Last week, I spent the night sleeping underneath the stars. With the gorgeous, open sky above me I felt like the perfect adventurer cozied up in my sleeping bag.
The kicker? I was in my backyard.
I’ve always been mesmerized by adventure. I love the idea of traveling the countryside with just a backpack, but too often life manages to get in the way with bills, deadlines, and chores.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
A few months ago, I stumbled across the work of Alastair Humphreys—National Geographic’s Adventurer of the Year. While Alastair has some huge adventures under his belt (like riding around the world on his bike and rowing across the Atlantic Ocean) his passion now is all about going small.
He’s on a mission to encourage everyday people to experience adventure through small expeditions he calls microadventures (hence my backyard camping):
“Adventure is accessible to normal people, in normal places, in short segments of time and without having to spend much money.”
For Humphreys, adventure represents a simple mechanism to trade the rushed and mundane world for something fun and unpredictable. It’s the perfect way to push yourself outside of your box and absolutely necessary for innovators that want to keep their creative spirit alive.
The best part? A life of adventure is easier than it might seem.
Why you need to live a life of adventure
Adventures can be messy. For one, you’re forced to step outside your comfort zone and trod through unfamiliar territory, while also taking time out from your regular day-to-day.
But, for all the risks and difficulties, adventures offer up some amazing benefits for creatives:
1. Adventures spark new synapses in the brain
In many ways, creativity can be summed up as the ability connect the unconnected—take two separate, seemingly unrelated ideas and combine them into something new and novel. Our ability to make these connections is heavily influenced by how our brains are wired.
Think of your brain as a complex highway system. If you’re constantly driving up and down the same roads it’s hard to have new experiences and novel ideas.
You need to break out of your rut. In the brain, this is referred to as neuroplasticity—the ability of our brain circuitry to change.
Research on travel indicates that new experiences can spur change in your neural pathways:
“Neural pathways are influenced by environment and habit, meaning they’re also sensitive to change: New sounds, smells, language, tastes, sensations, and sights spark different synapses in the brain and may have the potential to revitalize the mind.”
Furthermore, recent studies have found ties between foreign travel and connecting ideas, the foundation of creativity:
“Foreign experiences increase both cognitive flexibility and depth and integrativeness of thought, the ability to make deep connections between disparate forms.”
The take-home here isn’t to pack your bags and get your passport. You can experience new sights, sounds, and smells minutes outside your door. You just have to look a bit harder (more ideas on that later).
2. Adventures get you outside of your cultural bubble
When I was in college I was fortunate enough to make multiple trips to Alaska. On one trip, we took a small plane to the remote fishing town of Valdez. I’ll remember that trip for several reasons, but mostly because of just how much the local lifestyle differed from my own. From the tour guides to fishermen, I found the community’s way of living fascinating.
At home, we naturally surround ourselves with people we like. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that most of those people are in fact similar to us in many ways. We create an echo chamber of our own thoughts.
Researchers suggest exposing yourself to different cultural identities as one way to break out of this echo chamber. It helps to remove what researchers refer to as a ‘habitual closed-mindedness’. In fact, cultural immersion is a key reason travel helps to increase creativity. Just lying on the beach in Cancun won’t cut it. You have to get involved with the local life.
Even around your own town there are ways to break out of a cultural rut. Sure, it might not be the same as going to another continent, but it’s a step in the right direction.
3. Downtime provides time for your mind to process
I’ll tell you a secret: I’m addicted to my phone.
Even when I’m on vacation, the temptation to check my email, touch base in Slack, or peruse my Twitter feed is overwhelming. I just have to take a look at the grocery store line or the table next to me at dinner to know I’m not alone. We’re constantly bombarded with an influx of information from our phones, and it’s harming our creative potential.
According to researchers, our brains need downtime:
“Downtime replenishes the brain’s stores of attention and motivation, encourages productivity and creativity, and is essential to both achieve our highest levels of performance and simply form stable memories in everyday life.”
During these periods of downtime, a part of our brains called the Default Mode Network springs into action.
This network reflects back on our day, processes memories of events, and does a sort of internal performance review. The Default Mode Network also encourages the mind to think obliquely and create new connections between ideas. If you have a steady stream of information coming in at all times, you’re missing out.
I’ve found a place where I’m great at disconnecting: in the middle of the woods. No cell reception means no email, Twitter, or apps.
If camping in nature isn’t your favorite, forcing yourself out of your normal routine also helps. Personally, if I don’t have a desk nearby with a laptop ready to go, I’m less inclined to work.
Staying in town? Go somewhere you have never been and leave your phone in the car. Leaving town? Rent an AirBnB and see how many new places you can explore.
It all sounds well and good but I can’t because…
You probably knew intuitively that adventures and break times are beneficial for your mind.
There’s a reason the book was called The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and not Huckleberry Finn and the Incredible To-Do List. Adventures are fascinating, but they can be hard to rationalize in a busy life.
This is where the concept of microadventures comes to the rescue.
Excuse: I can’t take time off for long vacations
That’s perfectly fine. Adventures don’t need to be a week long. In fact, researchers indicate we might be happier with more frequent, shorter vacations than one or two long ones during the year.
Don’t worry about taking off an entire week. Instead, take off one or two days to extend your weekend. Use the time to take a drive somewhere new. You’ll be ready to go by Monday morning.
Excuse: With my busy schedule, I don’t have enough time
Humphreys runs into this excuse quite often. So often in fact that he developed the 5 to 9 challenge. Many of us are so busy from 9AM to 5PM that we can’t even think about stepping away, but we have 16 hours of free time before we’re back at the grind the next day. Those hours are ripe for a microadventure.
As with most habits, the key is to start small.
Don’t think about venturing off into the wilderness for days at a time. Focus on taking a few hours out of your day when you normally would be free anyway. Put it in your calendar and hold yourself accountable. I’ve done three microadventures (standup paddleboarding, camping, and hiking) within an hour drive from my house.
Excuse: The gear is too expensive
If you’re set on outdoor microadventures, you might be looking at a modest financial investment (Alastair put together a helpful list here), but odds are you might have more than you think already. If not, buy the gear over time and stick to free expeditions for now. Last week, we drove into the mountains and did a 2-hour hike complete with a gorgeous view at the top. Total cost: $20 (for lunch on the way home).
Excuse: I don’t know what to do
I struggle with that too. Thankfully, there are a handful of awesome ideas here to get you started. Here are a few that I’ve found to be pretty accessible:
- Commute to work. Take the scenic route rather than the direct one and maybe even stop for breakfast along the way.
- Climb a hill and watch the stars. In my case, we watched the fireworks. All you need is a blanket to lay on.
- Try a new activity. In my case, we went standup paddleboarding (amazingly fun!). You could go rock climbing, kayaking, or ride your bike around the city. It just has to be something new.
It’s highly unlikely that I’m going to turn into the next Bear Grylls. You won’t see me on National Geographic cycling around the world or kayaking across the Atlantic. That’s okay. I’m content with sticking to smaller adventures.
Over the past few months, I’ve tried to get in some sort of adventure every week. I don’t always succeed. Life gets in the way. But, when I find myself setting up a tent in the middle of the woods as the sun is just starting to set, I feel a small tinge of excitement. For that one night, I feel like a man of adventure. That feeling is addicting, and it keeps me coming back for more.