Tenny and I saw in the New Year 12 months ago with a schoolteacher and a lawyer from London. Said professional couple are now taking a couple of days’ rest in the delightful seaside town of Batumi, Georgia, having quit their jobs and cycled the entire width of Europe and Turkey. Their story is a tangible example of how far you can come in a year if you put your mind to it. This recognisable end-of-year wind-down is a good opportunity to look back and see what we can learn before 2014 kicks in and we’re caught up in the hustle once again
I’d like to share my own process, and invite you to do the same. It’s about inviting support rather than judgement, open and honest reflection on what went well and what did not, and looking for lessons that can surely be found.
My early months of 2013 also involved travelling thousands of miles, but primarily by train and folding bike and mainly within the UK. Having launched the film of Janapar, the start of this year was all about getting the accompanying book finished, delivered to my Kickstarter backers, and launched to my remaining readers. To expand the project’s audience, I held screenings and book signings in a couple of dozen British towns and cities.
These were exhausting, not just because of the logistics involved but also because of the emotional nature of the project. I’m naturally introverted; being the centre of attention drains my energy quickly; when it’s essentially my own coming-of-age story that’s on the table, the emotional demands are multiplied exponentially.
By March the project had built a great deal of momentum, but I was dangerously burnt out and practically penniless as a result.
Lessons: Labours of love are so called for a reason. Regular recharging periods are essential for introverts. Telling your story means opening up to vulnerability, and too much of that is detrimental. Being poor sucks.
Luckily I’d planned in advance. I went to Iran for two months to work on my New Year’s Resolution to become fluent in Farsi in one year. I also made the tough decision not to write or blog about this journey. Having shared so much in Janapar, I desperately needed to keep this my own.
The trip put the previous months firmly in perspective and clarified a few personal strengths and weaknesses. I also made surprising progress in Farsi, and by the end of the trip was happily conversing on a range of subjects. The kicker came when I realised I’d spent a full day interacting in Farsi without once resorting to English — a ‘lightbulb’ moment. Progress hasn’t been as rapid since I returned, but the acid test is shortly to come.
Lessons: Travel and exploration continues to be relevant for a host of reasons. Drawing a line between public and private life is a good idea. Scary obstacles can be overcome with a combination of public accountability, good advice, and small steps in the right direction.
Tenny and I would like to travel more, and for longer, but for tedious bureaucratic reasons we are currently restricted to living in the UK. Having given London a try and found it a strange and stifling place best left for the occasional visit, we decided to live somewhere a little different. This ended up being on an ancient farm within the borders of the Lake District National Park.
Not wanting to waste my summer in front of a screen (which writers, filmmakers and all who depend upon the Internet for their livelihoods are bound to do), I took a job on aforementioned farm, becoming an employee for the first time in my life. Pitched as an antidote to the monolithic book and film project that had already consumed more than two years of my life and all of my savings, it worked wonderfully, and I spent one of the hottest and driest Cumbrian summers on record being paid to wander around the fells, drive pick-up trucks, and build stuff out of wood. Evenings and weekends were usually spent swimming in the Mediterranean-like Coniston Water. Nice.
The summer was memorable, fulfilling in that I felt genuinely useful to other people, and extremely therapeutic for the soul. But it did little for my financial woes. It took me the whole of September to get back up to speed with my blog and self-employment activities, and exploring distribution avenues for Janapar continued to dominate too much of my time. I felt ambivalent about attending the autumn’s screenings, sensing that the story has become too distant for constantly revisiting it to be emotionally healthy.
In general, I felt that I was doing the right things, but in the wrong proportions, and sometimes for the wrong reasons as a result of external pressure.
I also did nowhere near as much actual travel as I’d have liked. In part, this is because I’m more interested in involving other people in these journeys, as I did last year with Ben, but I have not made finding willing partners a priority, and I have not had the means to do the kind of shorter and more focused adventures that are more relevant to me these days. Again, this is down to a disproportionate amount of time spent elsewhere and a deficit of the various resources needed to make things happen.
