I received the following email the other day:
I am a little bit confused as to what exactly you do for a living. I know that you are an adventurer, but I don’t get where you get your ‘everyday money’. Sponsorship is one thing for a trip, but if you don’t have a 9–5 job, where do you get the daily money from?
It’s a good question. But what exactly might my correspondee think ‘adventurer’ actually means?
Types of ‘Adventurer’ (or Explorer, or Expeditioner)
(Warning: you may find one or more of the following stereotypes offensive.)
Plenty of folk in the expedition industry come from moneyed backgrounds and have found adventuring to be a worthwhile thing to do with their time and cash, and a fair few more have high-income partners and no particular need to earn much more than pocket money. These people are absolutely deserving of the title ‘adventurer’ (or explorer/expeditioner, depending on your definition of the words). It accurately reflects the subject that occupies most of their energies.
Many more who don’t have these luxuries have forged a wide variety of income streams — most commonly corporate motivational speaking (the biggest money spinner) and school talks, but also TV presenting, live workshops, books, and paid positions on expedition teams — that allow them to dedicate most or all of their energy to adventuring or related subjects such as planning, educating, evangelising, or storytelling in some form or other. These self-made adventurers are generally very open about their profession and there are countless inspirational stories of dedication and hard graft to be told here.
Members of a third group tend to play to the general understanding of the term ‘adventurer’, casting themselves as such through blogs and talks based on a decent handful of experiences when in fact it is working, studying, or some other unconnected pursuit that actually occupies the majority of their time. There’s something of delusion, conscious or not, being propagated by members of this group. It’s fairly harmless as there is at least some substance there, but I do sometimes wish there was more transparency — life outside of adventure is nothing to be ashamed of.
A final all-too-common category of self-styled adventurers are really not adventurers at all, but people who have paid (tons) to be taken on commercial expeditions in which they have no critical decision-making responsibilities whatsoever, and have subsequently invented an entirely illusory ‘adventurer’ alter-ego. Some of them go as far as to publish books and give (paid) talks about their experiences at highly respected institutions which cleverly omit any mention of the support teams and paid guides who hold their hands, prepare their meals and tell them what to do. They are clever, wilfully dishonest and — worst of all — to the public they are often indistiguishable from the previous categories, which really angers those who have worked their socks off for their recognition.
(No judgement is implied by these stereotypes. Except for the final bunch of phoneys.)
How To Get By On Almost Nothing
I just about fit into the second category, although I’ve felt in danger of dipping my toes into the third at times. But one of my resolutions for this year was to make my passion for adventure entirely self-sustaining. So I occupy my time with a large range of things, most of which have something to do with adventure, a few which don’t, and some of which I sometimes get paid for. I spend very little on anything, and get by happily on the resulting balance.
The long answer is a bit more complicated. Let’s go for concrete examples to keep things meaningful, and talk about the last few months, and what’s immediately ahead. (Although it goes against our weird Western sensitivities, I’ll include actual figures here.)
Method One: Need Less
I was based in Central London for half a year, and there’s a myth that London is very expensive to live in.
I think this is because it’s assumed, in London at least, that the point of cutting costs and earning more is to have loads of disposable income with which to — well, dispose, or at least put into a savings account.
Although it is blindingly obvious, the connection between cutting costs and needing to work much less is almost never made. The 40-hour work week, for some reason, must never be questioned.
During December and January I spent most of my time writing, mainly in the Royal Geographical Society members’ room, to which I have full-time access in return for the very reasonable overhead of a £93 annual fee. If I get bored of the RGS, I go to one of the local libraries instead (which are all free).
I get around London on a simple single-speed bike built out of second-hand parts from Singletrackworld.com’s classified ads forum and some parts I had lying around, totalling less than a hundred quid. It never breaks or needs any maintenance, and nobody wants to steal it.
Before beginning to write I go swimming in the Serpentine (at £20 a year probably the cheapest swimming pool membership in the country). For other forms of exercise, I run in the streets and parks (free), do push-ups (free), pull ups (with a free pull-up bar from Freegle), sit-ups and squats (yep, free). What tiny amount of kit I need for swimming, biking and running I get from Decathlon’s blue range (think Tesco’s own brand).
A bit of simple maths brings my transport, professional and fitness overheads to a grand total of about £20 a month. You earned that today, and probably before coffee-time too.
