What is the Purpose of Adventure?
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.
Adventure was My Path to Midlife Renewal
In my own experience, adventure has not only been the “sheer joy” Mallory talked about, it has been a catalyst for a personal re-awakening. By the time I reached my mid-40s, after a decade of tough life challenges, I found myself feeling quite old and in poor health. Encouraged by a friend, I decided I needed to get into shape, so I got out of my comfort zone on the morning of July 8, 2015 and hiked to the meager 5,712-foot summit of Moun Wilson above Pasadena. 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 80 miles that year, then 400 miles the next. Then 500. Then hiking led to rock climbing, then alpine climbing. Four years later I found myself on the 19,400-foot glaciated summit of Cotopaxi in Ecuador. As I’ve reflected on all this, I’ve come to understand that the point of adventure is not simply “play” or fitness, it is our own personal transformation, and that transformation tends to happen in five ways…
1. Adventure Creates Optimal Anxiety
Over the years of many wilderness adventures, I’ve consistently left my comfort zone. I’ve followed the advice of Bear Grylls: “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.”
“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.”Bear Grylls
For the most part, I stayed in the sweet spot of “Optimal Anxiety.” In 1908, psychologists Robert M. Yerkes and John D. Dodson explained that there was a level of optimal anxiety that improved performance in people. In contrast, relative comfort created a steady level of performance. In other words, as people, we tend not to do anything noteworthy when we stay in our comfort zone. A friend of mine described this idea in a model he called “The Donut”. The picture below says it all. We spend so much of our time trying to stay in our comfort zone, but nothing worthwhile happens here. The real goodness of life happens when we cross the chasm from the comfort zone into the adventure zone. But don’t go too far. You can get killed that way.
2. Adventure is the Antidote for Learned Helplessness
I’ve discovered that a side effect of adventure is increased confidence and emotional resilience that spills over into other areas of our lives. In my own experience, as my own confidence started to build, I noticed that were areas of my 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, so we give up. And these are some of our biggest growth opportunities as people.
Learned helplessness was first studied by Martin Seligman in 1965 when he ran a series of experiments on dogs. Seligman would ring a bell and then give a light shock to a dog in a cage. After several 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 dogs simply laid down. The dogs were conditioned to believe they could not help themselves. Seligman described their condition as “Learned Helplessness,”
Like Seligman’s dogs, we are often conditioned to stay inside the fence, even when we can easily cross it, in many areas of life. It’s only when we consciously decide to get out of our comfort zones that we begin to find freedom from areas where we experience learned helplessness. In my experience, facing my fears in outdoor adventures helps me face my fears in my relationships and career too.
3. The Suffering of Adventure Leads to Greater Joy
Adventure tends to build the capacity to suffer with grace and experience joy. I remember being on Mount Rainier, starting up the summit at 12:00 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 pure suffering, and we’d be doing this for the next 8 hours to reach the summit. 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.
The memory of suffering quickly dissipates, but the residue of strength it leaves behind can persist for a lifetime. 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. This idea brings to mind one of my favorite quotes from Conrad Anker when he said, “Enlightenment isn’t found on a full stomach, or on a soft pillow.”
4. Adventure Breaks the Illusion of Being in Control
Adventure frees the mind from the illusion of control. In the movie The Matrix, Morpheus says to Neo, “You’re living in a dream world, Neo.” We all are. Like many of us, 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 have the perception that I am in control. But this is only in my imagination.
In my adventure world, Last summer I was in the worst lightning storm of my life and I had 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 drown in a fast-moving current, the wilderness doesn’t care. 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.
5. Adventure Creates Powerful Bonds Between People
Finally, adventure connects our souls together in ways few experiences can. I remember crossing a deep, fast-moving, icy-cold creek with my son and daughter-in-law while we were on the High Sierra Trail. We had to lock arms and cross carefully together so we wouldn’t be swept away. As we emerged to safety on the other side, I looked back at the kids. I saw tears on my daughter-in-law’s face and pure terror on my son’s face. I was a little shaken as well. 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. These experiences tie people together in moments that, outside of adventure, could take decades or a lifetime.
In my life, adventure has been transformative in ways I could not have imagined. How about you? Are you ready to step out of your comfort zone? You might get killed, but you probably won’t 🙂 It may just be the thing that changes everything. 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.