lifestyle

How did you start making a living from adventure?

I read somewhere recently that if you’re not hating what you’re doing most of the time, then it’s a holiday, not an adventure. And I thought, “what a load of complete bollocks.”

When I embarked on my first adventure I didn’t have a career or a lifetime vocation in mind, I was simply seeking a change of direction. And yep, it wasn’t easy a lot of the time, but the very reason I carried on doing this stuff was because it filled me with life, with lessons, with joy. Adventure for me sticks with the old school definition of heading off to a place unknown and pushing physical and mental limits, and that process coupled with being outside, fit and healthy and moving daily was ever so fulfilling. Directed by a purpose which in many cases was to meet people and eventually make it to a place far off across the the map.

Conjuring up an idea, making it real and enjoying the fruits of the labour gave me a sense of being alive that nothing else had before.

When you hate something most of the time, it’s not worth continuing for long. But living an experimental life and turning those seedling ideas into something tangible: it gave me a slow burning thrill, to honour the dreamworld inside my head. I wanted - no, needed - to keep doing new things that offered a new perspective, and slowly I realised that as personal as the choice for an adventure was, it had a little impact on some of the people I met.

Those first couple of years I weened myself off the ways I knew how to make money, designing crap websites mainly. Every job I took made me hate myself and temporarily destroyed the motivation I had to get off the wheel. But the money kept me going for another month or two so I continued, but bit by bit started to say “no”. Then one day…

I got a book deal.

And then someone asked me to write an article for a magazine.

And I got invited to a school to talk about skateboarding across Australia.

Three new ways to make an income, three indicators that there was money in this. Not much, certainly at the beginning, and these opportunities definitely didn’t come a knockin’ every day. But they came because I had a story now, and I figured that if I carried on doing these really random things that I loved - which you can read as just being true to who I was and who I wanted to be - then my story would grow and hopefully become more interesting, and the opportunities would appear more and more.

And that’s when I thought that maybe I could make a living from this stuff one day.

Values

Values, values, values. The only foundation to build on. It took me a long time to work mine out but I was pretty sure of a few things early on. One, I wasn’t going to get rich making a living from adventure but that was ok, because a wealthy life isn’t dependent on coin.

It’s not what you earn, it’s what you don’t spend. So, I spent barely anything. For a decade I found places to sleep for free - sofas, spare rooms, parks, the space between two trees. I didn’t eat out. None of those desperate takeaway coffees. Peanut butter sandwiches.

Everything I needed fit into a rucksack, so if I bought something it would have to be worth carrying. Everything I spent was an investment. A new camera. A laptop. A hard drive. A train or plane ticket to begin a new road. Absolutely everything I spent had an end goal which I knew would lead to opportunity.

I taught myself the skills that otherwise I’d have to pay someone else for. Designing websites. Writing copy. Taking photos. Editing film. Making podcasts. Scripting press releases. Saved me money, taught me new skills, kept me humble.

My trips were super cheap, cheaper than living in one place and paying rent. I couldn’t bear the idea of renting a place and then still paying that rent even though I was away, even for a night. So travelling and camping on those nights I wasn’t invited into someone’s home was the cheapest way I knew how to live, while at the same time each day added to my story.

I cut out useless from my life and this stretched out the pennies. I knew how many books I had to sell to afford a meal or a plane ticket.

I also knew that I had to serve an apprenticeship. I felt like I needed to earn that .com after my name. I didn’t feel I was good enough to ask for money in return for speaking in public. Between 2007 and 2010 I gave over 200 talks for free at schools and small companies. It was training. Sometimes they gave me travel money and I was really, really grateful.

And then one day someone offered me a fee that covered over three months of living and the best thing: I felt I deserved it.

And the next week I got a message from a company that made dry bags, asking if I’d be that company’s Outdoor Champion for a year. What they said was the most impactful line a sponsor ever sent me. “We’d like to give you £1000 and some gear to help you along the way. And we don’t want you to change a thing, just keep on being the person you are.” *

And that’s when I started making a living from adventure.

Variety

Making an abnormal living is not easy. The pressure of an income can kill a passion. Don’t limit yourself, no human is a one trick pony.

