The following is an excerpt from Chris Guillebeau’s new book, The Happiness of Pursuit: Finding the Quest That Will Bring Purpose to Your Life.
In ancient myths, most quests were ones of discovery or confrontation.
A kingdom was under siege, so it required defending. A minotaur in a faraway land guarded a magic chalice, and only the hero could wrest it back.
Happily, real-world quests offer more possibilities than storming castles and rescuing princesses, and with some exceptions modern-day quests can be placed into a few broad categories.
Travel is an obvious starting point.
As I searched for stories and recruited submissions from readers, I learned of many people who set out to circumnavigate the globe in different fashions or be the first to accomplish a challenging goal far from home.
Branching out beyond travel, the categories of learning, documenting, and athleticism were also fairly self-explanatory.
The happiness of pursuit
When an independent learner from Canada decided to tackle the four-year M.I.T. Computer Science curriculum in just one year, publishing his test scores along the way, this was clearly a quest oriented around learning and achievement.
When a young woman who competed in international competitions decided to adopt and train an especially difficult horse — eventually placing near the top in an important European championship — this was clearly an athletic pursuit.
Perhaps more interesting than topical categories is the broader question of why people pursue quests and adventures.
The answers can fit into categories too, albeit ones that are not as tightly boxed.
A taxonomy of adventure
As I traveled the world and traversed my inbox, a few themes kept coming up:
Just as heroes of old set off on a horse to chase their dreams into an enchanted forest, many people still follow a path to “find” themselves.
Nate Damm, who walked across America, and Tom Allen, who set out to cycle the planet from his town in England, originally left home merely because they could.
They wanted to challenge themselves by learning more about the world. Some of their friends and family understood their desire to set out on a big journey — both gave up jobs to do so — but others didn’t get it.
“This is just something I need to do,” Nate said. “It’s about letting a little risk into your life,” Tom explained.
In days of old, reclaiming was about taking back the land.
Recall Mel Gibson in his classic Braveheart performance standing on a hill and shouting “Freeeee-dooom!” in defense of Scotland against the tyrant Englishmen from the south.
Many people still pursue quests of reclaiming, though not usually with swords and shields.
Sasha Martin, a woman raising a family in Oklahoma, had grown up living abroad and wanted to introduce her household to an awareness of different cultures. She couldn’t travel to foreign lands, at least not at the time, so she decided to make a meal from every country, complete with an entire menu and mini-celebration.
From the frontiers of Alaska, Howard Weaver led a scrappy team that took on an establishment newspaper. In an epic battle that stretched for years, Howard and his staff fought to present a “voice of the people” against a better-funded, big-business paper.
Response to external events
Sandi Wheaton, a career employee for General Motors, was laid off at the height of the auto industry’s downturn in 2009.
Instead of choosing the usual strategy (panic, then do everything you can to get another job), she took off for an extended trip, taking photos and documenting the journey as she went along.
My own quest to visit every country initially came from a post 9/11 experience, after which I wanted to find a way to meaningfully contribute. My soul-searching led to four years on a hospital ship in West Africa, which sparked everything that would come later.
Desire for ownership and empowerment
Julie Johnson, a blind woman who trained her own guide dog, said that she was motivated at least partly by the pressure put on her not to do it her own way.
“Probably the biggest reason is that it felt right,” she told me. “I needed to do this Big Thing. I didn’t know then that it was a Big Thing. I just knew it was something that I needed to do for myself. If I didn’t, I’d always wonder about what could have been.”
This perspective — “If I didn’t try, I’d always wonder what might have happened” — showed up again and again in the stories I came across.
Taking a stand for something.
Some people I met were essentially missionaries or crusaders for their cause, sharing their story with anyone who’d listen and building alliances along the way.
Miranda Gibson, for example, spent more than a year living in a tree in Tasmania, protesting illegal logging.
Others devoted their lives toward something they believed in, sacrificing income and time (and sometimes more) to give all that they could.
There’s an adventure waiting for you, too
In The Happiness of Pursuit, you’ll encounter dozens of incredible stories. You’ll meet the people I’ve mentioned thus far and many more.
And, fortunately, you’ll realize that the vast majority of these stories are about normal people doing remarkable things.
Real-life adventure isn’t only about traveling the world (although many of this book’s stories do involve travel) nor is a quest always about leaving home (although it often involves breaking out of a comfort zone).
Sure, there are exceptions: the story of John “Maddog” Wallace comes to mind.
Wallace pulled off the feat of running 250 marathons in a single year, ignoring a legion of sports doctors and athletes who all said such a thing was impossible.
You may be interested in why he did it, or even how he did it — but it’s not likely you’ll try the same thing.
That’s okay, though.
As I’ve said, most of this book’s “cast of characters” are ordinary, in the sense that they don’t have special powers or abilities.
Their quests — and in many cases, their accomplishments — were extraordinary, but for the most part these individuals were successful not because of innate talent, but because of choices and dedication.
Much of the time, the goal grew in proportion with time and experience.
Those I interviewed often spoke of their perceived feebleness, or of their belief that “anyone” could do what they did — but as you’ll see, few would have the resolve to persist as they did.
Attempt something remarkable
In addition to satisfying my own curiosity, I wrote this book to inspire you to attempt something remarkable of your own. Look closely here and you’ll see a path you can follow, no matter your goal.
Everyone who pursues a quest learns many lessons along the way. Some relate to accomplishment, disillusionment, joy, and sacrifice — others to the specific project at hand.
But what if you could learn these lessons earlier? What if you could study with others who’ve invested years — sometimes decades — in the relentless pursuit of a dream?
That learning opportunity is what this book is about. You’ll sit with people who have pursued big adventures and crafted lives of purpose around something they found deeply meaningful. You’ll hear their stories and lessons.
You’ll learn what happened along the way, but more important, you’ll learn why it happened and why it matters.
Your next step
It’s my job as the author to provide a framework and issue a challenge. It’s yours to decide the next steps.
Perhaps, instead of just reading about other people’s stories, you’ll think about your own life.
What excites you? What bothers you?
If you could do anything at all without regard to time or money, what would it be?
As you progress through this book, you’ll see that it advances a clear argument: quests bring meaning and fulfillment to our lives.
If you’ve ever wondered if there’s more to life, you might discover a world of opportunity and challenge waiting for you.
You could think of your first quest as reading this book.
Make sure to pick up your copy of The Happiness of Pursuit: Finding the Quest That Will Bring Purpose to Your Life.