Something’s Happening In The World Of Adventure. And I’m Not Sure I Like It

Let me tell you a little story.

A couple of years ago I was invited to give a talk in London. The details were vague, but the gist was this: a small, select group of people would really like to spend a couple of hours hearing about my adventures.

In return for my talk, they would give me an envelope containing enough cash to cover my living costs for another couple of weeks.

I agreed.

I needed the money.

(Typical writer.)

The talk, it turned out, was not what I expected. I delivered it to precisely three people. It took place in the attic of a renovated Victorian townhouse-turned-office. One of my audience members was a lean, bearded specimen of a man, all thick-rimmed specs and impossibly tight jeans. The other two, either side of him, were dressed for casual business, collars open but brogues still finely polished.

They eyed me with a strange kind of curiosity.

Not my usual audience.

“We’re an ideas company”, said The Beard, when questioned. He introduced the other two men simply as ‘the clients’. “They’ll be listening in on our… conversation.”

For the next hour, this mystery trio listened to me ramble on about meandering on a bicycle across three continents, sleeping rough behind petrol stations, living out of a few dusty bags, and growing silly beards for a few years — the story of the never-to-be-repeated journeys that made me who I am.

For the second hour, they probed my psyche. What motivated me to embark upon this adventure? What exactly was it about the experience that I found so valuable? The questions became more specific: What aspects of my journeys did I think would be relevant to those with possibly less time to spare? And what qualities would an idea for a future adventure need to possess in order to pique my interest?

The high-concept interrogation went on, carefully avoiding any mention of precisely what ‘the clients’ were trying to discover. This was not an impassioned discussion. It was more of a dissection. But I was, after all, being paid to endure it, so I could hardly complain.

It's going to be a long night...

On the way home, cash in hand, I pondered. There was no doubt that ‘the clients’ would have been paying the mysterious Marylebone agency top dollar for their ‘ideas’. The agency, in turn, was handing out cash to specific individuals — I assumed that I was not alone — in exchange for access to deep insights. Insights about adventure.

And then I realised that I’d been paid not to give a talk, but to help anonymous businesspeople define the very spirit of adventure in order that they could take that priceless thing, turn it into a product, and sell it.

I felt a pang of guilt. Had I acted wrongly? Was I complicit in something that jarred deeply with my values — that violated something I might even hesitantly categorise as sacred?

Listen. I am a dreamer. I spend inordinate amounts of time imagining journeys I might take. They are idealistic dreams, always more colourful and dramatic than any adventure ever really is. It’s an unashamedly pleasurable thing. Best of all, dreaming costs nothing.

I also understand just how achievable it is for most of us to bring such dreams to reality; how the biggest barriers are in our minds, and how that puts us so firmly in control of overcoming them. I’ve spent the last eight years doing it myself, writing about it, making films about it, and helping and encouraging people like you to do likewise. Rarely a day goes by that I don’t hear from someone in the midst of planning such a journey, or who’s done what needs to be done, hit the road, and is just checking in to say hello.

I’m hardly alone in dreaming these dreams. And there are people out there taking highly calculated steps in order to profit from them. I met some of them that day. They’d offered a reward for helping haul in some fashionable new thing called adventure. They’d known that if they could capture that fleeting mythos, lash it down and wring a business out of it, they would be able to make a lot of money. I’d helped them to do it.

I still don’t know whether the part I played in this was right or wrong, whether it really had the slightest discernable effect in the grand scheme of things. What I do know is that I entered, for a brief period of time, a world that made me feel uncomfortable.

What I also know is that the word ‘adventure’ is popping up, more often than ever before, in contexts that I can’t help but see as incongruous with what the word actually means.

Most blatant, and among the most obvious candidates for misusing the word, are package tour operators. Hand over your cash and all the scary aspects of an adventure will be taken care of, leaving the fun bits for the taking.

Carefully omitted is that the very act of packaging, pricing and managing a person’s experience is a dagger in the heart of the deep, transformative process that comes with laying bare our weaknesses and testing our wits and our beliefs against the cold measure of chaotic, unpredictable reality. Dealing with all the scary aspects of an adventure is precisely what makes it an adventure. Pay money to take fears and obstacles away and you’re left with a supremely well-disguised holiday.