Think about how you can combine your skills and personality with travel and adventure and don't be afraid to consider the parts of your adventurous life that you really enjoy. I always thought that if I was going to create my own living from adventure then it would be stupid to make it from the worst bits!

Work hard. I was endlessly tenacious and every waking moment of every day was dedicated to living the life I wanted. For so long I craved a nest where I could just leave some stuff, a haven with guaranteed wifi rather than wandering the streets for a new cafe with a dark corner where I could work without buying anything or being caught skimping.

Each day I wrote a bit, developed my website, told everyone I met what I did in the hope that eventually they’d remember me when they were in a position to recommend a speaker or a writer.

For the first four years I took every bit of work I could, whether it filled me with joy or not. Every action is practice and I improved with each talk, article, workshop and media interview. The sense of improvement or even dealing with one of those car-crash presentations brought its own satisfaction. Even if it’s not great at the time, ultimately the crap pays off.

And most importantly, I continually lived on adventures and took on self-set social projects. If it interested me then I figured it might interest my audience. Whether it was paddleboarding the Mississippi or finding 50 ways to make £50, I’d set out my stall and this was the line I was living.

Each year I gave myself one or two new skills that I could earn from. At last count, 14 years on from quitting my last job, I have 18 different forms of income, five or six of them are regular, the others are choice or opportunity. When one becomes tiring I switch it off for a while, just to let the passion grow again.

Ignore temptation

I used to bear deep jealousy in those early days, watching suited crowds spill out of their city offices at rush hour, each one of them with a pay check in their pocket.

But I knew I had one thing that they didn’t; time. As much as I wanted more money, I wasn’t willing to give up the way I spent my days.

You choose certainty, or hope. Sew in a hard focus with hope and you’re not going to fail.

Lazy people don’t become successful entrepreneurs or freelancers. After a while it’s too hard.

But if you give up, if you stop working, if you make a decision contrary to your values and accept a paying job that you know wont’ make you feel good, the train stops for a while.

The knock knock knock of bills will always twist a head. If you can go a week without worrying about money you’re doing well. But every time a decision is made just for money that process of shaping the life you want gets a little harder. I always imagined that every time I ignored that temptation and turned down some money on behalf of my value set, then an extra link was added to my chainmail. I got tougher, even a little prouder of myself.

You have to believe and know that if you keep doing what you’re supposed to be doing then the opportunity will come.

And even then, even now, fourteen years on and 60 to 80 speaking gigs a year later, I still look over my shoulder, wondering what will happen when people stop asking me to come and speak to their businesses, communities, companies, employees. What happens if speaking stops being a thing? After all, now it’s my main income stream. I have a home now, I have to pay rent. So what if I don’t get another invite?

Then, Dave, you’ll make more films. Or write another book. Or hold another workshop about making films with a smartphone. Or. Or. Or.

The options are there, and that’s the alternative framework for making a living as a freelancer, whether it’s as an adventurer or something else. Life at its best is about creating options, not as fallbacks, but as parallel solutions to the other stuff you mostly enjoy doing.

And yep, you still gotta spend some time on the spreadsheets. Still gotta do taxes. Still gotta deal with idiots and internet trolls and real life trolls. Still gotta deal with the anxiety of not having enough money sometimes. Still gotta deal with the stuff you once enjoyed but now know you have to iron out of your life.

But it’s helpful having to cope with the downwards arrows. Each one of the things that you don’t enjoy doing reminds you of things you do, and if it’s worth the effort of a couple of hours in the dirt, then you know where your values lie, you know that you’re spending your time well, and you know, most importantly, that there’s always another road to take if the dirt starts to become too frequent.

IDENTITY

Who are you and what do you stand for?

I wear two main hats on my identity rack. Expedition1000, the adventure stuff, and SayYesMore, the community side of things. Until 2012 I kept SayYesMore to myself, as a reminder that I couldn’t get lazy and that there were a million doors out there that wouldn’t be answered with a no.

It feels good knowing who I am. I loved that sense of identity that Expedition1000 gave me when I finally conjured up a lifelong mission in 2010, even after I’d completed two of a proposed twenty-five different thousand-plus mile journeys. I had something to look forward to, a ladder to climb, a painting to create.

