Adventure is not heroic.
I’m on a journey in search of the heroic life, and I also call myself an adventurer. That’s an unusual thing to call yourself. For me it fits because I’ve deliberately chosen a life of exciting, risky challenge. It’s a life of continuous change, and it’s made me a more capable human being. But it doesn’t make me a hero.
By my definition, an adventure is an undertaking so difficult that you don’t have what it takes. You have to develop or improve in order to complete it. So at a minimum it requires you to gain new skills or a new level of competence, although in many cases it will also demand that you grow as a person.
That certainly makes it a powerful tool.
On its own that growth is ambivalent. You may not become more selfless or loving simply because you become tougher and more talented. There are plenty of criminals whose activities are undoubtedly adventurous, yet by no means heroic. A pirate off the coast of Somalia, for example, has chosen a highly adventurous pursuit that will almost certainly develop his skills—as a mariner, as a team member, as a combatant—but involves cowardly acts, not heroic action.
But I do believe you can start an adventure with purely selfish motives and end up becoming selfless (and potentially heroic) purely because of the adventure itself. There’s an element in the challenge of adventure that forces you to re-evaluate your beliefs and priorities. In this crucible, some people find a higher calling while others just get better at doing selfish things.
So what makes the difference?
I doubt there’s a hard and fast rule as to whether a great challenge will improve a person’s heart. But often it does, and there are elements I believe make it more likely. Such as:
- It’s voluntary. Many people use the word “adventure” to mean some accidental trouble they got themselves into. That’s definitely one kind of adventure, it’s just that such adventures are more likely to become a traumatic crisis (or a joke) than a chance for personal growth. An unplanned adventure rules out the possibility of training or preparing, making success less likely. And anytime human beings feel like we have no control over our fate we are more likely to experience stress and trauma. This is not a productive situation.
- It involves travel. Travel is a tool to find a sense of purpose in life. This requires looking beyond the self. And while not all adventures involve a journey, those that do will build the same kind of pro-social skills that any other long trip provides: familiarity with other cultures, a level of comfort among strangers, and a willingness to stand out as “different.” These traits will prove fertile in any circumstance that calls for heroic action.
- Losing everything. If an adventure is not voluntary (for example, persecution under a tyrannical regime) or cannot involve travel (such as losing one’s job and house) then I suggest it’s more likely to create a heroic individual if that individual loses everything. By “everything” I mean whatever was crucial to their former sense of self: family, friends, social position, economic status, etc. I’m not suggesting anyone should intentionally lose everything, but when it happens I believe it spurs serious introspection. Losing your identity means losing some of your ego, or at least confronting it, which pushes you toward selfless views and selfless action.
- It’s ongoing. Momentary adventures like skydiving or bungee jumping can bring epiphanies, but they also allow you to retreat quickly to familiar and comfortable surroundings. This is not a recipe for introspection and growth. Extended situations, such as a sea voyage or camping trip, offer continuous tests with no quick way out, and force more growth.
- There’s risk. Risk is an essential element of heroism, and it’s not present in every kind of adventure. To some of us, anything extraordinarily challenging is an adventure—such as facing stage fright. But many of these small adventures, uncomfortable as they are, involve no real risk. A risky adventure better prepares you for the tough choices you will have to make to act heroically.
My mentor Ken wrote to me that adventure is not heroic because, “Adventure is taking for yourself. Heroism is giving of yourself.” I don’t think it’s that simple. Adventure is neither altruistic nor selfish, it’s simply a personal practice. To the extent that that practice demands or cultivates the qualities we expect in heroes, it is itself a tool to heroism.
What is a life of adventure really like? Get one of the last copies of my book and find out for yourself.