Novelty + Uncertainty + Emotion
toward a working definition of adventure
What makes an adventure?
Are adventures necessarily risky or perilous—so extreme sports qualify, but taking a different route home from work doesn’t?
Must adventures involve physical challenge or long-term travel—so a kayaking expedition counts, but not a silent meditation retreat?
Alternatively, can anything be an adventure, if you only have the right attitude? Going to the grocery store, picking up the kids, doing your taxes? Is adventure just a synonym for fun, excitement, or challenge?
I don’t love any of these definitions, so I created my own1:
adventure = novelty + uncertainty + emotion
novelty: something out of the ordinary, disorienting, attention-grabbing
uncertainty: outcomes are not guaranteed; failure is genuinely possible
emotion: highs and lows are both present; extreme states are common
I like this definition because it accommodates classic adventures (international travel, wilderness voyages, road trips) while avoiding postmodern fluff (“literally anything can be an adventure!”) and offering plenty of wiggle room. For example:
Why is partner dancing an adventure? Because every dance is novel (new partner + new song), every dance is uncertain (we might connect, we might not), and the emotional payoff is high.
What makes self-employment an adventure? You’re offering something new to the world, unsure of whether it will find an audience, with victory or defeat hanging in the balance.
Why might a meditation retreat be an adventure? If it’s your first retreat (or longer than any you’ve previously attempted), there’s a novelty factor. If you don’t know whether you can handle that much sitting, there’s an uncertainty factor. And any form of extended meditation is an emotional rollercoaster.
My bike trip across Europe last year was a de facto adventure—I got to explore new parts of Switzerland, France, Spain, and Portugal for 6 full weeks, after all—but I decided to make it even more adventurous by relying upon the kindness of Couchsurfing hosts, WarmShowers hosts, and friends-of-friends to provide my housing. The uncertainty of not knowing where I’d stay until a few days ahead of time (and sometimes the very same day) was exhilarating.
Here’s a longer example.
I recently took 13 teenagers to Mexico for 6 weeks. I planned the group’s destinations in advance, booked the hostels, and reserved the bus tickets. But beyond this basic structure, my co-leader and I purposefully didn’t make any solid plans.
Every night our group would sit down to discuss our plans for the next day. If a group member discovered something to do interesting—a museum, market, café, hike, live music event, or taco truck—they could propose it, and invite others to join. (As long as the activity was basically safe, we would approve it.) Each teen was free to accept or reject each offering, including the activities that my co-leader and I proposed. Only dinners and meetings were mandatory.
Sometimes I would propose an activity that garnered lost of interest—like playing Settlers of Catan at the Four Seasons in Mexico City—while other times I convinced nobody. (Y’all missed some life-changing pozole, kiddos!)
The one activity all the teens were required to do on a regular basis was this: venturing forth into the streets, parks, and hostels of Mexico to interview strangers, in the style of Humans of New York. They’d go out in small groups, look for interesting people, ask permission to interview them, ask a question or two, record the response, snap a photo, and then send everything to me to post online. (Here’s what they accomplished.)
Why did I ask them to undertake this strange, intimidating challenge? Because I wanted them to engage with México in a non-commercial way. I wanted them to break away from mere tourism. And I wanted to make sure they did something novel, uncertain, and emotionally engaging each day. Doing ”weird stuff” like talking to strangers is how we generate rich, unforgettable memories.
What if there’s too much novelty, uncertainty, or emotion? What if I demanded that every interview was 100% in Spanish, despite the teens’ very limited grasp of the language? What if I insisted that they get themselves mugged in Mexico City to experience a “real adventure?” What if I took the group to Afghanistan instead?
There’s a fuzzy but important line between “adventure” and “traumatic nightmare.” When I go wilderness backpacking, I embrace some amount of uncertainty regarding weather, trail conditions, and my physical abilities… but I also feel extremely confident that I’ll return home safely. The same goes for teen trip-leading: I’m not going looking for trouble. The goal is to push the boundaries of novelty, uncertainty, and emotion for each individual.
My favorite definition of unschooling is "allowing your children as much freedom to explore the world around them in their own ways as you can comfortably bear." Correspondingly, perhaps adventure is about embracing as much novelty, uncertainty, and emotion as you can comfortably bear. Do that on a regular basis, and you’ll lead an adventurous life.
What do you think—does my definition work for you? Click the button to share your thoughts.
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