My answer to the constant question:"How do you GET to do this?"
Nearly every time I tell someone new what I do for a living (okay, okay, under Covid I'm on hold for now), they ask me how I "get " to do that. If you've ever dreamed of a life heading off to distant lands, exploring, hiking, biking, kayaking, rafting, or my favorite, riding horses in some of the world's most distant places, and then writing about it, this is how.
First, there's no office where you send your resume. No desk along some movie set-perfect dusty side road in a foreign country, the streets lined with horses-drawn carts and baskets of spices, where you and I walk up in our fedoras, whip in hand, and say I'm the next Indiana Jones.
Will you please.
While those of us who do this work come at it differently, many of us start out the same way: we pay our own way for a long time. Nobody but nobody is likely to fund your education unless you are already a scientist and ready to do some kind of research as an intern, for example, or you're a missionary, or some kind of working role where you start out at the bottom rung. In fact, that's perfect. But it's also work. So is building a resume in any field. Those of us who do adventure travel for a living, and then write about it, as I do, typically have varying career paths. I can only speak to my own, and one other gentleman, Brendan Leonard, whose work is in some pretty high-profile magazines. That man's story is here, and it's instructive, if for no other reason that it's not much different from what I did. Here are two key excerpts from his article:
...I applied at newspapers with no luck, so I got a job on the sales floor at the Phoenix REI to work while I sent out resumes and made calls to prospective journalism employers. I finally got a full-time editor/reporter/copy editor job at a small suburban weekly newspaper, and stayed on working part-time at REI.
In my spare time, I pitched every outdoor magazine I knew of, writing query letters that almost without fail resulted in rejection letters sent back to me weeks or months later. It was like walking up to a sport climbing crag, trying a route, falling after clipping the first bolt, failing to climb any higher, and moving on to the next route and repeating the process, with nothing to show for it. For months.
ince I started eight years ago, I’ve been able to successfully explore other ways to make a living besides writing a blog—public speaking, directing short films, writing books, drawing cartoons, and of course, writing for other publications. Some weeks I wondered if I should keep doing the blog, and some weeks it felt like no one read the blog at all. (author bolded)
Two important takeaways: Leonard started on the REI sales floor. AND he keeps building out side gigs. That never, ever ends. And....Leonard began with a journalism degree.
In other words, he started with knowing how to bloody well write. Even then it's taken him years. Now he is a force to be reckoned with. That didn't happen overnight, and it also didn't happen without plenty of failures along the way. There is no EASY button for this kind of work. Stay with me here.
My career arc, the short version, is somewhat similiar. I was an Army journalist, then a producer director at a small TV studio at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. After the military I got into public relations, then lost my job in 1983.
That was my first launch, when I took my severance, bought a backpack and headed Down Under. I spent four years hitch-hiking solo around Australia, New Zealand and Fiji beginning in 1983. That's where I got my passion for adventure travel. I dove the Barrier Reef, learned to fly ultralights and dropped some 85 pounds forever, along the way fundamentally transforming both my body and my life.
When I returned to America in 1987 I started my corporate career, but never lost my passion for adventure travel. It had to sit on hold for a while, which sometimes happens.
I never stopped writing. I started my own consulting business, worked with 21 of the Fortune 100 corporations and many more of the Fortune 500 teaching sales (you'd better learn to sell or, well, the mail room is hiring, folks).
got really good at the selling and consulting pieces, which helps if you have the conceit to try to offer your services to anyone. In other words, people hire chops. They don't hire rookies, until you're willing to shovel some kind of poop for a few years. A lot of years, sometimes.
Don't wanna? Mail room is hiring.
In 2010, I wrote my first book, Wordfood: How We Feed or Starve our Relationships. The book won four prizes. I wrote another in short order which also won a prize. That has a way of giving you an awful lot of gravitas when you present your credentials to people who want writers.
