This week’s guest on The 21st Century Creative is Alastair Humphreys, a British adventurer and author whose latest book, My Midsummer Morning, recounts his attempt to busk his way across Spain with no money or credit cards, and only an upper beginner’s ability to play the violin.
When he left college Alastair saw his friends going off to work in sensible jobs and it looked a bit boring. So he set out on an epic journey to cycle round the entire world, starting from his parents’ house in Yorkshire. He spent four years circumnavigating the globe by bike, a journey of 46,000 miles through 60 countries and five continents.
Since then, Alastair has walked across southern India, rowed across the Atlantic Ocean, run six marathons through the Sahara desert and trekked 1,000 miles across the Empty Quarter, the largest sand desert in the world. Further north, he has completed a crossing of Iceland and taken part in an expedition in the Arctic, close to the magnetic North Pole. And he’s written about his adventures in a string of popular books.
More recently, Alastair has redefined the very concept of adventure, by introducing us to microadventures which he defines as adventures that are ‘short, simple, local, cheap – yet still fun, exciting, challenging, refreshing and rewarding’. They can be as simple as sleeping out on the hillside next to your house, or as unusual as walking home for Christmas or hiking 120 miles around London’s ring road, the M25.
Alastair’s best selling book Microadventures helped thousands of people discover the spirit of adventure and earned him the title of National Geographic Adventurer of the Year for 2012.
He has spoken at events such as TED and SXSW, and for organisations as diverse as Google, Facebook, Twitter, England Rugby and the UK Special Forces.
I’m delighted to welcome Alastair to the microadventure that is The 21st Century Creative, and to share with you a captivating conversation where he talks about the challenges he encountered on his various adventures, and how real-life adventures compare to the inner adventure of writing a book. Plus how he balances the call to adventure with his responsibilities as a husband and father.
Alastair is a terrific storyteller with some great stories to tell, so I’m confident you’ll find this conversation as enjoyable and inspiring as I did.
He also has some very interesting and unexpected things to say about the relationship between adventuring and writing, and about how to live a more creative and adventurous life, wherever you happen to be and whatever your circumstances.
Alastair Humphreys interview transcript
MARK: Alastair, most of us read about adventurers or watch them in the movies. What made you decide to go on real-life adventures yourself?
ALASTAIR: I was originally inspired towards adventure by reading about them as you say, reading books of crazy men and women doing mad stuff around the world. And like most people, I just read them thinking, ‘Wow, that’s a great story.’
But little by little, I started to think, ‘Wow, that’s a great story. I wonder if I could do something like that.’ And the answer of course was, ‘No. Of course, I can’t do something like that because these people are adventurers and I am a normal person. So, of course, I can’t do that.’
So, I had quite a long time of wistfully wishing that I could do adventure, but assuming I couldn’t because I wasn’t an adventurer. And looking back on my younger self, I’m incredibly grateful and also quite impressed that I managed to get myself over that initial hurdle of impostor syndrome and think to myself, ‘Well, why don’t I just give it a go? Why don’t I try something?’
And it needed to be something that a beginner could do. It needed to be something that a young person could afford. And I wanted it to be tough. I really wanted that physical and mental challenge of a journey. And combining those things together was when I decided to go for a long bicycle ride. That was my first foray into adventuring.
MARK: And when you say ‘a long bicycle ride,’ could you elaborate? Because I think your definition of a long bicycle ride is longer than it is for most of us!
ALASTAIR: I had a map on my wall in my room at university, and I remember looking at that world map and thinking, ‘Wouldn’t it be amazing to cycle to India?’ And I looked on the map, and I thought, ‘Wow. India. That looks incredible.’ But then my focus turned to India, and I thought, ‘Well, if I’ve made it this far, why don’t I carry on to China, to Australia?’ And then the idea just started growing and growing in a pretty ridiculously naive way until I thought, ‘Why don’t I try and cycle around the whole world?’
So, that was the idea I had. But I didn’t actually think I was going to cycle around the world. What I actually thought I was going to do was cycle as far as I could until I got tired, or I ran out of money, or ran out of inspiration and then I’d come home and get on with life. But all of that is quite a waffly thing to say. It’s much easier just to burst into the pub and shout out to your friends, ‘I’m going to go cycle around the world.’ That’s a much bolder declaration to make even if you don’t actually entirely mean it.
MARK: Yeah. And then you wake up the next morning, and you think, ‘What did I say?’
ALASTAIR: Oh, gosh. I remember so viscerally that emotion of getting on my bike outside my Mum and Dad’s house in the Yorkshire Dales just thinking, ‘What on earth have I done? This is ridiculous. I’m so out of my depth. This is terrifying and terrible. Oh, dear.’ It was very much, I had that sense at the start line rather than thinking, ‘Hooray, I’m going off on a big adventure,’ I felt more like a condemned man who’d sentenced myself to four years in exile.
MARK: I want to pick up on a few things you’ve said here about getting started because it is so important and it is one of the big themes of the podcast is how do you get started on a big adventure? And usually, it’s an artistic or entrepreneurial adventure of some kind. But I’m glad you’re here to bring us the real live thing.
But it sounds very similar because, first of all, there’s the curiosity, ‘I wonder what it would be like.’ And then, of course, the part comes in and says, ‘No.’ And it’s interesting that it’s…. ‘Well, but I’m not X,’ in this case, ‘I’m not an adventurer.’ But a lot of the time I hear, ‘Yeah. But I’m not a real writer. I’m not an artist, that’s for other people to do.’ And it was only when you got past that, and you started looking at, ‘Well, okay. But I could, you know… There’s land all the way to India once you get to Belgium,’ then bit by bit by bit you could start to see it happening.
