Photo by Chris Herwig.
Earlier this year I set a goal: reach out to 10 new heroes/mentors/big friends. My intention was to interview them, learn from them, but more importantly, begin to forge a real relationship with them. The first person that came to mind was British adventurer, author, and filmmaker Alastair Humphreys.
I’ve long admired Al. He’s a mainstay on the Escape speaker rotation, so I’ve met him several times. But I didn’t really know him. I reached out and fortunately he agreed to meet me near London’s Embankment.
Beyond a sea of suited city workers and through a Starbucks window, I spotted him. Which, to be honest, was about as unsettling as seeing a snow leopard trotting down main street or a black spider monkey lounging on your living room sofa. Humphreys is among a rare breed of professional Adventurer – someone who makes a living from adventuring.
He’s the stuff of childhood storybooks, Hollywood blockbusters, and Chuck Norris mantras. He once trekked across Iceland’s daunting interior. Meandered through India coast-to-coast on foot. Rowed the Atlantic in a four-man vessel. Trudged through Earth’s largest sand desert…pulling a self-made mechanical “camel.” In the Instagram age of oneupmanship where everyone looks like an intrepid traveler, Humphreys is one. He’s an Adventurer with a capital A.
His creative pursuits are just as admirable as his physical ones. His films are beautiful. His books read like poetry. His adventures are bold. His projects bolder. The more I watch the guy work, the more he inspires me to be a stronger storyteller. A more resilient and self-reliant human. A better doer. A better, well, everything.
I’m still editing the full interview, with the hope to pitch it to a large publication (do you know any?). In the meantime, I wanted to share this. Seven life lessons I learned from chatting with adventurer, author, filmmaker Alastair Humphreys.
1. The “doorstep mile” is the hardest.
I was nervous before the interview. Would I be a good interviewer? Would I sound like a babbling fool? Would this be a complete waste of his time?
I was reminded of a Norwegian phrase Humphreys mentioned in a talk last year which essentially translates to mean “the doorstep mile.” In any long journey, the first step is the most difficult to make.
I did a lot of research on Al and his work. I think I asked decent questions and we ended up having a fun conversation. Of course listening back to the interview, I do sound like a babbling fool, but the experience resonated with Al’s words:
“The first step is the hardest. ‘Don’t do this!’ cries your mind! In moments the shock passes and you start to get used to it. Once it’s done you realise it wasn’t too bad after all, and actually you feel great and are delighted to have done it. So, go for it. Jump in. Commit. Begin.”
2. You can be whoever you want to be.
Personally, and certainly at Escape, the topic of career identity is a big one, so I was curious about Humphreys’ thoughts. Before becoming an professional adventurer-artist, Humphreys tried on the career identity of teacher, which didn’t feel quite right. On the topic of identity:
“I saw a website [Humans of New York]. This guy took a picture of this girl — a normal, pretty girl wearing some hippie-ish clothes. Then a few months later, he takes a picture of another girl and realizes it’s [that same girl] again. She’s now totally changed her looks. She’s now in a power suit and she said ‘No one in the city knows me so I can be whoever I want. I can be the hippie girl or if I put on a power suit and get my hair cut. That’s who I am.’
And I think that’s what you can do with jobs and things, isn’t it? You can just say, ‘This is who I am.’ No one needs to know that you’ve never done it before in your life. You’ve got to start somewhere.”
3. How to become an adventurer or filmmaker before quitting your day job.
On adventuring: “I think for most people, if you want to be teacher-cum-adventurer, the sensible thing to do is be a teacher, save up your money in the summer holidays, go away for six weeks, do something cool, next year go away for six weeks, do something cool. Do that for three years and you’ve got enough to write a book, then you get to be a part-time teacher. That gradual transition I think is the really sensible way to do it.”
On filmmaking: “The first question [people] always ask is ‘What camera do I need?’ I would say you don’t need anything more than your phone. You could take over Hollywood with your phone. Having said that, in equipment, I’d say get a tripod and good audio. Everyone always underestimates audio. It’s more important than video. Get a tripod, get a microphone, use your phone, and just start filming stuff.
