What is the Purpose of Adventure?

George Mallory got to the heart of adventure when he said, “What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money.” So let's unpack this idea of "sheer joy."

When asked why he climbed Everest, George Mallory famously replied, “Because it was there.” The quote made headlines worldwide and became a trademark statement among mountaineers for generations. Not to minimize Mallory’s achievement, but this is one of the most moronic statements ever made. That’s the answer I’d get from my young son, at 6 years old, when I’d ask him why he hit his sister. Fortunately, Mallory redeemed himself when he confessed the real reason he climbed Everest, “What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money.” That’s the reason he climbed Everest. That’s the purpose of adventure.

What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money.

In my own experience, adventure has not only been “sheer joy,” it has been a catalyst for a personal re-awakening. After a decade of tough life challenges, the sustained ever-present stress had made me feel quite old – and I was only in my mid-40s at the time. I’m not sure how or why, but one day I got out of my comfort zone and planned an adventure.

I took a hike up the meager peak of Mount Wilson, just above Pasadena, but at the time it was not meager to me. I was out of shape and thought about turning back a few times, but I made it to the top and felt the euphoria of my little adventure. I did it. And I wanted more.

I hiked more. I hiked 80 miles that year, then 400 miles the next. Then 500. I started craving that anxious feeling I’d get before I went on a big hike. Did I have what it took for this? Would the weather cooperate? Did I plan well enough so I wouldn’t get myself in a dangerous situation? What happens if I get hurt 20 miles from anyone at 12,000 feet?

Just Outside the Comfort Zone

I constantly stepped out of my comfort zone, but not too far out. I followed the Bear Grylls’ Rule of Adventure: “Adventure should be 80 percent ‘I think this is manageable,’ but it’s good to have that last 20 percent where you’re right outside your comfort zone. Still safe, but outside your comfort zone.” There was once or twice I almost got myself killed, but that’s another story altogether. For the most part, I stayed in the sweet spot of “Optimal Anxiety.”

What is Optimal Anxiety?

In 1908, psychologists Robert M. Yerkes and John D. Dodson explained that a state of relative comfort created a steady level of performance. In order to maximize performance, however, we need a state of relative anxiety—a space where our stress levels are slightly higher than normal. This space is called “Optimal Anxiety,” and it’s just outside our comfort zone. Too much anxiety and we’re too stressed to be productive, and our performance drops off sharply.

Constantly pushing my fitness and knowledge to higher levels in bigger adventures gave me a confidence dividend that spilled over into my work life. I had fully embraced the growth mindset. My emotional resilience noticeably improved, and I began to challenge the areas in my work and personal life where I had developed what psychologists call “Learned Helplessness.” We all have these areas in our lives where we have been conditioned to think our efforts are futile. Like Seligman’s dogs, we are conditioned to stay inside the fence, even when we can easily cross it. We avoid or shrink back from challenges we are destined to succeed at – at work, in our fitness, relationships, and more.

What is Learned Helplessness?

In 1965, Martin Seligman ran a series of experiments on dogs. He would ring a bell and then give a light shock to a dog. After a number of times, the dog reacted to the shock even before it happened. When the dog heard the bell, he reacted as though he’d already been shocked. Seligman continued the series of experiments by putting the dogs in a large cage that was divided by a low fence. The dog could easily jump over the fence if he wanted to. The floor on one side of the fence was electrified, but the other side was not. Seligman put the dog on the electrified side and administered a light shock, expecting the dog to jump to the non-shocking side of the fence. Instead, the dog lay down. The dogs were conditioned to believe they could not help themselves. Seligman described their condition as “Learned Helplessness,” or not trying to get out of a negative situation because the past has taught you that you are helpless.

