Explorer, author, trail prospector & travel writer

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.]

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.

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?


32 responses to “Debunking The Myth Of The Modern-Day ‘Adventurer’”

  1. Really enjoyed this post Tom. Another question to think about is whether you are considered an adventurer by the people who read your blogs? If the poststructuralist approach of subjectivity doesn’t fit well for you, what then about the collective opinion of the masses? And what if that collective opinion of you is different from your own opinion of yourself?

    As a frequent reader of your posts, I can see the difference between your own approach and that of other high profile adventurers. It is relatively easy to spot those who craft their identity/brand and who have taken the professionalised adventurer route, but there is a need and a desire for those people, and often I enjoy their work. For me, though, its always very reassuring to know that there are people like you who come out with strong clear reflections on themselves and what adventure means to them. Keep it up please!!

    1. “What if that collective opinion of you is different from your own opinion of yourself?” – perhaps it was in fact this question that inspired this piece, coupled with a desire to question that collective opinion publicly. Although, as you pointed out, frequent readers can see the difference anyway… in which case, perhaps questioning the label is not as important as I thought it was…

  2. Tom ,I relate as a union steel worker for 30 years .Raising a family. dog, cat and etc.In keeping a job working very hard and the management trying to fire me for many years .Looking back I didn’t have to be such an irritating worker. I worked very hard it took two people to replace me as I moved to another department .One was glad I left one was in the oh no mode. I realise now the good money or how irritating I was led me to new values in place now . .Your blog flows with truth and heart Thank you .Bill PS” its a day riding with a rain coat”

    1. Thanks, Bill, for sharing your perspective!

  3. Was I the straw that broke the camel’s back?! There are many people out there (including myself at times) who are chasing the dictionary definition of adventure with each journey. Some of these people go on to make a living from telling their stories or being sponsored and so it’s fair to call them professional adventurers. It’s understandable why people would give you the same moniker. Your adventures fuel (or at least seem to) your work and income.

    But I get the sense that while you certainly enjoy the excitement and the unusualness of your experiences, you’re looking for something a bit more substantial than the adventurous froth. Your current two film projects, for example, both have strong cultural or environmental messages as their main themes. While others would simply have told the story of their journey, you looked for a theme and some meaning. I’m sure most if not all of your readers relate to that.

    I am occasionally called an explorer (and have timidly toyed with calling myself this as a result). At least you don’t have to deal with that minefield… oh wait, come to think of it, weren’t you one of the last explorers on the Rio Santa Cruz….


    1. Truth be told, this piece has been brewing for a good year or so – ever since I wrote the original adventuretising rant, in fact! But yes, that Tweet might just have tipped the scales 🙂

      My books and films fuel my income, and I spend by far the biggest proportion of my time working on them. Incidentally, for source material I draw upon experiences I had while pursuing entirely personal curiosities. Am I not, then, primarily a writer and filmmaker, if people want to put labels on my professional activities? And is ‘adventuring’ not just something I do in my own time and for my own satisfaction? (Playing Devil’s Advocate here, I know…)

      1. I wasn’t clear. I do think you are primarily a writer and filmmaker, but that it’s understandable why people would call you an adventurer since that has become a thing recently and you appear to fit into that category and move around in those circles.

        There’s a few people here talking about the meaning of adventure and adventurer and I remember your original rant very sympathetically. I’m sure if you were to talk to a lot of real musicians about their industry and what it means to be a real musician, as opposed to the money and celebrity associated with the mainstream music industry, that you’d find a lot of common ground, not least with the growing number of people attempting to emulate their heroes and short cutting their way to fame and glory.

        Better be careful, perhaps you’re the next Amy Winehouse…

        1. No chance – I can’t sing to save my life!

          1. “I’m sure if you were to talk to a lot of real musicians about their industry and what it means to be a real musician, as opposed to the money and celebrity associated with the mainstream music industry, that you’d find a lot of common ground, ”

            Well funnily enough, as a musician, i did find a lot of common ground. You could re-write steps 1-10, with 1 being ‘write some music’ and you’d be pretty much spot on about what it’s like to be a musician or producer in 2015….

            Lovely article, thanks!