ALASTAIR: I find it astonishing how we all just rule ourselves out of the game before we even begin. No one really would look at, say, if you’re watching football on TV, watching the England football team, no one thinks those people were born that good. They’ve gone years and years of being little kids and learning to kick a ball and years and years at playing, and playing, and playing. But somehow, with writing or creative things, or in my case, adventures, we have this real ‘us and them’ sensation of, ‘People like me can’t do X,’ and, yeah, ruling ourselves out of the game before we even kick off is ridiculous and almost ubiquitous, I think.
MARK: And so, how did you get past that and get to the point where you actually committed? Because you have the idea of cycling around the world. You’ve got endless excuses not to do it. And maybe there’s somebody listening to this who had such a dream and didn’t do it. How did you get past all the excuses and actually find a way of making it happen?
ALASTAIR: There were a couple of things. One was I couldn’t think of anything more exciting, and rewarding, and fulfilling to be doing with my life.
I was just about to graduate. All of my friends were going off into the world to get proper jobs and real lives. And I just didn’t quite feel ready for that yet. So, I wanted to do something different. And I had this sense that although I knew it was going to be difficult, I had this feeling that I probably wouldn’t regret it if I set off.
And I’ve always had this fairly morbid sense of mortality hanging over me and a real terror of time passing away. That’s always really motivated me to just get on and do stuff now because I don’t want to have regrets, which is the standard cliché people trot out. But in my case, very much motivates the decisions that I make. I really, really would rather try something, realize I don’t like it, go do something else than to get old, look back and wish I’d given it a go when I could.
And I suppose the other thing that really tipped me over the edge was realizing that at the age of 24, life would never be so simple again. So free of ties and commitments and real life. And I luckily had the foresight to predict that and therefore think, ‘Right. I’ve got to do this now because if I wait, real life’s going to get in the way. And before I know it, I’ll have a mortgage, and a wife, and a cat, and I’ll be doomed.’
MARK: So, okay. That’s what got you going. And what did you learn about yourself on that journey?
ALASTAIR: Oh gosh. I began the trip because I was curious about the wilderness places of the world. I loved wild, beautiful landscapes and also I was quite curious about the physical challenge. I’m not an athletic type at all. I was rubbish at sport, but I started to become really curious about how hard I could push myself physically. So, they’re the two reasons I began that journey.
But I soon learned that if you sit on a bike all day, every day for several months, you get very good at riding a long way. Literally, anyone would get very fit sitting on a bike all day, every day. So, there’s no skill to that other than perhaps some praise for the persistence. So, quite quickly I realized that the physical side of the journey was a bit of an irrelevance, and actually, the big part of it was the mental side and that I had done zero preparation or anticipation for. And that was where I really found the adventure and the challenge began.
And knowing that I was on this project, which was going to take several years to complete, also knowing with real certainty for the first two years that I would not complete it. That it would be too much. I’d quit at some point. So, how on earth could I keep myself going on through this difficult experience knowing that at some point, I was going to quit and fail? I found that the mental side of it was really, really hard.
The other, more positive side was that it really forced me for the first time in my life to not hide behind excuses. I’m terrible in life. If anything goes wrong, I’m always very good at manipulating in my brain till I can blame someone else and make myself come out of it looking like the hero. But on a bike on your own, in the middle of nowhere, you can’t do that. If something goes wrong, you have to fix it yourself. You have to solve the problem yourself. And you can sit down and have a cry and feel sorry for yourself, but at some point, you just have to take a deep breath, stand up, and get on with it. And I found that that was a really good learning experience to come out from behind the excuses and take some responsibility for my life.
MARK: So, you were convinced, for a long time, you were going to fail?
ALASTAIR: Yeah. For the first two years.
MARK: And at what point did that tip over to, ‘Actually, I am going to do this?’
ALASTAIR: I cycled from England to South Africa, crossed the Atlantic on a sailing boat and then cycled from the very tip of southern Patagonia, right the way to northern Colombia, to the Caribbean Sea. And in all that time I was sure that at some point I was going to stop because it was really hard and I had a really long way still to go. I wasn’t even halfway at this point. And as I cycled to Colombia, one of the reasons I didn’t give up was because I was trying to prove myself to the world and prove myself to myself. And that kind of kept me going for a couple of years.
But after two years when I was coming through Colombia, I felt by then, ‘Right. I’ve cycled far enough to prove whatever I need to prove to anyone. Anyone who doesn’t like it now can go hop on a… I’ve done enough for that. I’m satisfied that this is sufficient. Now I can go home with my head held high.’ And I was very happy that I was going to get to the Caribbean and then give up. So, I cycled down through Colombia to the Caribbean Sea, and I went down to, it was basically a yacht club where I could get access to the sea. I was going to take my photo at the end of the Pontoon, me and my bike, and then go to a travel agent, book a ticket and come home.
And I went, I did that. I got to the end of the Pontoon, took my photo of my bike and I was just walking down the Pontoon and someone, an American guy, he shouted out from the yacht. He said, ‘Do you want a lift to Panama?’ And the reason I’d stopped at Colombia is because there’s no road between there and Panama. And he just offered me a lift without me even asking, and I thought, ‘Wow, I can’t say no to that. I guess the journey must continue.’ And from then on, I was into North America, which is a pretty easy six months of cycling up to Alaska. And after that, I only had to ride across Asia. So, I just thought, ‘Oh. Well, I might as well finish the job now.’ So, that was the tipping point, that moment.
MARK: Well congratulations, Alastair. I don’t think anyone has uttered the words, ‘I only had to ride across Asia,’ on the podcast before and actually been able to back it up. And of course if this were an ancient Greek epic, that guy on the boat would of course have been a god in disguise, wouldn’t he? He’d have been a heavenly messenger sent to help you on your way because you’re the hero and you’re destined to succeed.
ALASTAIR: Yeah. Well, he was very well disguised cause he had a large belly and he drank an amazing amount of gin, and I was often quite scared on that boat!
MARK: That sounds like my kind of god!
ALASTAIR: Yeah. Zeus works in mysterious ways. But it was an amazingly fortuitous thing, actually. It really was.
