able to earn a living with any other job title.

But because I don’t do public speaking, I’m not beholden to the perceptive limitations of geography teachers and corporate executives, and so I have little to gain by labelling myself unnecessarily with something I spend relatively little time actually doing.

Truth be told, all I’ve ever really wanted to do off the back of my travels is write about them.

* * *

Besides, I actually rather like my life when I’m not travelling – in part, I think, because I try to approach it with the same adventurous mindset with which I’ve learned to approach the actual journeys. Everything has the potential to be interesting – even people-watching in downtown Yerevan (actually one of my favourite pastimes, in a strictly non-creepy way).

There is a tendency for personalities in the adventure field to be highly selective about their public output. It ranges from the understandable (a wish to keep family matters out of the public sphere) to the questionable (basically inventing a new persona which bears no resemblance to reality, the only real benefit of which seems to be some kind of fantasy-driven ego massage). I won’t name names.

To some extent, we all do this cherry-picking and image-crafting when we choose what to post on Facebook or Instagram.

But to my mind, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of brutal honesty about the daily goings-on to which the adventures are the antidote. It helps keep the ego in check and the feet on the ground.

I just don’t believe crafting a fairytale existence of sleeping under the stars and soaring high above meaningless drudgery is particularly helpful.

For sure, it will inspire a few people to imitate the idol. But it will arguably allow more people to rest on their laurels, safe in the knowledge that there’s a superhero out there living their dreams for them.

Wandering Earl (perhaps the best-known English language travel blogger out there) wrote recently of his concerns about the rose-tinted world of travel blogging.

Everything he wrote resonates strongly in the world of adventure blogging too.

It’s worth a read.

(Al Humphreys’ recent post on his working week as an Adventurer – capital ‘A’ – might hold a few surprises too.)

* * *

I would like to touch, briefly and perhaps dangerously, on the question of what ‘adventure’ actually means.

The postmodern interpretation concerns me. This is the view that adventure is simply what feels adventurous, and nothing more. It is, like all things, up to the individual to define, based on their own subjective worldview – a fitting style of interpretation for an individualistic society.

Dictionary definitions hark on about an “exciting or very unusual experience” or “a bold, usually risky undertaking; hazardous action of uncertain outcome”, which leave bags of room for interpretation.

Yet if the only prerequisites for adventure are risk, uncertainty and challenge, can I not have a so-called adventure by trying out a daring new cake recipe or heroically playing World of Warcraft for 10 hours straight?

(This is exactly how the marketers at McDonalds, Starbucks and Marks & Spencer, among others, have hijacked adventure to sell Happy Meals and frappucinos. Qatar Airways are now selling plane tickets as adventures, as the rampage of ‘adventuretising’ continues unabated.)

It is difficult to argue with subjective interpretation, because by its very nature it is only applicable to the subject. That’s one of the most irritating aspects of postmodernism.

So who am I to judge what is interesting and what is not – what is an adventure and what is not?

I am nobody. I am nobody, sitting at my laptop, watching multiple iterations of the cookie-cutter approach to adventure unfold from afar; every day receiving word of some fresh-faced new soul diligently following steps 1 to 10 of how to make a living as an adventurer.

Where is the risk, uncertainty and challenge in following templates, in copying formulae, in treading well-worn trails? Even subjectively, imitation does not appear in any definition of adventure I know of.

How many people are out there, right now, making personal, meaningful, challenging and provocative journeys?

How many more would emerge if everyone stopped giving a damn what anyone else thought, stopped wondering how they could brand and position their trip for maximum kudos, stopped trying to engineer in advance a coherent and sellable story – and stopped concerning themselves with gaining riches or recognition from what would certainly have begun as a burning need to go out and do something?

* * *

I’ll tell you something from experience – those who are embracing the true spirit of adventure are usually the last people who’d refer to themselves as adventurers.

They are also the people you’ll never hear or read about.

Take Theirry, for example, who I met this summer while walking in the South Caucasus.

When he retired and began drawing a state pension, he realised he had two choices: sit at home and wait for death, or use the money to carry on living. On a whim, he walked south from Paris and joined the Camino Frances to Santiago de Compostela. He was so inspired by the experience that he decided to carry on walking.

When I met him, it had been two and a half years since he left France. He had recently arrived in Armenia. His latest pair of shoes was already falling apart. Winter was coming. He wasn’t sure where he’d be going next. He didn’t care.

He’ll keep walking, he said, until the day he dies. The thought of branding himself as ‘an adventurer’ had never crossed his mind. As far as he was concerned, he was just living his life, walking the world’s roads; no pretences, no labels, no Twitter account, no image-crafting besides what was self-evident from meeting him in person.

Thierry is not an adventurer. Yet he’s the most adventurous person I’ve met in years.

* * *

Here’s another idea – perhaps for a separate discussion.

If I was tasked to seek out people making the most personal, meaningful, challenging and provocative journeys on the planet right now, I would not google the word ‘adventurer’. I would not go to the ends of the Earth in search of such stories.

Instead, I would start in mainland Europe and follow a human trail, collecting real, uncontrived tales of adventure as I went.

All the way back to the Syrian border.

* * *

I know I’ve done some adventurous stuff, and will doubtless do more in the future. It’s one of the things that truly makes me tick.

But at the most basic level, using that fact to give myself the title of ‘adventurer’ would put me on a pedestal. Which would be fine if I needed to sound impressive to people I’ve never met, whether for ego or for cash. But I don’t.

I also dislike being the centre of attention, and if there’s one thing the ‘adventurer’ moniker is sure to generate, it’s questions.

This is why – depending on who’s asking what I do for a living – I’m either a writer, filmmaker, or web developer. Two of these, at least, are the most honest answers I can give.

Should we be concerned with labels? Is it all just semantics? Does it really matter what adventure is – or who adventurers are – as long as everyone’s having fun?