And SayYesMore led to the YesTribe, a largely voluntary movement which is kind of based on how I think a decent life should be lived. For so long I didn’t know where to find a community of people who would appreciate a zany idea, or sleeping outside, or happily chat about things like mental health with people they didn’t really know. So I created that community and it’s undoubtedly a central part of my life and identity. Possibly too much so at the moment, because that call of more adventures is getting stronger and stronger.

Time to listen to the heart. And this is probably a good time to share my final advice.

Tell people what you do. Make life easy for people to help you out. Offer yourself up. Always be willing to see value beyond money. Be a lifetime apprentice and if you can, help others on their apprenticeship, too.

Know what you’re not good at and find a workaround, whether that’s outsourcing your weaknesses or just doing something else. Be protective of your time and invest your money, don’t just spend it. Shout out about the good work of other people (this is what social media should really be for). Give yourself regular time away from screens and the internet. It’s more productive and this is where you learn to listen to yourself.

And remember, there’s no hurry so don’t rush, you’ll see less along the way if you do.

*I’ll always be grateful to Tim Turnbull and Aquapac for this.

Something had to change

I’ve been working on my storytelling recently, by condensing what could be pages and pages (or books and books) into a few sentences.

I’ve just finished the first episode of a series of 60 second films that tell the story of my last few years. This is the first one, a general overview that ends with what feels like a natural call to action: which is, how can I help? Other episodes will zero on on each one of my Expedition1000 journeys, and different aspects of SayYesMore’s creation. But for now, here’s Part 1! Let me know what you think!

The Thailand Project: lifestyle mapping for nomads-at-heart

We’re spending two months in Thailand over the first half of British winter. But this isn’t a holiday, it’s a first step towards re-engineering our lifestyle, work-lives and expectations of married life.

Emms and I married 9 weeks ago, and now I’m faced with answering the question I’ve been posed for years; “what happens when you get married, have kids and settle down?”

Do I carry on adventuring? Do I swap the nomadic life for an office? Or would our family life look very different from the average?

Firstly, to answer the silent question: no, Em is not pregnant. But we are talking about the possible pitter patter of tiny feet (or BabyCorns) in a couple of years, and are very open about how that will (likely) change life as we know it.

These last three years I’ve been face-to-face with the settling-down demons — added responsibility, increased cost of living, ambition-killing-comfort, limited scope for creativity forced by limits on time and money— and I haven’t coped so well. I wrote more deeply about this, here.

The need for change rarely comes from a comfortable place, and I see the past three years as a guiding stick for a re-map of what the next stage of life could look like. There are dreams to chase and swamps to avoid, so let’s start with the bits to cut-out and learn from:

  1. Cold winters: we live on a boat and the last winter in the UK lasted for five months. We weren’t there for the whole winter, but the other 5 weeks were spent above the Arctic circle on a Norwegian island. That was awesome, but no sun and a feast of general darkness is no way to live.

  2. Working space: I need my own space to work in, and this needs to change frequently. For two years Em and I have both freelanced from home. And when home is a 45ft widebeam houseboat and the only viable office is in one room, distraction is high and creativity is cramped.

  3. Prohibitive cost of living: I earn well but in recent years I’ve put a considerable share of my earnings into community work and this has coincided with paying London rent/prices, which feel so unnecessary when life has felt more enjoyable in previous less costly scenarios/ places. Not saving much for a rainy day, future tiny humans and new investments/ projects/ expeditions just to have the same roof overhead feels like standing still.

  4. Lazy belly: Living in a city, even if it is on a boat, doesn’t excite me anymore. Even worse, motivation to get out and ride, paddle and move is limited when the nearest considerable green space is at least half an hour away. Spending life sitting down is deeply unhealthy. I’m not image conscious, but I’d like to look in the mirror and be happy with what I see physically (this isn’t the same as looking internally — I’m pretty content with the person I am). This is a health thing, not stigma or self-loathing!