MARK: And what was it like when you came home, and you could walk into that pub and tell your mates, ‘Look, I did it!’
ALASTAIR: Oh gosh. Well, I learned a very big lesson on that trip that you should not undertake a journey in order to complete it. I remember listening to an interview with Bradley Wiggins, he’s a cyclist and he talks about how he woke up the day after winning, I’m not sure if it was the Olympics or the Tour de France, he’s waking up the next morning and just thinking, ‘Wow. I’m still me. Nothing has changed.’ And trying to do any big journey as a route to try and change yourself is a bit foolish.
So I basically came home to relief that it was over. A deep sense of quiet pride that I’d stuck at it, to achieve something big for the first time in my life, but also just a monumental anticlimax of being home. And the thought that, ‘Gosh, I’m 29 now, I think my life has probably peaked. What on earth am I going to do for the next 60 years?’ And of course, you go to the pub, your friends are very excited to see you and to listen to your stories about five minutes, and then they say, ‘Right. Enough of the round the world chat. Let’s talk about the cricket,’ and then life carries on. Life just carries on. And so, I found it a very, very strange experience coming home and one that I’d completely underestimated.
MARK: There’s nothing like your best mates to bring you back down to earth is there?
ALASTAIR: Yes, absolutely!
MARK: Maybe it’s a British thing! How long did that take you altogether?
ALASTAIR: Four years and three months to do. I cycled 46,000 miles through 60 countries. I got around the world with boats and bicycles and the whole trip cost just under £7,000. So it’s pretty cheap.
MARK: So the money really shouldn’t be an excuse, should it?
ALASTAIR: Well, that’s the only reason that I threw that sentence into this podcast because this isn’t a travel podcast. But I know that there’s often, when you talk about anything in life, that people have their legitimate barriers and they have their internal excuses, and these are often all muddled up together.
But generally, I’ve noticed that most excuses boil down to, ‘I don’t have enough time,’ or, ‘I don’t have enough money.’ And a lot of what I’ve been trying to do with both in my adventuring world has been tried to tackle those two barriers both in my life and in other people’s lives.
MARK: Yeah. And I think the lesson maybe for us is really, if you say it’s time and money, then maybe you just don’t have enough resourcefulness, because you found a way to make it happen.
ALASTAIR: Yeah. I’ve come across this nice way of trying to figure out in my mind whether the barrier is legitimate or if it’s an excuse. I think it’s interesting to replace the word ‘can’t’ with ‘choose not to.’ So, for example, ‘I can’t afford to cycle around the world,’ versus, ‘I choose not to allocate my money to cycling around the world,’ or, ‘I can’t write a book because I don’t have enough time,’ or, ‘I choose not to use my time on writing a book.’ And I find when I say that sometimes it’s painful because I just think, ‘Ouch! This is a pathetic excuse I’m making.’ Other times I think, ‘No. I actually can’t do this right now in my life.’ And that is also helpful because then I can park the idea and do something different or do a smaller version of it for now.
MARK: I love this. Honestly, I think it’s a great question. One of the things I say to my clients over and over again is ‘your body is your best coach,’ because your body will give you the truth of what you really feel about something and what you really are capable of. And this is a beautiful example. If you ask the question, it puts it back on you, and you get the ouch…
MARK: …feeling from your body – if you’ve been kidding yourself. So, I don’t know, I might borrow that and use that! I encourage anyone listening to this to use that question. I think it’s terrific.
ALASTAIR: Yeah. Replacing ‘can’t’ with ‘choose not to’ and seeing where that takes your thought process is good.
MARK: Yeah. And as a writer myself, I’m just getting flashbacks all the way through your description, of what it’s like to write a book. You set out full of ridiculous confidence, and you wake up in the middle of the night and think, ‘Well, who am I to do this?’ And then you get going, and you get going, and you get to a certain point, and you realize, ‘Actually, I’m probably going to finish this.’ And that whole thing about you get to the end, and you realize actually…because you’ve been so fixated all the way through, ‘Well, if I do a bit, I’m nearly at the end, I’m nearly there.’ And you get there, and you realize the best part of writing a book was writing the book.
ALASTAIR: Yes. Very much so. I find the parallel is so direct in so many things. In my own writing experience, I find the same thing. For me, finishing writing a book doesn’t come with some great celebration. It comes with a sense of exhaustion and a day when I just cannot be bothered to read the manuscript one more time, ‘I’m done. Send it off out into the world.’ And then once the book comes, I never dare look at it again because I’ll just be cross that it’s not as good as it should be. I find finishing a book to be a spectacular anticlimax.
MARK: What is the relationship between the adventuring and the writing? Do you go on an adventure and then write it up, or is it more complicated than that?
ALASTAIR: One of the reasons I decided to cycle around the world was because I loved reading and I thought I’d love to be a travel writer. Therefore, I needed to have something to write about. So the two things had been intertwined right from the start.
When I’m away on my trips, I write diaries every day partly so I can remember my own life, partly to help me with writing books and partly because I’m often on my own on these trips. It’s just a way of trying to figure out where my head is at that time on the trip, cheer myself up when times are hard, then I come home, type up all my diaries and then begin the agonizing process of writing a book, which is infinitely harder than the expedition that I’m actually writing about.
Sometimes, writing also encroaches on some of my projects. Some of the things I do like rowing the Atlantic Ocean is a very expensive business. You need a sponsor for that. To keep the sponsor happy you have to do blogs along the way and you keep sharing your story. So sometimes I’m writing during the trip and publishing during the trip, but my preferred way is to go do the trip for all the reasons I want to do a trip, come home and then write a story, to have them as separate activities.
MARK: Okay. Talking of sponsors and money and so on, what is the business model for the modern-day adventurer? If I’m sitting at home thinking, ‘Yeah, I’d love to do that,’ how do I make it viable?