          2. This is the nature of all art, I think, when there’s a globe-sized gap between the indie and the mainstream.

  4. I enjoyed this very much Tom….thank you 🙂

    1. Glad to hear it, Rebecca!

  5. Enjoyed that thanks Tom.
    I think a major issue is the influence of modern celebrity culture in many people wanting a slice of the social media admiration (that they see better known people get) to give them a short hit of serotonin to provide them with an elevated sense of belonging and importance. Perhaps the key question is about personal motivation and how that is then interpreted; does one want to be ‘famous’ for doing something adventurous, to use an adventure for genuine self-fulfillment, or to use the experience to educate and influence a genuine cause? I just wish people were more honest with themselves and the public about why they REALLY want to share their ‘adventures’.
    Creating a false sense of drama about the most mundane experience undermines the great things that sharing adventures can bring. Not everything has to be ‘epic’ – such as getting the bus to the airport, or checking in a big bag.
    Humility is that most admirable value that seems to have vanished in modern society – every now and then its great to stumble upon someone who has done something incredible who just did it for the sake of doing it – and told nobody. (Like Theirry.) I met a chap in French Polynesia a few years ago who was on his third solo circumnavigation in a 22ft wooden yacht – needles to say he didn’t know what social media was! But what he did do was connect with people and communities on his journey to educate and share stories.
    Cant remember who answered the question, “why do you climb mountains?” with “because its there” but a bit more of that would endear ‘adventurers’ to the masses. I had a friend climb Everest so he could tell people he had done it, not because he wanted to climb it!
    I think you should add ‘motivational speaker’ to your list of labels – I’ll stop at this point….

    I’m about to drive to London – its going to be an epic adventure.

  6. Paul Tudor avatar
    Paul Tudor

    I can’t agree more with Scotty. I think the term ‘adventurer’ has been undermined in recent years by a new wave of mainly British, so called, adventurers. A grown man bouncing his way around Hyde Park on a Spacehopper is not an adventure, or worthy of a blog post. How is that an adventure?
    Riding your bike from London to Bristol is a fair achievement, but it’s not that great and another one that is hardly worthy of a blog post that is retweeted 10 times a day.
    Climbing Kilimanjaro is not easy and Scott Dinsmore recently lost his life on the mountain, but doing it dressed as a penguin cheapens and devalues the challenge. Why would you want to do that?
    It seems that the new wave are more interested in their social media presence and care more about the number of followers, retweets, shares or likes that they get rather than doing something credible. What comes first, the idea for a wonderful, exciting and interesting challenge, or what can I do which will give me more exposure and get me a few more followers? Just recently I have suspected the latter for many people in the adventure community. Sleeping out on a hill on a Saturday night is not an adventure, micro or otherwise, unless you are a kid, it’s just sleeping out on a hill. I did it all the time when I was 12!

    1. I think you touched on something important with the first part of your comment. The word ‘adventurer’ has certainly been redefined – it’s now a statement of values rather than something with a tangible aspect to it, to the point where anyone can call themselves an adventurer – in which case we’re either all ‘adventurers’ every time we try a new flavour of Pot Noodle, or none of us are.

      So I think what’s really been undermined is the real value of what many very admirable professional adventurers actually do achieve and create, because the meaning of adventure has been diluted to the point of meaninglessness. Perhaps, if anything, someone simply needs to create a new label? (Let’s not get into the definitions of ‘explorer’ and ‘expeditioner’!)

  7. I think you make very good points. Just today I realised the page about Karun (http://karunfilm.com/the-journey/) starts with: “British adventurers Tom Allen and Leon McCarron set out (…)”. Perhaps you were not aware of this. But you still have time to update it 😉

    1. I dislike that whole paragraph, to be honest, but that’s sales copy for you – full of hype and generalisations.

  8. I’ve just been looking at some etymologies to get a better understanding of the words. It seems that ‘adventure’ developed from ‘risk’ and ‘danger’, later ‘a perilous undertaking’ and always involving chance. Surely that fits some of your journeys, not least hiking in Nagorno-Karabakh? ‘Explore’ comes from ‘investigate’, ‘examine’, to discover a country through these means. ‘Journeyman’, ‘expeditioner’, ‘traveller’, they don’t seem to cut it, but apparently ‘excursion’ meant in English ‘a deviation in argument’ ninety years before it meant ‘journey, from the Latin ‘to run out’ or ‘to push forward’. That works. ‘Excurtioner?’ No, Autocorrect, not ‘Executioner’!

  9. Really like this. I think “adventure” captures a certain spirit that can be applied to many different things, and is perhaps a bit of catchall? That’s why marketers (like myself *coughs*) like using it. Before that it was “extreme” and surfing and skating were used to sell anything from Guinness to Nissan cars. Now it’s not as popular and the whole industry is possibly getting back to it’s roots again.