Lessons: Time spent outdoors is deeply important to me for its own sake, but in the future needs to be far better integrated into what I do. My own ambitions for Janapar are satisfied; new projects need to take centre stage. Being of use to others is extremely rewarding, as is the sharing of adventures, and I’d like to focus more on these two things in the coming year.
One major interlude this summer was a trip over to Portland, Oregon, for the annual World Domination Summit. With a tongue-in-cheek name, it’s best described as a gathering of people looking for ways to live remarkable lives in a conventional world. The main speakers told personal tales with universal themes, each one of them inspirational in its own way; the workshops looked to turn this inspiration into action; and the whole event was designed in the spirit of having fun. (Let’s not forget how important that is!)
Meeting so many like-minded people gave me more energy than I knew what to do with. The WDS’s biggest takeaway was an appreciation of what’s being made and done in this world, and that it’s being made and done by ordinary people (like us) pursuing extraordinary ideas.
Lesson: However weird or impossible you think your dreams are, there’s someone out there doing something weirder and more impossible. (And they’ll probably be at the WDS next year.)
Tenny and I have ended the year with mixed feelings about the immediate future. On one hand, the last 12 months have been a real struggle, mostly financially, and mostly due to one highly demanding project (guess which one) that has broadly failed to compensate the time and energy put into it.
It’s been an invaluable learning process, and from a creative sense it has been a real success, but what we have found is that — unsurprisingly — living on the breadline for too long ultimately hinders future ambition. I have not been able to invest in ideas and projects I feel are important and worthwhile; I have not been able to work on new creative projects with a clear mind; Tenny has felt the same; and the situation is partly of our own making. Given that I rely for my own basic needs on other people’s willingness to invest in my ideas and projects, it feels uncomfortable to have such a limited capacity to engage with other people’s work in the same way.
On the other hand, our concerted efforts to build Tenny’s own business as a freelance graphic designer are working, and she has enough ongoing work for it to be a full-time occupation. I can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel with Janapar; January will see a broader release of the film and book on some major digital distribution platforms (Heads up: I’ll need your help with spreading the word!), and I am quite happy to release my grasp on it from that point forward and move on in the hope that it might one day pay dividends. February and March will see an exciting new journey and film project with a new expedition partner. And I have a number of projects on the boil which are all designed around being useful to others — and not just in terms of bicycle travel.
Importantly, I have a much clearer vision of how all of this might sustain itself, lifting the financial pressure I’ve suffered from this past year and freeing up the time and headspace necessary to create, to be helpful, and to invest and engage more with the adventure community.
It has taken a long time to find my path in this weird jungle of adventure, inquisition, publishing and storytelling, to engage with the modes of thinking required to run a ‘microbusiness’, and at the same time to ensure that all big decisions reflect my core principles. But I’m getting there and I’m willing to put the hard graft in to make it happen over the next 12 months.
Lessons: Looking back at the successes and failures of the year is a good idea. It often takes time to figure out next moves, so it’s important to create time in which this can happen. Seeking out like-minded people on a regular basis can shed light on things that are unclear. Being poor sucks (again); financial freedom is a means to an end; good ends are worth pursuing; and thus I need to address the problem at its core and find ways of bringing my income to a satisfactory level.
I have always seen myself as a writer first and foremost. This year I made one small habit change that has revolutionised my output: the simple act of setting an alarm clock for 6am. I do this every weekday and will generally have written 1,000–2,000 words before the world wakes up and all the usual distractions set in. I don’t set a specific topic for the writing; sometimes it’s just train of thought stuff, sometimes it’s a burning idea for a blog article, sometimes it’ll be a section or chapter of a bigger project, and sometimes it begins as one thing and ends up as another. But it’s been a hugely important discovery to make as a writer: rather than forcing myself to write when I don’t want to, I’ve identified the circumstances under which I do want to write — with a clear mind and no distractions — and committed to making it habitual.
Lessons: Figuring out your way of doing things is more effective than trying to force yourself to follow someone else’s method. Habit change is hard but worthwhile.
That’s my annual roundup. If you’ve a blog of your own, why not give it a go? I promise you’ll learn something. Start by asking: What went well this year? What didn’t go well this year? Don’t forget to post a link here when you’re done…