ALASTAIR: Well, like pretty much most self-employed things, you start from a standing start, on zero. So, I think anyone who’s looking to try to become a adventurer/writer or creator of anything, I think the sensible thing to do is stick with your day job, stick with whatever pays your bills now and squeeze in adventure and writing around the margins because you’re not going to earn any cash for quite a long time.
So the way it works for me is I saved up for five years, got my £7,000, cycled around the world, came home, started writing my book. And to pay for my life when I got home I gave talks in primary schools at first for zero money, then for £50. And then I just squeezed up my payment by £50 every few months till people started howling in protest. Then I realized I’d worked out what my level was.
And that was essentially the model for quite a long time. Do a bazillion talks in primary schools and try and get a book published and then come up with an idea for a new journey. Go do a new journey so that the story gets better. And just repeat that process of adventure, story, sharing; adventure, story sharing. And over a course of quite a lot of years, I’ve gradually got to the point where it’s become viable, sustainable primarily through speaking. I’ve written 11 books now, and I’m a long way from being able to live off my book money. And in the last few years, as I start to move into filming my adventures, that’s led me into the world of making little films for brands or being an ambassador for a company and getting paid to make short little adventure films and do stuff for them. So, they’re my three income streams: speaking, writing and brand type work.
MARK: And maybe, the last two might not have been very predictable when you set out, but I love the fact that you thought, ‘Well, okay. I’m going to fund this, to begin with. I’m going to do it. And then I will figure it out down the line,’ which indeed you are, very nicely.
ALASTAIR: What I found really interesting is that the decisions I’ve made in my life that have been entirely around passion and excitement and what I really want to do, even if they sound financially stupid… So three examples of those would be one, cycling around the world rather than being a professional. I was going to be a teacher. So earning a professional salary.
One, cycling around the world. Number two, in 2009 was when digital SLR cameras started to do video. And the Canon 5D Mark II came out, and I saw some of this video, and I just thought, ‘Wow, that is insanely beautiful and sufficiently portable to take on an adventure.’ So, I bought it despite never having filmed a single thing in my life or even wanted to do. And it cost £1,600, which was insanely expensive for me. And I started trying to learn how to film stuff because it excited me.
And the third thing I did was moving from massive big adventures to what I, in the end, started to call microadventures – small, short, simple, local things – because that felt exciting to me.
Those three things have led to me earning more money than anything I’ve ever done in my life when I’ve set out to think, ‘Hmm, how can I get rich and famous?’ So, I think there’s some sort of lesson in there somewhere.
MARK: Yeah. These are things that you could never predict and if you go on the adventure, then it’s not the same as saying, ‘Leap and the net will appear,’ because you made sure you had a decent net for the first leg of your journey.
ALASTAIR: Yes. I think ‘leaping, and your net will appear’ is one of the really terrible, terrible advice things of the internet age, and particularly the sort of Instagram culture of, ‘Follow your dreams. If you work hard enough, you can be like me! PS, it helps if you’ve got a trust fund sort of thing.’ So I think that’s a terrible, terrible belief system. So it’s why I’d say, ‘Don’t quit your job until things are in place.’ You have to make your safety net, and once you’ve got a safety net, then you’re brave enough to take the leap, I think.
MARK: Okay. Let’s focus on microadventures now because you’ve done the epic adventures, you’ve cycled around the world, you’ve run not one, not two, but six marathons through the Sahara Desert. You’ve rowed across the Atlantic Ocean and so on. All the things that we think, ‘Wow, that’s what a real adventurer does.’ You’ve ticked all of those boxes, but then you introduced this concept of microadventures. What is a microadventure?
ALASTAIR: A microadventure is just an adventure. And an adventure is whatever you think it is. The difference, I suppose, is that a microadventure is something that is sufficiently short, simple, local, affordable, that you can do it and you can fit it in around the margins of real life, and it removes the genuine barriers that stop people rowing oceans, like it’s massively expensive and terrifying. It removes these genuine barriers and instead leaves you only with the mental things, the mental hurdles to jump over and making it happen.
So, this came about because… I spoke earlier about, right at the very start your first question about me reading books thinking, ‘I wonder if I could do that.’ And then thinking, ‘No. Of course, I can’t because I’m not an adventurer. I’m a normal person.’ And over years of doing adventures, I started to get into the other situation whereby at the end of my talks or through emails on my website, people essentially saying to me, ‘I’d love to do what you do, but I can’t because I am not an adventurer like you. I’m a normal person.’ And I found this really, really fascinating.
So, that was one aspect. The second aspect was I realized that the kicks I got from massive adventures were essentially the same whether I was shivering in Greenland or sweating in the Empty Quarter deserts. So the good stuff, the marrow that I sucked out of adventure was the same wherever it was. And therefore perhaps I wondered, ‘Maybe I don’t need to go to the ends of the earth to find this. Can I find this on my doorstep?’ So, that was the second aspect of it.
It’s really a way of trying to show that you can get all the good stuff out of living adventurously, but that I could try and make it accessible for so-called normal people with real lives. That was the starting premise of the idea. And then maybe I’ll give you a couple of examples.
My first idea of micro-adventure was to try and prove that you could do adventure anywhere. I decided to do the most boring adventure in the world. So, I thought, ‘Where do I really hate? I’ll think somewhere I hate and go try and have an adventure there.’ And so, I came up with the idea of trying to walk a lap of the M25 motorway, which I live nearby. I spend too much time on and I think is synonymous with being boring and anti-adventurous.
So, I set out to walk a lap of that. And to my astonishment, it was a brilliant adventure. It felt, time and again, walking around the M25, I just kept thinking, ‘This is exactly the same as cycling around the world.’ It’s a physical challenge, which I like. It’s taking me places I’ve never been before. I’m finding pockets of beauty and wilderness in between Slough and whatever the next junction is. I’m encountering kind, decent, interesting people just like you do in Bolivia or Azerbaijan. This is the same as cycling around the world just on a smaller and sillier scale.