A realistic blueprint for home, work and family in the future:

  1. What I choose as a lifestyle must also satisfy the needs of Emms. Marriage is not just for September.

  2. Freedom: many of my biggest pain points since buying a home in the UK in 2016 have revolved around a lack of room for manoeuvre, in the expectations I have of those around me/ they have of me and in an inability to pursue exciting work without being held back. After living freely and nomadically for a decade, I didn’t know how to stay in one place and still maintain the momentum that had formerly been powered by shifting location and focus.

  3. UK: The majority of our work, friends, family are in the UK, so being there during Spring, Summer and Autumn feels right and makes a lot of sense. Our main project, The YesBus, is a fulfilling priority and in 2019, at least, we’d like to live nearby rather than endure the current two hour journey each week.

  4. Winter sun: While there are more pleasant climates available, choosing to be damp, cold, Vitamin D deficient and frankly miserable for 4 months is bloody stupid. The only catch is that Em loves Christmas.

  5. Water: I love it. And more specifically, being in and on it — especially when it’s not cold. What I’ve learned from the past couple of years is that even living on the water and being able to waterbike and paddle daily isn’t enough. Proximity to water that doesn’t want to kill me — ie.warm, swimmable, accessible, soothing water— is the only medicine I crave.

  6. Movement in nature: Whatever the season, wherever we choose to live, it must be within nature. An enjoyable, peaceful environment to exercise in daily and maintain physical and mental health.

  7. Work: A healthy balance between personal and community work. One should not override or suppress the other. My best days of work are not necessarily location-dependent but when I feel unstoppable, ideas pour out like water and possibilities and potential are endless. Positive response from new partners, my team and community are fulfilling. Successful events and creations are icing on the cake. But I need to be free in decisions and actions: this means not having to chase the company admin and tax — someone else should cover this — I’m much better at shining a light on others than sitting in a dark room doing dark work. I get more joy from having a silly idea, chasing and making it a reality, then sharing the lessons.

  8. Family: I can’t see my kid(s) in the standard English education system. I’d love them to become independent, problem-solving, light-at-heart / strong-in-mind characters, with an empathetic global view. I’d also love them to have more of a social childhood than I did — which means finding community for them as well as weening them on intrepid behaviour.


Paddle boarding in to our new home, with everything we’re travelling with in bags on the back of the boards —  see the film of this microadventure

Paddle boarding in to our new home, with everything we’re travelling with in bags on the back of the boards — see the film of this microadventure

So, to start the process of redefining and redesigning our lives, we’re spending the next few weeks on the Thai island of Koh Phangan in the Gulf of Siam. We’re here to reset and re-energise, to look after ourselves and each other, and to start researching some of the unanswered questions that stand between now and the blueprint above.

Questions like…

Is it cost-effective monetarily and emotionally to spend a proportion of the year in a tropical climate?

Is it practical to be here? What compromises need to be made compared to living at home in the UK? What are the pain points and are there easy solutions?

Ok, so the photos are great, but what are the real benefits of living in an Instagram-friendly place/climate?

Can we find potential partnerships out here to work with SayYesMore?

What is it really about water that makes me tick? And how can I use this longing/ passion to help others?

At a time when our mental health could use some nurturing, is just a few weeks on an island sufficient medicine? And if not (in part or full), can the lessons this new perspective teaches us transfer back to life in the UK, or somewhere else?

I write this on Day 12. We’ve based ourself at a just metres from the sea, at a co-working space called BeacHub in Koh Phangan. Fast internet and a community of other freelancers creates a positive working environment, and our paddleboards are happy to be spending at least an hour a day out on the waves. There’s colour in our skin and a satisfaction at the end of each day. A couple of fresh adventures are brewing and so far, the experiment is working.

In a month or so, as our final days in Thailand draw nearer, I’ll re-visit this blog and see how many questions have been answered.

At our new base,  BeacHub  in Koh Phangan, Thailand

At our new base, BeacHub in Koh Phangan, Thailand


Thanks for reading, if you enjoyed this article please do leave a comment, a like, an applause, and even better — share with one person who you think would appreciate it.

My website is stocked with over 13 years of adventures, blogs, projects, photos and films. I share these in the hope that others will experience similar feelings to those that I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy.

And here are my homes on Facebook and Instagram, for daily tidbits, stories, ideas and habits.