Sheer Joy and the Medicine of Suffering

Another thing I noticed about my adventures was that I had built a greater capacity for suffering with grace. I remember being on Mount Rainier, starting up the summit at 12 am tied to my two partners. My head hurt and my dinner hadn’t settled well. Within 20 minutes of leaving base camp we were climbing up steep glaciers – one foot in front of the other, in the dark. It was just suffering, and we’d be doing this for the next 8 hours to reach the summit. On the way down, more suffering. In my heart, I wanted to sink into a foul mood. I had to tell myself out loud over and over again, “Bryan, BE HERE NOW. You GET to be here. You GET to do this.” I knew I had to be deliberate about my gratitude. When we got back to the trailhead to leave for home, I couldn’t stop thinking about all of the suffering on that trip. I wondered if I ever wanted to climb a big glaciated mountain again. Yet for reasons I can’t explain, three days later I began scheming about a bigger climb in Ecuador.

Enlightenment isn’t found on a full stomach, or on a soft pillow.

When we willingly suffer in the pursuit of adventure, we build the capacity for suffering with grace through the challenges life throws at us. We can be mindful and others-centered in the midst of our suffering, rather than completely self-absorbed. When we suffer well, our character deepens with gratitude and humility. It warms the people around us and changes the atmosphere of our relationships. I have to agree with Conrad Anker when he said, “Enlightenment isn’t found on a full stomach, or on a soft pillow.” Moreover, Mallory himself understood this equally well, when he said, “I look back on tremendous efforts and exhaustion and dismal looking out of a tent door on to a dismal world of snow and vanishing hopes and yet, and yet, and yet there have been a good many things to see on the other side.” I believe these “good many things” are the “sheer joy” he spoke of. Suffering and joy are linked. In this life, we cannot have one without the other.

The Illusion of Control and the “Beginner’s Mind”

Adventure also frees the mind from the illusion of control. In The Matrix, Morpheus says to Neo, “You’re living in a dream world, Neo.” So am I. I drive from place to place during the week, meet with clients, manage projects, and experience a level of success in my career. I feel confident. I make things happen. I am the master of my own destiny. I am in control.

I have to see the world as it really is, and not through the lens of my adolescent overconfidence.

As I watch a thunderstorm roll in quickly at 13,000 feet, I have no such illusions about being in control. I can make good or bad decisions, but I am not in control of the outcomes. I am a tiny person in a giant landscape. In a way, my life means nothing here. If I die by lightning, rockfall, or drowning in the spring runoff, the wilderness doesn’t care. I have to pay attention. I have to have what Shunryu Suzuki calls a “Beginner’s Mind.” I have to see the world as it really is, and not through the lens of my adolescent overconfidence. Adventure is, by nature, uncertain. Life is, by nature, uncertain. I am never really in control of anything. I think we’d all do well to carry this mindset into our relationships and our careers.

The Power of the Other

Finally, adventure connects our souls together in ways few experiences can. We had just crossed a deep, fast-moving, icy cold creek. We had to lock arms and cross carefully together so we wouldn’t be swept away. As we emerged to safety, I looked back at the kids. I saw tears on my daughter-in-law’s face and pure terror on my son’s face. We stared silently at one another for a moment as if to say, “Wow, that was some scary sh**!” But we did it – together. Each one laid down his own self-interest (and safety) for the others. We spend most of our lives obsessed with our own self-actualization, but in times like these, we find a higher level of joy. We find transcendence as we lay down our own needs and safety for others. This is the power of the other.

We stared silently at one another for a moment as if to say, “Wow, that was some scary sh**!”

Adventure will cost you something, but it doesn’t need to cost a lot. I love big adventures, but you can have a micro-adventure practically anytime. My wife, Becky, and I recently planned a spur-of-the-moment weekend trip to Zion National Park. We got up at o’ dark thirty on a Saturday, drove six hours and hiked Angel’s Landing – considered one of the most dangerous hikes in America due to its class 4 exposed terrain. It was just enough “pucker factor” to get Bec out of her comfort zone. There was euphoria at the summit mixed with a little anxiety about the descent ahead of us – followed by relief when we got to level ground. It was the perfect micro-adventure. The views were beautiful beyond words. We drove over 16 hours that weekend, but we had a blast.

How about you? What’s your next adventure? Get it done. It might just reawaken you. It might just be the necessary medicine for your soul, character, and relationships. There is no time like the present.