After writing that first book, I decided to give myself the gift of an adventure. After all I'd been working 90 hours a week, I was tired. I chose Thailand. Spent seven months learning to speak enough of the language to get by. In January 2011, I spent the whole month there. After that, I was done with corporate work.
In addition to all this, I have a natural skill with animals, which has allowed me to work with everything from tigers to elephants to horses all over the world. I do NOT recommend this to just anyone, you can get seriously hurt or killed. I grew up with large animals, and one reason I recently moved to the Pacific Northwest was to gain certifications in equine massage. Again, my investment in my own credentials. Nobody else is funding this. I can't emphasize this enough.
Here are the fundamentals that allow me to "get" to play Indiana Jones at 68:
- I paid for all my travel, my education, and my gear. Until I had enough trips under my belt and could speak with some authority about the adventure travel world, I wasn't valuable to any editor, nor were my skills of any value to any adventure travel company looking for a writer or consultant. That was on me. You have to make the significant investments of time, energy and sacrifice to earn your chops.
- You have to train like a banshee to be in shape. Whether you're climbing Kilimanjaro or riding horses like I do all over the world, you have to invest in your training. That means gym work, taking kayaking and riding lessons, learning how to skydive, all of it. That is on YOU. If you show up at some of these outfits claiming to know how to paddle rapids and you don't, you endanger other people. I've had it happen. Not only is that not funny, it's dangerous as hell, to say nothing of breathtakingly irresponsible. I see it all the time, and people get killed or seriously hurt.
- You write, endlessly, constantly, you take lessons, courses, you hire editors and coaches if you're smart. You are always and forever some kind of rookie no matter how good you get at anything. When you understand that beginner's mind is your best friend, you might get good at something. You get accustomed to being told NO.
If this is all about your ego, good luck. I've learned that when I have an attitude of service, and my commitment is to help my clients be successful (I have a few in Tanzania, most of whom lead trips up Kilimanjaro) then I get gigs. Often I trade an experience for my work, which has led to doing some extreme horseback trips through the wilds of the Maasai Mara of central Kenya.
My clients want someone who can help them solve problems, mostly just getting more clients. They aren't interested in paying someone to write blogs about how EPIC you look standing on top of a small peak on an Indonesian Island. Nobody cares, frankly, except perhaps your friends. If something you write doesn't solve a problem for your client you cannot get work. As my travel writing coach Tim Leffel says, editors don't care unless your piece can sell ads, and clients don't care unless what you do for them solves an issue.
A happy pooch gets affection in Iceland Julia Hubbel
While all this may look like fun, it doesn't express the pain, the inevitable injuries, long plane delays, being stuck in unfriendly countries or airports, bad food, bad stomachs, nasty infections, bitter cold nights, accidents and crappy guides. They are what make the best stories.
If you're not willing to tolerate that, you don't do this work. It is not all about having your butt in a hammock poolside, mai-tai at your elbow, sending home Insta photos of how epic your lazy life is.
That isn't epic.
What's epic is breaking your back in Kazakhstan in the middle of the Altai Mountains. I did that. I also smashed my pelvis in Iceland, among other breaks, and have twenty-two concussions for my trouble. This is why you damned well better be in remarkable shape.
This is not a job to make you rich.
It is indeed work to make you rich with stories, memories and experiences.
I still fund my own flights, much of my own accommodations. I have to continually invest my own money in gear, albeit I get pro discounts. That of course means that I tend to blow what little profits I make on cool gear but hey, who's complaining?
Nearly every single person I have ever told this to who asked me how I get do to what I do says that it takes too long. It's too hard. They're too old for this. Kindly, I summitted Kilimanjaro at sixty, and haven't stopped since.
That's why there aren't too many of us doing it, folks.There is no Easy button to "get" to do the hard stuff. It's earned, just like anything else worth having, doing, or being. And with that, I have to hit the floor for some yoga, the weights and my elliptical. I'm in training for Africa and Mongolia.