And watch stuff. Vimeo Staff Picks is I think the best for videos. I subscribed to that so I get a few of those a day. Everything I know about filmmaking, and I’m very much an amateur, is just from watching other people and looking on Google. So just start filming things. Make the audio good.
4. Creativity can be learned.
There seems to be this belief that there are creative people, and then there are those who think ‘I don’t have a creative bone in my body.’ As someone who went to university to study engineering and took a consulting job at IBM, I feel like an infant, still growing into my own creativity.
Did Humphreys always think of himself as creative? What was his path from teacher to adventurer to writer and filmmaker?
“In high school I chose science subjects to do. And then I went to university and I studied zoology, so a science degree. I hadn’t written a creative story since I was 15. I gave up art when I was 14 in order to study Latin – such a stupid decision! Never had any interest in that at all. But I’ve always enjoyed reading.
So reading then led me to writing. And then writing and adventure led to it starting to be my job, therefore I needed to talk, and to give talks you need good pictures, so that led me to try to learn how to a take pictures. Which led to storytelling. Which led to trying to make films. I could very easily have been a scientist who didn’t have a camera.”
5. Let your career evolve with your interests.
“The thing that drew me to adventures and expeditions in the first place was this challenge of, ‘Can I do this? I don’t’ know if I can do it,’ whereas now I know that I can do those. That’s not showing off, it’s just I know I can get on a bike now and cycle to China tomorrow.
“What appeals to me a lot more now is the creative side, so trying to write well, trying to make a good film. I’m not masters of those things, so that excites me a lot more these days.”
Even his adventures are getting more creative. In July he trekked over 350 miles across Spain from Vigo to Madrid, mimicking the path of his adventurer hero Laurie Lee and documenting the whole thing over Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. Sounds easy peasy, right? Except that the only way he would feed himself was using money he earned from playing the violin. And he doesn’t even know how to play the violin.
6. Adventurers are normal people too.
Adventurer is a sexy job title, but in recent posts Al has talked about the un-sexy 95% of what that job title means. I asked him more about that.
“I started doing these big adventures, and doing these big talks about big adventures, and I felt slightly fraudulent in that because I’m just a normal guy, and I was sort of portraying this image about Adventures as these big, amazing people — but I felt pretty normal. That’s why I started doing the Microadventures, trying to show that I’m normal and that normal people can have adventures. So that was a big stage in my coming out, I suppose. Adventurers are normal people too.”
His recent Spain adventure hints at something normal too:
“This week I head to Vigo in northern Spain to begin following Laurie’s route, on foot, through Spain. I will play my violin to earn the money I need for food. This is clearly preposterous, as I am so bad. It’s terrifying.”
Maybe the self-deprecating is British, but the authenticity is human, refreshing and echo the sentiment: Adventurers are normal people, with the exact same fears, doubts, and insecurities as us non-adventurers. Herein lies the difference:
“But is the essence of adventure not to seek out that which scares you? To risk failure and uncertainty? I will not carry the safety net of spare money or credit cards: it is the violin or bust.”
7. Do what your say you’re going to do – for no one else but for yourself.
While I learned many things from Al, the most powerful lesson came after our interview in the form of an email and a facebook video. At the end of the interview, Al and I were talking about the future of entrepreneurship, blogging, etc. He asked me “What do you think is the next big thing? What should I try?”
“Seems like video blogging is taking off. Maybe that?”
“I’ll take that challenge. I’ll do that.”
A few days later I got a one-line email from Al:
“Hi Matt, I followed your advice and made a Vlog.”
Lo and behold, he had.
And the lesson for me is this: Do what you say you’re going to do. But not in the sense of needing to honor your word to others (although that’s also important). Rather, do what you say TO YOURSELF you’re going to do.
Be someone who doesn’t need anyone else to hold you to account. Grab an accountability buddy or create a false accountability buddy if you must. (I didn’t really challenge Al and I surely wasn’t going to check up on him.)
Be a person who follows through on the stuff they want to do. For no one else, but yourself. Do it quickly before you doubt yourself. Try shit out. Jump in.
You don’t have to be an adventurer to act like one.
For your viewing pleasure, here’s one of my favorite films of Al’s:
Check out Alastair Humphreys’ work on his website and follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. His latest book Grand Adventures [UK] is beautiful and instructive if you’re itching for an epic adventure.