MARK: And for anybody listening somewhere in the world who hasn’t had the delights of being stuck in a traffic jam on the M25, it’s the motorway that orbits London. So, it just goes around in a circle and is basically one of the outer circles of Dante’s Hell, and being stuck in a motorway traffic jam, it’s the complete opposite of what we think of as adventure. It’s pretty breathtaking that you managed to squeeze an adventure out of that.
ALASTAIR: Yeah. It was, exactly. I was surprised. And I was walking in the countryside beside the motorway, so through the fields, and villages, and towns, and business parks, and warehouses, and golf courses that I encountered along the way, just following my nose.
The other surreal breakthrough I had on this walk was being surprised at how much of it was beautiful because this is a really not particularly beautiful or inspiring corner of Britain. But I remember walking through this road. It was only about 100 meters between one housing estate and the busy roads, about 100 meters of walking through. And there was snow on the ground, and I was the first through in the morning, and there were fox prints and rabbit prints in the snow. And it was silent except for the roar of the motorway. And the trees were there, and I thought, ‘This is wilderness on a tiny level.’ And for the first time in my life, it opened my eyes to trying to see the potential for wilderness around us rather than just getting a bit depressed about all the built up stuff.
And Britain, I think, has been the perfect place for me to experiment with microadventures because we are such a small, crowded, unwild landscape that if you can find pockets of wilderness adventure here, you can do so anywhere. So it’s been a brilliant way also for me to learn to notice and love my own country for the first time rather than what I used to do, which is the traditional angry young man of thinking, ‘Ah. Home is so boring. I need to go to the ends of the earth to have an adventure.’ So, it took me going to the ends of the earth to realize that actually there’s some nice countryside near Slough.
MARK: Are you telling us that wherever we are in the world, that adventure could be right on our doorstep?
ALASTAIR: Well, first of all, I think adventure is mostly inside your head. It’s the attitude that you choose to charge it every day with going at things with an attitude of willfully leaning into stuff that’s new, and difficult, and different, and daunting. I can’t think of any more Ds! Doing things that are exciting and doing it with an attitude of curiosity and a willingness to look a bit of an idiot and to laugh at yourself. All of these things, which was so integral to the years of big adventures I did, I can apply now to daily life.
And an example of finding adventure anywhere. I’m quite busy at the moment with life and book writing and stuff. So, I’m becoming increasingly constrained by my diary and my schedule like a lot of people. But on the first of every month, my calendar pops up on the computer saying, ‘Go climb a tree.’ So, on the first of every month this year, I go to climb this big oak tree near where I live. It takes about five minutes to get there, a few minutes to climb, I sit up there for a few minutes, look around, notice how the landscape has changed or not changed in the last month. May was the first explosion of green. I think back on the last month since I was here, I imagine what I might do in the next month, come back down the tree, go back to my computer and get back to work. And that small little escape into nature is something that I’m really coming to treasure with my busy calendar.
MARK: As you’re saying that, you reminded me there’s an amazing view from the top of the hill behind our house, and it’s ages since I’ve been up there and walked along and had a look. So maybe I’ll do that this afternoon and maybe if you’re listening then you’ve got something similar just around the corner from you, that you haven’t visited in a while.
ALASTAIR: Yeah. Well, I think actually the microadventures began with, as irrelevant as it sounds, the microadventures began with walking around the M25 which is actually slightly on the epic scale for microadventures because that’s still quite a long way. And the way microadventures became more popular and resonated more was I started making them smaller and simpler, smaller and simpler. Really distilling them right down.
When I have to explain the idea, the essence that I often choose to explain is that we’re so often constrained by our 9:00 to 5:00 busy lives, but we have a choice to flip that round and instead see the possibilities from 5:00 to 9:00. We have commitments, of course, but in theory between 5:00 p.m. and 9:00 a.m. we have some freedom. So, what might you be able to do in that?
And the answer that I always urge people to go do is, go find a local hill and sleep on it for the night. Sleep out under the stars, turn off your phone, wake up in the morning on top of a hill, run back down the hill, jump in a river. It’s very good for the soul and back into your desk, back to work for 9:00 the next morning, having squeezed an adventure into your 5:00 to 9:00. So, perhaps that’s something you could do, Mark, with your local hill sometime.
MARK: Okay. And I’ll have a look out for a local river as well!
ALASTAIR: Okay. The challenge has been laid down!
MARK: You have a book, don’t you? Microadventures, that helps people with this.
ALASTAIR: Yeah. So I know when I started to do microadventures, I’d been working really hard for quite a few years to get a foot in the door because this a world of big, tough guy adventurers. And I was really aspiring to be the next Ranulph Fiennes, real hard man doing tough stuff. And that was my real goal in life.
So when I started doing microadventures, I was very worried that my career was over. ‘Who’s going to want to hear about sleeping on a hill? This guy is so old, he’s gone soft.’ So, I really worried that I was doomed and my career was over. And then the microadventures book I wrote became, by a very long way, my best-selling book ever. And yet again, that follows what we’ve mentioned before, just following what feels right and meaningful to you is likely, in the end, to result in you producing a good product, which hopefully then, will resonate with people and you’ll find your niche audience and who knows where that will lead you to…
MARK: But again, who would have predicted that would be the biggest seller?
ALASTAIR: Yeah, exactly. I’m a bit angry, I spent four years cycling around the world! I spent about three years trying to publish a book about cycling around the world. No one cares about that. But no, go sleep on a hill in suburbia, and suddenly, all the columnists come calling! They weren’t interested with my years of toil. So yeah, it was pretty funny. And then I suppose also on that note, that my most popular book has now actually become a children’s book that I wrote about cycling around the world, which I wrote purely not for any kind of career reasons. Just because I’ve done so many talks in schools and I really could see the importance of telling kids about adventure and giving them a positive view of the different cultures I’d cycled through that I just thought, ‘Okay. This is something I should do. I just feel I want to do this.’ So, I just wrote a kids book about cycling around the world, and that is actually now my bestselling book. And so, again, same principles apply.