One recently-launched website was positioned as a free-to-read adventure storytelling platform; “a place to collect, create, curate and share meaningful stories and experiences”. Those in charge are “building a tribe for people who are defiantly curious”, according to the About page. They’ve paid adventurers I know personally to write articles about enterprising, independent, “epic” expeditions. They quote Mark Twain.

And then, carefully and methodically, they sell you package tours, because they are actually a front for a multinational adventure travel corporation with a $400 million annual turnover. On the corporate, investor-oriented website, their message is a little different. Here, they are all “about growth. We recognise that today’s traveller is […] seeking a more engaging and adventurous holiday than before.”

Is their raison d’etre building a tribe of defiantly curious people, or exploiting a market for maximum profit? Yes, I do believe that inspiring tales of adventure need to be told. But is it ethical to commandeer them to draw in consumers and sell them an experience that looks the same but is actually — at the most fundamental level — the very opposite? Am I alone in feeling that there’s something wrong with such an association?

Grim industrial cycle route near Warrington

The homegrown adventure community is not impervious to the tentacles of mass consumerism, either. Reach the level of minor adventure celebrity, with a few thousand Twitter followers and a couple of impressive-sounding adventures under your belt, and you are hot property. Your voice commands attention, and the big players want your voice to be talking about their products.

The evidence for this arrives in my inbox on a daily basis from PRs and marketing managers. The proposal suggests a mutually beneficial partnership between Brand X and Blogger Y, and, when ignored, is followed up precisely one week later, regular as clockwork.

Pitches take many forms, but the most common is to offer cash in return for publishing a ‘guest post’ which looks like a bonafide article but conveniently name-drops and hyperlinks to the client in question. Other commonly-seen suggestions include simply offering cash for inserting hyperlinks into pre-existing blog articles, or asking the blogger to contribute free content to a blog or website (created as part of the corporate social media strategy) on the promise of “great exposure for your work”.

It has taken marketers a while to understand that such agreements can undermine the very impartiality that gives the independent blogger his or her credibility, and so proposals are often very tricksy when it comes to concealing any obvious conflict of interest. The most interesting such proposal last week came from a marketing agency contracted by a phone manufacturer, offering me several hundred Euros to spend a month using their newest smartphone to document my life through photos and videos.

Making a living from adventure is not easy. Because of this, we are deplorably easy to bribe. The result is more and more self-made adventurers accepting shiny baubles from the world of big business.

The way I see it, it’s an entirely personal decision whether or not to engage with this. While I’ve been moving to disassociate myself from the mega-corporate end of things (having made mistakes in the past), others are embracing it, seeing it as a valid way to make their adventures happen and earn credibility with peers who share such values.

It’s nothing particularly new, of course. Edwardian explorers mounted expeditions on the back of private investments. And there are lots of good people making a living in the adventure space who I’d happily consider working with. But there’s a spectrum here, with passion at one end and profit at the other, and when people from either extreme are suddenly hand in hand, something doesn’t quite seem to sit right.

The real issue is one of integrity and trust. Those who’ve ditched financial security in pursuit of their passions do not take their reputations lightly. It is rather hypocritical to be talking about grassroots adventure one minute, and ensuring the logo of an undisclosed benefactor appears in an Instagram photo the next. Such slurs may (and often do) go undetected, but when brought to light, it erodes our collective credibility by association.

Why is there a noticeable lack of transparency here? Perhaps a better question is this: how many adventurers’ values are truly aligned with those of neoliberalism? Is the cycle of aggressive selling, endless resource consumption and eternal economic growth a system whose shoulder they’d put their arm around and say, “yes, I support you”? When framed in this way, would those baubles be so easy to accept?

These are deep and challenging questions that I think more self-styled adventurers should be asking themselves. In circles like these it is unfashionable to mention politics, but adventure does not exist in isolation from the remainder of human activity, though it might often be convenient to paint it as some kind of pristine, inviolable jewel. To sign on as a corporate shill without due consideration for the wider implications is to risk demonstrating the kind of hypocrisy that inspires rants like this.