  10. Love this post Tom, thank for sharing! Labels are a funny thing. It’s fascinating how one person may gloss over a label while another will construct an entire personality for someone they don’t know based on one word. I mean how can any one word be expected to fully describe the depth and nuance of a human being, that’s a lot of pressure on a word! This is what makes writing so tricky I guess – we are forced to use words to describe people so misinterpretation is inevitable. Is it all semantics? Who knows?!?! I sure as hell don’t. Anyway, beyond terms and labels your work exudes good vibes and as a reader and friend it’s easy to feel and know that your heart is in the right place – and you can’t put a label on that!

  11. Tom – great read here and a very thoughtful post. I agree with Jason that the labeling is not too important and if nothing else you are certainly ‘adventurous’ by choosing to buck the norm and explore the bigger world on your own terms fueled by writing and film making. I also don’t have a big problem with the commercial aspects of ‘adventure’. I think people are savvy enough to see when companies or individuals are authentic in their adventure pursuits vs. just on cynical branding/marketing kick. Social media to some extent now gives us all some transparency to separate the authentics from the cynical manipulators.

    On a side note this website layout is fantastic – really clean setup, great photos and everything is easy to read and navigate. Curious if you are using a wordpress template or something you built yourself.

  12. Amy (Two Drifters) avatar
    Amy (Two Drifters)

    Very interesting post, Tom! I especially resonate with this line:

    “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…”

    This is so true, and makes me think a lot more about defining adventure. I think we’ve pigeonholed it nowadays to include mountains, some flannel, a GoPro, and as you mentioned, inspirational travel quotes (as much as I love those!) Thanks for sharing!

  13. […] I was heroically fleeing from when I turned my back on conventional employment. (You might enjoy Tom Allen’s post on this topic, […]

  14. Interesting read Tom.

    For all the pontification, I sometimes wonder whether it’s just better to get out of the door and go for a run or a ride 😉

    People often have their preconceived notions of what you are. If it fits with their definition of an adventurer.

    After all I’m a runner, cyclist, lapsed adventurer racer, project manager, business owner, brother, uncle and friend.

    It would make an awfully long business card wouldn’t it.

  15. Liz Leakey avatar
    Liz Leakey

    Loved reading this Tom, ‘writer’ is definitely a title you are worthy of, you write so elegantly and leave us pondering your words.

    Whilst I agree that being labelled an adventurer may feel uncomfortable or inaccurate, it seems that in a society where the majority are moving so far away from risk-taking, playing outside, exploring and enjoying the physical side of our existence, to many people doing the stuff you and I do, truly does seem like an adventure. It’s easy to be dismissive and say well ‘it’s not that big a deal’. For so many people in the UK, doing anything outside of their comfort zone or letting their children do anything with potential risk or danger is avoided.

    I think our biggest challenge should be showing people what’s possible to do, inspire them to do something (no matter how little) and for adventure not to feel like the kind of thing only a few elite people have access to. Tricky business though as if you write or film something too epic most will just respond with ‘oh I could never do that’. For me, I reckon inspiring kids is the answer. Even if you are only doing trips for yourself and feel no need to blog or talk about it, the idea that by sharing your experience with a young person it could open their eyes to endless possibilities, is surely an opportunity too good to miss?

  16. Tom , I was chatting with friends over the last couple of days on a “title” for my Facebook page. I was so happy a good friend sent me a link to your page and this article. My mouth dropped reading your “list” and I could visualize every step of the way. Im not sure if I felt inspired to stick with me or felt unoriginal…. either way I have a better idea of where I will go now and will continue to follow you for inspiration. Take Care Tom and best wishes

  17. […] a great post by Tom Allen on his blog that highlights the problems with this. It’s called Debunking the myth of the modern day “adventurer”. Read it if you have time, but in summary Tom highlights how people can quickly end up spending […]

  18. Mica Emery avatar
    Mica Emery

    “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.” A satisfying mouthful for sure. Enjoyed the read….now on to the next adventure (just kidding).

  19. Kaspar Anderegg avatar
    Kaspar Anderegg

    Love that post!

    I lived in Papua for one year, and just recently started to call myself an expedition leader or adventurer for monetizing purposes.

    I was astonished about the positive response. And about how used and misused the term today is. Everything or nothing is an adventure. Am sure, the more society is urbanizing, the more people will become “adventurers” and the more it will sell.

    1. Exactly. Adventure is the antidote to the disease of urbanisation, and we run the pharmacy!

  20. If you don’t fight monsters, you’re fucking useless

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