MARK: Again, you could never have predicted, but it turned out great.
MARK: Okay. Let’s focus on your latest adventure because this is, it’s almost like the joke about, ‘What do you give a man who’s got everything?’ It’s like, well, ‘How do you challenge a guy who’s literally been most of the classically challenging places on the planet?’ You found a very creative and unusual way of scaring yourself to death on this one, didn’t you?
ALASTAIR: I did. But first of all, tell me the punchline of that joke, ‘What do you give a man who’s got everything?’
MARK: Oh. I don’t know!
ALASTAIR: Okay. Otherwise, you piqued my curiosity.
MARK: I’ll tell him when I meet him…
ALASTAIR: Okay. So, I have my years of trying to do big adventures because I wanted to test myself, and scare myself, and see what I was capable of and all that sort of unusual stuff. And I did that for years. But I gradually started to notice that I was quite good at this stuff now; I could cycle across continents and walk hundreds of miles and cross oceans, and I don’t say that as a boast. It’s just that anyone who has done their job for 20 years gets good at it, whatever you’re doing. And therefore, actually, I realized that much of the uncertainty of adventure had gone.
I know if I got on a bike now with my passport when we finish this call, I know I could cycle to China. I could do that. So, the uncertainty and perhaps, therefore, the adventure has gone. I realized that instead of living adventurously by doing these adventures, I was actually just in a rut. I was in a routine and a comfort zone of my own. So, I decided that I wanted to shake my life up a bit by trying to look differently at what adventure meant to me these days. Now going back to reading of adventure books, my favorite travel book from when I first started reading books was Laurie Lee’s As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, about a young man…
MARK: Yeah, classic book.
ALASTAIR: Classic book that I’ve loved very much. A young man walks through Spain in the 1930s playing his violin to pay his way, and it’s a beautiful, simple adventure, and it inspired me for years. And for about 15 years, I had been thinking, ‘I’d love to go and do that trip, make a great book to do it, make a great film. I really want to do it. But I can’t play the violin or any other musical instruments.’
And actually the idea of performing music in public is one of my great fears. I hate Karaoke. I hate having to dance. This holds visceral fear for me. And so I put it off for years and years and years. And then I gradually started to think how pathetic it was that here I was trying to live an adventurous life, but the thing that I was really scared of, I wouldn’t do. So, I gave myself a telling off. Actually, I was on a train and I just thought, ‘Aargh, I should at least think about doing something about this.’
So without pausing long enough to talk myself out of it, I quickly got my phone out, Googled for a violin teacher, sent a speculative email off to a teacher and asked if she’d start to teach me and turned up at her house the next morning and began to learn the violin. And I quickly learned that I was massively optimistic in imagining how good I could get at the violin in six months. It’s a very, very hard instrument to play and it sounds absolutely hideous. So, it was quite a brutal, sharp learning curve.
MARK: So, I love the fact that you… it’s almost like a social adventure, isn’t it? Because the biggest challenge here is shame and embarrassment and looking ridiculous in public.
ALASTAIR: Yeah. So, I practiced hard for seven months. But seven months on the violin is really negligible and I was absolutely useless, so bad that I was quite close to chickening out the whole project. But I persuaded myself to turn up in Spain. And the reason that this was scary was because I was going to do the whole trip with no money or no credit card. If I took my wallet, then the violin would have just been a game. But by leaving the violin at home, it became the crux of the whole project.
So I stood up that first morning in Vigo in northwest Spain, never having played in front of anyone ever. I could play five songs about 20 seconds each, really badly. And I was just so frightened, so embarrassed, so vulnerable. It was the most afraid I’d been since the day I set off to row across the Atlantic Ocean, which I found really fascinating in terms of what we define as adventure in our own lives. And in this case, adventure was just standing up in a sunny little plaza and getting out my violin. And I’m sure the nature of your audience, there are quite a lot of people listening to this for whom that would be a very easy thing to do. And they could do it beautifully. But for me, this was hard and frightening and I dearly wished that I was anywhere but there because it’s awful, awful, but kind of a hilarious experience.
MARK: But I bet there’s a lot of us listening who can really relate to that experience of the first time you stand up in front of an audience, whether it’s to give a presentation at work or to act or to sing or to play an instrument or God forbid to read one of your own poems in front of a group of strangers. It’s viscerally terrifying.
ALASTAIR: What I found interesting was that a lot of the things I was scared of were exactly the sort of thing a primary school kid would say. I was worried about what would people think of me. That was a really big thing. And I was in Spain, I didn’t know a single person in the entire country, but I still cared what people thought about me. ‘What if people laugh at me? What if people are unkind to me? What if this doesn’t go well?’ And there’s so many what ifs, what ifs. ‘What if I fall? What if I fly?’ And it was astonishing how much this was an adventure inside my head.
And you’re right, when I do talks about my adventures, I talk about rowing the Atlantic, and you see eyes… Oh yeah, people are slightly interested. I talk about standing up with my violin, and suddenly the audience starts squirming there with me. So yeah, I’m well aware that this is a relatable, adventurous experience.
MARK: How did it turn out? How did people react in that square in Vigo?
ALASTAIR: Well, most people ignored me. Amazing, how much you get totally ignored! Some people frowned but frowned in just like, ‘Wow, dude, you are really bad,’ not in a mean way, just in a perplexed way of, ‘Why are you here?’ And people smiling and laughing at me, but in a nice way.
I just thought I felt completely trapped because I’ve committed to this. I had a month to walk to Vigo and to Madrid. I had to walk about 500 miles. And I knew that if I didn’t earn any money, I was doomed. So, I was playing away for hours with everyone ignoring me, just thinking, ‘Well, now what do I do? This is a disaster.’ But eventually, one of the genuine great moments in my life an elderly gentleman walked over to me, I thought, he’s going to tell me off and say, ‘Senor, Por favor, clear off. Give us back our silence.’ But he didn’t. He reached into his pocket, and he pulled out a coin, and he gave me a euro. And wow. I just thought my heart was going to burst with relief, and excitement, and exhilaration, and amusement, and adrenaline, all of the feelings you get from climbing a mountain, I got from this elderly man giving me a coin, so I’d done it. I’m now a professional musician.