I know this is not clear-cut, that big brands are also capable of a net positive effect. Indeed, some have been channelling their profits into environmental and humanitarian causes for decades. But they are an admirable minority. We must be more careful.

And at the very least, independent publishers have a moral duty not to insult their audiences by conveniently neglecting to mention who is bankrolling their words.

On another level entirely — and forgive me if this seems tangential — the word ‘adventure’ itself is being abused by greater powers sailing bigger ships. They dissected the values and associations of the word years ago on boardroom tables, and today it is being explicitly used to sell clothes, coffee, cars, cocktails, convenience food and consumer electronics.

To demonstrate this, I spent a week in London looking out for specific examples. Turns out that the biggest adventure is, in fact, the daily grind.

Let me map out today’s adventure by starting with the morning commute or school run. Modernity dictates that I need a CO2–belching SUV for this. Fear not, for Toyota, in partnership with the National Geographic Society, are using the sponsored adventures of a father-and-son team (really nice guys, I’ve heard, though I haven’t met them) to flog them to me.

Having driven the SUV to work, I can become an ‘adventurer in coffee’ simply by ordering the guest bean instead of the Starbucks house blend. Popping down the shops at lunchtime, I’ll find the key to unlocking adventure this autumn lies deep within Debenhams, in which mannequins climb plastic mountains — and while I’m at it, let’s not forget that I can better ‘share my adventures’ by upgrading to the newest Nokia smartphone.

Dinner comes courtesy of Wagamamas, who serve noodle soup ‘for the curious, for the adventurous’. And I’ll be wanting to unwind at the end of a tough day of adventure — so why not go for a drink at the Adventure Bar, where ‘every cocktail adds to the story’?

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It’s pervasive. It’s hilarious! Adventure is the buzzword of the moment. Consumers, bored of safety and security in a nanny state, suddenly want excitement and adrenaline. Businesses large and small are using that desire to sell them more of the same old shite.

Par for the course, really; the marketers who keep these companies competitive are used to jumping on any up-and-coming trend and riding it until it collapses in the dust, knowing another bandwagon will have been long since tracked down by the time that happens. It’s comically tragic (or perhaps tragically comic?) that adventure has become the most recent high-street poster boy, that a concept so at odds with mass consumption is being hijacked for such ends.

When the dust settles, of course, the spirit of adventure will remain standing, because it is defined by what it inside of us, rather than going on around us. And so I am far less concerned about the temporary reappropriation of the word by outsiders as I am about the practices of the insiders we’ve previously seen.

Tricky paddling in Zagros gorges

One way or another, you and I have come to embrace adventure as an instrument for the betterment of our individual and collective lives. Whether engaging with it full-time or eking out opportunities in between other occupations, we do what we do because we love it. It’s a sacred concept, a deep point of resonance, a universally-understood story. It is a means by which we as humans have grown and learned since we climbed down from the trees, attained a sense of self and began to roam the Earth. Adventure has since taken us to every corner of the globe.

With that in mind, I would just like to make three simple suggestions to those whose paths in life stray into the territory of adventure, lest it be reduced to the mere act of opening our wallets:

1. Regardless of the way in which we define or participate in adventure, let’s remind ourselves of the essential truth that it can never be served up on a silver platter.

2. As active travellers and expeditioners and lovers of the great outdoors with our eyes open to what’s happening in the world today, let’s bear in mind all we’ve seen and learned before selling ourselves to a system based on perpetual economic growth.

3. As speakers, publishers, presenters and advocates of adventure who’ve built trust and authority, let’s act with integrity by fully disclosing our affiliations when allowing businesses large and small to capitalise upon that hard-earned trust.

One would hope these things to be a matter of common sense. But we all need a little reminder sometimes. (And I include myself in that.)

That is all.

Thank you for reading. If you feel strongly about any of the issues I’ve touched on in this piece, please share your thoughts constructively in the comments section.

Comments here.

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