It is a source of constant mystery why so many people are sucked into the insane work/spend cycle, which is the real reason London is cited as an expensive city: the lifestyle of choice, not the place itself. It is a monster that requires constant feeding. Nicely-spec’d apartments in nice locations, mobile phone contracts, TV licenses for massive high-definition flatscreen televisions, insurance for everything (including insurance for claiming on your insurance), public transport, beers after work, eating out, subscriptions, special offers, nights out, posh markets, deals on things to see and do. ‘Career advancement’. Something better just round the corner.
People feel that this is all obligatory, the only way to run one’s life in London, and the only way to enjoy it and make it satisfying. It isn’t. (Here’s proof.)
Method Two: Generate Multiple Streams of Income
Travelling by bicycle gave me the time to develop a handful of creative pursuits — filmmaking, photography and writing amongst them.
I never imagined these would ever supplement my income. But I’ve written several outdoor magazine articles (between £100–500-ish a pop, depending on word count and photography), sold a handful of prints of my photographs (a few quid per sale), put together some short videos for non-profit organisations in London (in the region of £150 a day), and been hired as an event photographer for a charity fundraiser (£150 for the gig).
These have been fun, varied and challenging, which are all things I look for from life. They’ve come about through working passionately at these creative pursuits, and putting them up on this blog for the public to tear apart. I haven’t had to pitch for any of them.
Last month I was asked to tell my stories of ‘extreme travel’ to a handful of corporate executives, earning £150 cash for a single hour of disjointed waffling about my life.
My book is approaching completion, and the DVD of Janapar will be available before the end of the year. Although I’ve ploughed months of my life into creating these two things, at the time of writing I am yet to earn a single penny from either of them.
So I’m investing plenty of time and energy in learning about marketing and selling, because it’s important to me that these projects become at least partly self-sustaining. I cannot write and make films for free, because the compromise in finding funds through other (time-consuming and uninteresting) means is too great. Money is not the point — the point is to cover the costs of the time spent on these creative projects, and thus do more of them.
And if I had the balls, I would design an entertaining talk or two and embark on the speaking circuit. I know I have a good story, but I’m too afraid of getting up in front of an audience to actually tell it. A school talk can earn a couple of hundred quid. Add another zero for a corporate gig. Plus expenses.
But I don’t have the balls.
Method Three: Head Down Work Hard
My next bike trip is rapidly approaching — the return flight to Vancouver (£576) is booked for the third of April. So February and March will be a little different. I need to bring in some slightly more serious cash, as I’ve got to keep up the rent & rates in London (£500-ish a month) whilst at the same time pedalling and camping for two months in North America (with flights, about £1000–1200 tops).
To do this, I’ve taken what I was already skilled at — putting websites together — and applied it to what I’m interested in, which is the field of adventure and exploration. For these two months I’ll be working overtime on a handful of sites for people in this industry. Last year I put together websites for Alastair Humphreys, amongst others (a lot more interesting than building websites for cheesemongers, as I’ve done in the past). It’s fascinating and inspiring to work with people like this, and I learn a lot from doing so.and
If I didn’t write about it, this would be definite third-category material. But sometimes it’s necessary to accept a level of compromise, develop a specific skill and go where it’s needed. Work hard, finish up and dive into the important stuff.
People with ‘regular’ jobs and dependable incomes sometimes ask me what I’ll do if money runs out. How could I possibly live today without being sure how I’m going to pay the rent in 6 months’ time?
I sometimes think that people imagine me sleeping in a cardboard box in the rain surrounded by angry bankers and debt collection agencies and friends and family chiding me for being so bloody stupid as to not plan properly ‘for the future’, my accounts emptied and all I knew and loved having cruelly turned on me as I descend into penniless poverty hell.
That’s not going to happen.
We need to see past this fear and dogma. It’s not easy and it takes more time and effort than many are prepared to take out of their stable and comfortable life of work. But plenty of people do so and succeed in carving out a new way of living. I for one have no regrets, although it needs to be pointed out that the particular combination of pastimes found by one individual is unlikely to be relevant to anyone else.
My particular answer to the original question — how to make a living as an adventurer — is unique to me alone. ‘Adventure’ covers a broad spectrum, and those within it have a wide variety of personal motivations for doing what they do — and that is from where their multitudinous ways of generating income must ultimately stem.
So my general answer comes in the form of another question. What’s your passion? What are you good at? How can you find the intersection between your interests, skills and talents, and what others might find valuable?
Credit to Andrew Skurka for the idea that this question might be one worth sharing. As for making a living through your passions, try Chris Guillebeau’s selection of ‘Unconventional Guides’* if you’re stuck on where to start.