I think we have two flat choices in life. Follow the herd or follow your heart. Exist, or evolve. I had sucked at school, taken a gap year in East Africa, gone to University without having a clue about what I should study, then backpacked and hitchhiked a bit but always came home without answers. I bought a house when I was twenty thanks to terraces in South Wales costing similar to a shed in London, but then I had bills to pay, which meant I had to work despite being too young for life experience to inform me of my natural path. One day I woke up unhappy and realised the only difference between then and any of the days, weeks, months and years beforehand was that I was now aware of how I felt, rather than accepting monotony as normal.
The average life expectancy for someone in the western world is about 80 years old, yet for no apparent reason we determine our quarter-life crisis to arrive at 25. The promise of living to the beautifully simple age of 100 teases us out of reality. Silly us, we think we’re going to work until we’re 60 and then have 40 whole years of fun when in all probability, there are just 20 left.
This ran through my mind on the morning of my 25th birthday and stewed for about half a year before breaking point, upon which I decided that when someone asked me what I did for a living I’d endeavour to be proud of the answer, rather than mumble under my breath, ‘I’m a graphic designer. You know, it, erm, pays the mortgage.’
So I did something new. I took up longboarding and saw the world in a different way just because I was riding around it in a different way. Two weeks later I quit my job. A year later I became the first person to skateboard the length of Britain. Two months after that I flew to Australia and spent five months pushing my board across that large, empty, wonderful country. I’d been ridiculed, warned and berated but not one of the reasons people offered in their attempt to protect my safety proved to be adverse. The most important lesson I learned from skateboarding four and a half thousand miles was that human beings can only offer an opinion based on what they would do. And as of that moment in mid January 2007, skating through the streets of Brisbane, Queensland, having undertaken an activity that swelled my right calf to the size of an American football, I was now a man capable of doing something that no one else had ever done. And the only reason I did it, was because I did it.
Everything changed after that. I wrote my first book and learned to trust my gut and follow my heart and even though I didn’t have a bloody clue what I was meant to be doing with my life I felt like I’d only truly get to know myself by experiencing new things.
Now and then I fell back into the trap; choosing to live somewhere expensive, somewhere I couldn’t afford by just the few pennies I earned on book sales and speaking engagements. I regressed to doing things I didn’t enjoy just so I could pay the rent, then always just before it became too late to pull myself back from the slump in motivation that comes when you deprive yourself of the things you need in order to have the things you want, I wrestled myself away from convention.
Slowly I fashioned a career based on adventure, making a living through the stories generated by an ever-growing collection of journeys and projects. By mid 2010 my values had shaped themselves around the contended realisation best made clear when waking up far from urbania, in a tent or hammock or bivvy bag beside a river or the ocean, rising from a night’s sleep completely open to the atmosphere with all the belongings one needs to survive in a bag less than the size of an average torso. No TV, no commitments, no debt: a life completely, absolutely, one hundred per cent filled with things you love to do.
There are compromises, of course, but I see it simply. I had made changes by necessity to experience a different side of life; reducing my overheads to the extent where I had no home or stable base, no permanent partner, no creature comforts, no familiar social circle, no idea when the next money would come in. And yes it can be unnerving – uneasy, even – but less so as time goes on because on the other side of the fence if I had a house and a job I would be compromising my freedom, my love for flexibility and my ability to say yes to the most ridiculous ideas in the world; thus creating a living from my joy because I had time to do so. Put these alternate worlds side by side and there is no real choice for me. I have recognised my abilities and talents, accepted my flaws and failures, understood the origin of my passions and worked hard towards moulding them into a way I can survive in this world. Every single one of us is different but of one thing I am sure; we should all love our work. Each of us is able to create an existence unique to our individual self which enables the answer to ‘what do you do for work?’ exist as something along the lines of, ‘I do what I love, and I couldn’t imagine doing anything else with my time.’
Life needs purpose and nobody can give you yours, but you. I created a long-term goal to give me focus. The project was called Expedition1000: a series of 25 journeys of 1,000 miles in distance or more, each involving a different form of non-motorised transport. This was my Yes List (you might know it as a bucket list, but I can’t stand the implication that death should be the main motivator behind taking a grasp on life) and my career framework. The key behind making a passion project work is to vocalise it. It featured on my website, it was there, loud and clear, no backing out. But by making it public I had found others to share it with, who could help me learn how to, say, paraglide (not easy when you have vertigo) or Aquaskip (best you go to Google for this one). Following the skateboard traverse of Australia my second big expedition was in a kayak down the Murray River, also in Australia. Then an Australian man named Sebastian Terry, who himself was forming his life around a bucket list called 100 Things, read my book about skateboarding and got in touch. Within months we had shared a few little adventures and had created a speaking tour around Australia together, which prompted an offer from one company, which led us to pedalling a tandem bike from Vancouver to Vegas in the spring of 2011. That was the third journey of Expedition1000, quickly followed up by the fourth, a Source to Sea descent of the Mississippi River by Stand Up Paddleboard, which at 2404 miles found its way into the Guinness Book of Records for the longest distance travelled by SUP. Since that descent I’ve sailed the Pacific, ridden a four wheeled bicycle across the America South, swum 1001 miles down the Missouri (and I wasn’t a good swimmer) and ridden an elliptical bicycle over 2000 miles around Europe.
Give yourself purpose, lessen the bravery of your decisions by accepting the potential of failure as a positive, and say yes more. Life treats you quite well if you embrace it without letting fear get in the way.
*An edited extract from Life in the Slow Lane (2013), by Dave Cornthwaite
Dave Cornthwaite is about as far out of a box as you can get. His Expedition1000 project keeps things varies: he’s now eight trips into a series of 25 non motorised journeys of 1000 miles of more. So far they’ve included skateboarding across Australia, Stand Up Paddleboarding the Mississippi and swimming 1001 miles down the Lower Missouri dragging his gear on a raft. The author of three books (including one about dating), an experienced public speaker and founder of the lifestyle brand Say Yes More, he’s always looking for a new adventure.