Adventure, Uncertainty, and a Prism on the World

Americans are huge fans of adventure. Man vs. Wild is a big hit. Survivor put reality shows on the map (for which I still want to have words with its creators). Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and George Lucas are iconic business heroes. As a culture, we romanticize people who climb mountains, start innovative new companies, fly or sail around the world, hand out malaria nets in Africa, or otherwise take on daunting physical, business, or cultural challenges. Most of us have also at least harbored a fantasy or two about doing something like that ourselves. Myself included.

But now, with some 20-odd years of adventures under my belt, I have a slightly more realistic view of the subject. To wit:

There's no question that adventure is great stuff. Particularly beforehand, when you're sitting in your living room, imagining how exciting it's all going to be. Or afterward, when you get to tell all your friends about how incredible it was. But smack dab in the middle of any real-life, full-blown adventure--whether that adventure involves climbing a mountain, starting a new company, switching careers, moving to a new country, or trying to change the world--few people are actually dwelling on how much fun they're having. Generally speaking, they're more likely wondering what possessed them to think this was a good idea.
Why? Because the First Law of Adventure ...ANY kind of adventure ... is that it's never easy, and rarely comfortable. It goes with the territory. Adventure is what happens when you step out of your comfort zone, into a place where your footing is unsure and the outcome is unpredictable. If you know how something's going to turn out, it's not an adventure. It's a vacation.

So if it's so uncomfortable,, why on earth does anyone do it?

Ah. That's the interesting part. There are probably as many shades of motivation as there are types of adventure. And a dose of unrealistic optimism (or selective delusion) undoubtedly plays into the equation, as well. If I had truly understood how rough some of the moments in my adventures would be, I would have thought twice about taking them on. It's like women and childbirth. We forget the bad stuff, or at least the visceral feeling of the bad stuff, just enough to make us game for another attempt. And that goes for starting a business or changing life courses in mid-stream as much as flying into Sudan or the Eastern Congo.

Sometimes, of course, life gives you no option. You lose your job, your spouse walks out or dies, you get diagnosed with a life-threatening disease, or you lose your way and wallet on a supposedly-tame, third-world-country vacation ... and you're suddenly awash in unplanned adventure.

But for those who choose to take more adventurous paths in life, I would venture to say the reason is ... because adventure isn't just about discomfort. It's also about passion and fulfillment. And about having your mind creatively challenged on a daily basis. It's about exploring the multitude of colors, stories, and experiences the world has to offer ... even if some of those have a few dark or bitter streaks. It's about having no limits to where you go or how you get there, because you're blazing your own path each step of the way. It's about gaining a kind of strength, control over your destiny, and freedom from fear that only come from learning you can find your own way through the wilderness, even if all the structure, security, and predictable patterns around you crumble.

I'm not sure people who undertake business or life adventures set out with that last item in mind. But we fear most what we don't know, or don't know we can handle. So if you wrestle with the challenges of adventure enough, the result is that bad breaks, change, and uncertainty become familiar sparring partners you have far less need to fear.

And that is, perhaps, the most valuable lesson that comes with embracing a few adventures along the way. Because the Second Law of Adventure is this: Life is an adventure. Whether you want it to be or not. (see: terrorism, swine flu, and current economic downturn.) Safety and stability are an illusion, or at least relative commodities.

That's not to say that adventurous souls have a magic formula for getting through all that. But what they do have is a particular way of looking at the world; a prism through which change, uncertainty, or tough turns of events appear not as terrifying or uncontrollable threats, but as just another challenge to be figured out.

The good news is, there's no Third Law of Adventure that says you have to climb a mountain, fly airplanes, or sail the Pacific to learn all this. Physical adventure--as Samuel Johnson once said about the prospect of hanging--simply clarifies things in a particularly efficient manner. But shifting the lens through which we see the world is something we can do in the relative comfort of our living rooms. The facts of life don't change because of how we view it. But looking at life as an adventure instead of a minefield can make a big difference in how we navigate it ... and how much joy and learning we gain along the way.