And then from then on, it makes for a terrible book, but it made for a wonderful journey because from then on, nothing bad happened. It was an astonishing experience of just people being kind, me chatting to people, being more sociable than I’d been on any journey I’ve ever done before, trusting I had to arrive in a town and just trust that somewhere in the next few hours, some random kind person will give me some money for playing the violin really badly. It was a real exercise in just trying to dare myself to allow whatever will be to be.
And then on top of that, of course, comes the stuff which I take for granted, which was walking 500 miles, sleeping out under the stars every night, washing in rivers, the beautiful Spanish countryside, all that stuff, which I used to think of as adventure was completely background to the real adventure of this trip, which was standing up in a plaza every couple of days and just saying to the world, ‘Here I am, this is my best shot. It’s really bad, but I’m trying my best.’ And that for me was the adventure of this experience.
MARK: And did you make enough? I mean, you’re still here. Presumably, you didn’t starve, but did you go hungry at any point?
ALASTAIR: No, I lived like an absolute king! In a month I earned €120. You can live like an absolute emperor for €120 in a month. That’s more money than any man needs. So, it was beyond riches, beyond my wildest dreams. So I had a rule that whenever I earned money in a town or a village, I had to spend it all that day.
MARK: No hoarding.
ALASTAIR: No. No hoarding because hoarding is cheating, hoarding is being a wimp. So, I had to spend it all. And that meant then when I got to the next village, once again, I’d be hungry and desperate again. So, I could bring the fear back into myself. So, it was sort of feast and famine.
For example, one day I hit a tourist town on a sunny Sunday morning, and in two hours, I earned €20. I just couldn’t believe it. And I went and spent it on ice cream. So yeah, it was this feast and famine thing, but I ate. I’m quite used from my years on the road to living on bread and banana sandwiches. So, to earn €120 in a month, for me, was just sheer, gleeful decadence.
MARK: ‘Sheer luxury,’ as Monty Python would say!
ALASTAIR: Yes! Exactly. Yes.
MARK: Was foraging allowed?
ALASTAIR: Foraging would be allowed, but I’m an idiot and don’t know how to do any of that sort of stuff. I’ve spent my life foraging in supermarkets. But before the trip began, I genuinely thought, I had earned so little money that I would have to rummage in bins, or steal crusts from cafe tables, or steal carrots from the fields. I’d really anticipated that’s how I would make the trip work. But I stole one carrot from the field, but that was mostly just because they looked tasty rather than because I was hungry. So, no. Sadly, I’m not a real adventurer. I’m not very good at foraging.
MARK: You see, another excuse evaporates! So, okay. And you’ve written a book about the Spanish adventure?
ALASTAIR: Yeah, I’ve written a book. It’s called My Midsummer Morning. And here’s a declaration to make in public. It is the best thing I’ve ever written in my life. And I say that I’m daring myself to say that to people because I’m not saying that as a boast, but I’m saying that as a removal of excuses to myself.
So, it’s a scary thing to say because it means that if anyone reads it and it’s rubbish, I’ve absolutely no excuse to hide behind. But I’m really pleased that I worked really hard on it for a long time and went through all sorts of drafts and iterations and it got rejected by the publisher because quite rightly they said, ‘But nothing bad happens in this book. That means it’s a bit boring.’ So I had to completely revamp it, and yeah, I’m really pleased with it.
MARK: And do you think part of that is that it was partly inspired by one of your favorite books?
ALASTAIR: I think one of the problems of trying to write a book about your favorite book is that any reader with any sense should just go and read the original book because almost, by definition, it’s better than the one I’m going to write. It’s my favorite travel book and who am I to try to imitate that? So, I was really conscious to try not to just out-Laurie Lee Laurie Lee. So I made the book very different to that.
And actually, when my publishers rejected it, and rightly so, I went back and I decided that I needed to completely revamp it. And it’s now very much about the things we’ve talked about, about trying to live adventurously, but it’s also for the first time I wrote about the struggle of becoming a father and trying to combine being an adventurous wild hobo vagabond with also being a responsible, diligent, stay-at-home dad and the huge struggle that that poses. So it was a much more vulnerable writing process than I’ve ever done before, which was interesting in the end.
MARK: I do get requests from listeners saying, ‘Well, it’s all very well, you and your guests saying, yeah, you need to start a company, or write a book, or create an amazing show or whatever.’ But how do you do that when you’ve got small children to deal with? Surely it can’t be more difficult than being a vagabond adventurer? Tell us how you managed to square that circle.
ALASTAIR: Well, one of the main reasons I started doing microadventures actually was because I became a dad and suddenly my proposed expedition to go and swan off to the South Pole for four months didn’t really seem such a good idea anymore. So, that was one of the main reasons why my life moved from big adventures to microadventures.
And so microadventures for me have been personally a really helpful thing for when this mayhem, and the business, and the rush, and the occasional tedium and boredom of looking after a small young family get a bit overwhelming. I just can put them all to sleep and then zip off to the woods, sleep in the woods for the night and get back home before everyone wakes up, feeling refreshed and reinvigorated it and a better, more patient kind of calmer man, dad, and husband.
So, it’s been a really useful thing in my life, but it’s also, I think been very helpful in the mindset that it’s given me of just trying to squeeze stuff in around the margins of real life. So, I take my kids to school every day, and I pick them up at 3:00 p.m., so I now have to try and fit writing books, being an adventurer, and taking over the world within the hours of 9:00 to 3:00. So, I completely sympathize with people who get in touch saying that it’s hard, but it’s just trying to leave out the superfluous parts of my life and focus on the stuff which is important, which to me these days is my family and then my writing/adventure and trying to work out how to make both of those work with acceptable compromise on both sides.
