Life is Either a Daring Adventure or Nothing at All
on the virtue of "excitement" as a guiding force
The other night, I took my first class in “Urban Kiz”: a partner dance with origins in Angola, Portugal, and Paris, danced to hip-hop and electronic music. It’s strangely beautiful, slow, staccato, and playful. Just look. I can hardly wait to try it again.
Urban Kiz is similar to “microfusion,” where partners stand almost still and communicate with subtle motions, often imperceptible to observers. I’m such a fan of this style, and its associated music, that I got myself invited to DJ two sets at an upcoming microfusion weekend in Berlin. I’m intimidated—and also very excited.
Is excitement a good metric for success in life?
In my first book, College Without High School, written at age 25, I encouraged teenagers to view their level of excitement as the best way to assess the worthiness of a dream or goal.
Today, I recognize that this belief reflects my very particular personality and that other values like security, loyalty, recognition, and belonging are how most people actually measure their forward progress.
Admittedly, excitement is a very teenage (or twenty-something) lens for assessing one’s life direction. To be in one’s 40s and still lionizing excitement may speak to a certain lack of development, much like the perpetual pursuit of adventure.
But saying that one must put away childish things in order to “fully develop” also indicates a certain faith in stage theories: the idea that all humans grow through a narrow, predictable series of psychological stages. Stage theories are the best known in childhood, when genuinely significant changes are taking place in the brain, but they’ve long since jumped the guardrails into adulthood, as anyone familiar with integral theory may attest.
John Taylor Gatto, the former New York State schoolteacher who inspired my deep dive into alternative education, once penned a critique of stage theories:
All stage theory is embarrassingly culture-bound. Talk about the attention span of kids and suddenly you are forced to confront the fact that while eighteen-month-old Americans become restless after thirty seconds, Chinese of that age can closely watch a demonstration for five minutes. And while eight-year-old New Yorkers can barely tie their shoes, eight-year-old Amish put in a full work day on the family homestead. Even in a population apparently homogenous, stage theory can neither predict nor prescribe for individual cases. Stage theories sound right for the same reason astrological predictions do, but the disconnect between ideal narratives and reality becomes all too clear when you try to act on them.
Today, we increasingly understand and accept neurodivergence in children. What about adults? Can some of us live our lives in the seemingly irrational pursuit of excitement and adventure, as long as we’re not hurting anyone along the way? Can we agree that many different personalities and priorities are necessary for a rich, thriving society? Can we support young people in spending time not just with adults who value safety and order, but also those who prize calculated risk-taking, those who talk seriously about ecstasy and transcendance, and those for whom the messy, visceral experience of life—such as learning a new partner dance in a sweaty basement in Berlin—is exactly what makes it worthwhile?
I don’t want to live in a world where excitement rules the day, every day. I also don’t want to life of dull, gray repetition. In a parallel universe of more chaos, perhaps I would become the voice of caution and security. In the world I currently inhabit, I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing.
I’m going to find some Urban Kiz.
A few more exciting things happening in my life:
I just finished running a month-long trip with a group of 16 North American teenagers in Berlin. This marks 15 full years of Unschool Adventures trips.
I discarded my idea for a teen trip in the United Kingdom. It would have been very pricey and brought me too close to “trips for rich kids only” territory. For now, I’ve earned enough monetary dividends; it’s time to cash in my time dividends.
I’m considering staying in Europe, probably Germany, for a whole year beginning Spring 2024. The last time I stayed put for this long was a full decade ago! I look forward to the great things can only happen with a longer-term homebase.
In December I’m leading my first-ever series of dance and connection workshops in Freiburg, Germany.
Soon, 350 copies of Do What You Love and Die Trying will ship to US addresses. This is the memoir-manifesto that I began crafting in 2017, rewrote in 2021, and recently completed and funded with a Kickstarter (details).
I’m scheming an online group coaching program for self-directed teens. Mentoring, inspiring, and provoking are my favorite roles to play in the lives of teenagers, and I’d love to keep it up while abroad.
[The phrase “Life is Either a Daring Adventure or Nothing at All” is attributed to Helen Keller, though she never used the words “at all.”]