Several years ago I was working in South Africa, and some friends called to say they were planning a day-trip to climb Table Mountain. They asked if I'd like to go along, and I instinctively said no - thinking of meetings, unanswered messages, and the disturbing thought that I "just couldn't possibly" take the time off to do something fun.
What a mistake. As I sat in my office after putting the phone down, I felt vaguely sad. I finally realised what the problem was: if I could fast-forward time to the day after I missed the Table Mountain excursion, I would have regretted not going. I called my friends back to check in: "Sorry, but is there still room for me? I'd love to go."
We had a great trip, and the world at work didn't end due to my one-day absence.
We all make time for what's meaningful to us. If travel is important, a big trip won't just materialise out of the blue, with the time away from work prearranged and your packed bags lined up outside the door, awaiting a taxi that has been magically summoned.
No, if we're going to choose adventure, we must make deliberate choices. These days, you hear a lot about efficiency and productivity: how to accomplish the maximum amount of work, how to live the most optimal life. But surely there's more to life than getting things done.
Travel taught me to appreciate adventure for the joy it brings, even if adventure is sometimes accompanied by difficulty or hardship. I could always be more productive or take better care of my inbox. Or I could choose to set out on a journey of undetermined length and outcome. What's the better choice? I've found that saying yes to adventure is often better than bunkering down for efficiency's sake.
Last year, I published a book and wanted to go on a tour to meet readers. I asked my publisher about the plan. "Well, we don't have any money for tours anymore," they said. "But maybe you can come to New York?"
I said that New York was great, but not everyone lives there. Instead of a single-city event, I talked various friends into putting together an "unconventional book tour", visiting all 50 US states and 10 Canadian provinces. (Next time, it will be fully international.) Along the way I went to many big cities with long queues of people, but I also had plenty of stops in the middle of nowhere. These stops required five or more hours of driving from a bigger hub city. At the end of the night, a couple of dozen people would show up.
The whole tour was an adventure - not highly efficient, perhaps, but a grand experience that I thoroughly enjoyed. When you set out on an adventure, you're not always sure of the outcome. This fact is an inherent part of adventure and can't be manipulated without losing the essence of adventure itself.
Visiting every country in the world is an adventure like no other. All over the world, I spend a lot of time getting to places, often sleeping on the floor of the airport before another 5am departure. I fly to one place, then to another, and finally to my intended destination.
A recent itinerary took me to 13 stops, beginning in South Africa, heading over to Madagascar and Comoros in the Indian Ocean, up through Nairobi and Dubai and eventually across the Atlantic via London and Madrid. I learned to think in airport codes along the way: JNB-TNR-NBO-KGL-BJM-JNB-DXB-LHR-MAD-DFW-PDX. When things went wrong, I learned to view the problems as obstacles to overcome, and sometimes even a welcome part of the adventure itself.
Perhaps you won't go to every country or enjoy sleeping on airport floors. But I'll bet there's at least one adventure with your name on it out there. When you find such an opportunity, keep the words of Amelia Earhart in mind: "When a great adventure is offered, you don't refuse it."
My current adventure began six years ago on a ferry from Hong Kong to Macau. I scribbled the idea in a notebook: why not go to every country in the world? Thinking of what would be involved simultaneously thrilled and frightened me—always a characteristic of a worthy adventure.
I chose not to refuse this adventure, and my life is so much the better because of it. I hope you'll choose to create your own adventures as well.
Next week: Chris Guillebeau on the self-reliance of the modern traveller.