MARK: Yeah. We’re certainly not off to the South Pole anytime soon. But certainly when our children came along, my wife and I realized we had to be a lot more organized about how we used our time and, in a way we use, maybe we probably waste less time and use it more for things that really matter, because when you’ve only got a small amount of something, then you make it go a long way.
ALASTAIR: Yeah. I’m astonished now at how efficient I am with my life. And also this moment I’m about to say now is proof that I’ve now become a boring old fart. But I look back on the time before I had kids and I just think, ‘Oh my goodness. What I could have achieved in all of that time.’ And of course, I know every generation in history says that, but I’m finally at that point of just thinking, ‘Wow. I could have done so much.’ Oh, well.
MARK: And you tell that to young people, and they won’t believe you, will they?
ALASTAIR: Of course, of course, of course. However, having said that, I read this fascinating article about Danielle Steel, who I’m sure your podcast readers will be a big fan of. Danielle Steel, who’s written 179 books. And I was reading this article thinking, ‘A hundred and seventy-nine books? That’s ridiculous. She clearly hasn’t got any children. It’s easy for her.’ And then it said in the article, and she has nine children. So that was a pretty bonkers version of time efficiency.
Actually, I think it was a useful reminder to me that there are more important things in life than being efficient and making stuff. And there’s about trying to just have a calm, happy, fulfilling, worthwhile life rather than just constantly focusing on doing more stuff. There’s a balance, I suppose.
MARK: So, Alastair, listening to you, I’m feeling my inner adventurer awaken somewhat. And funnily enough, you’re reminding me of things that I’ve done in the past that on reflection were reasonably adventurous. I used to walk all over Dartmoor, and Exmoor and the Lake District. And I even remember sleeping rough in Spain in the mountains. We were just going through Spain on a train and we saw some mountains, and we thought, ‘Oh. Why don’t we just hop out and sleep?’ We’d just lost our tents. So we just went down by the river, and there weren’t too many snakes, and we had a lovely time. And that was one of the best things about that trip.
So you’re making me think, maybe I could be a little more adventurous in my own life these days. Maybe now is a good time for you to set the listener, your Creative Challenge. If you’re new to the show, this is the part where I invite my guest to set you, the listener, a challenge that relates to the theme of the interview. And it’s something that you can either do or get started on within seven days of listening to this conversation.
ALASTAIR: Okay. So, I think for any creative thing or adventure, there are three really hard things to do. One is beginning, two is continuing until it becomes a habit. And three is getting over that impostor syndrome of thinking that you don’t belong.
So, the idea I came up with is to go climb a tree every day for seven days. Or if you don’t have a tree or you can’t climb a tree, just get a different perspective. Go up your local hill or up to the top of the local tower block. Just get a different perspective every day for seven days. And when you’re there, take a photograph, do a painting, write a few hundred words, whatever creative thing it is that excites you and do that every day for seven days.
The punchy part of what I’m going to suggest though is to dare you to make it public, to put it out into the world, to put it on the internet, to show what you do to someone, and to invite feedback, and to dare yourself to be vulnerable and do that for seven days. And I think you’d be quite pleasantly surprised at how positive the response you get to it is.
MARK: Thank you Alastair. That’s a great challenge. So if you would like to share it with fellow 21st Century Creative listeners, you can either leave a link on the blog at the show notes at 21stcenturycreative.fm/adventure, or what was the hashtag we were thinking of, Alastair?
ALASTAIR: I like the #21stcenturycreative, and then you could put it on Twitter, Instagram and people can see it there.
MARK: Okay. Great. So, #21stcenturycreative. Put it there. I will see it. Alastair, I believe you’re on Twitter as well, aren’t you? So, we would love to see what you make of this challenge.
ALASTAIR: Well, I’ll tell you what? I’m going to practice what I preach. So, I’m going to do this myself as well. When the show goes live, I’m going to climb a tree and draw a picture for seven days because I’m rubbish at drawing pictures.
MARK: Okay. Well, I can’t wimp out now, can I? So, I will do this too.
ALASTAIR: Great. This is how big, stupid adventure ideas happen on the basis of, ‘I can’t wimp out. I’d better do it too.’
MARK: Yes, okay. I think a little peer pressure probably sent a lot of people to the North Pole. Brilliant, Alastair. And it’s been an inspiration talking to you just as it has been reading your writings and watching some of your videos. So, the book is called My Midsummer Morning?
ALASTAIR: My Midsummer Morning.
MARK: Okay. We’ll obviously make sure there’s a link to that in the show notes and it will be in all good bookshops. Where else can people go to find out more about you and follow your adventures, and maybe even join in?
ALASTAIR: I do a couple of different email newsletters. One about the adventure world and the adventure side of life and the other one about living adventurously in whatever sphere you operate in. That’s probably the one that’s of most interest to people who are listening to this. And you can find those on my website. I’m also on Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and all of those things. You should be able to find me by Googling for Alastair Humphreys.
MARK: Great. And that’s A-L-A-S-T-A-I-R Humphreys. And obviously, I’ll make sure, as usual, that it’s in the show notes. Go to 21stcenturycreative.fm, you’ve got the show notes for this episode. So, thank you once again, Alastair. It’s been an absolute pleasure, and I look forward to following your further adventures.
ALASTAIR: Thank you very much. I’m off to climb a giant redwood tree now. So, that’s the rest of my day busily taken over.
MARK: You see, the adventure never ends!
ALASTAIR: Yeah. Thank you.
About The 21st Century Creative podcast
Each episode of The 21st Century Creative podcast features an interview with an outstanding creator in the arts or creative industries.
At the end of the interview, I ask my guest to set you a Creative Challenge that will help you put the ideas from the interview in to practice in your own work.
Make sure you receive every episode of The 21st Century Creative by subscribing to the show in iTunes.