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What Makes Something Worth Doing?
How can we better explain the things we simply feel compelled to do?
Last week, while saying goodbye to our doormen, one from Senegal told me that we had to go to Africa.
I told him that we’d love to, especially because my partner had never been. “But”, I said, “I’ve been across the continent. On my bike!” He was shocked.
“Why did you do it? Just for fun?” he asked.
“Kinda?” I answered.
I didn’t do it to compete (as some of the other riders did). I didn’t do it for work (as the staff did.). Sure, if it was an airport customs form, “leisure” would have been the most accurate category.
But the truth is, I did it because I had to. I couldn’t get the idea of it out of my head. I’m going to come back to this, but first, let me tell you a little bit about the tour so what I’m trying to say makes sense.
Three days into the four month-long Tour d’Afrique, I remember cycling in the desert of Egypt, doubting I would ever make it all the way to Cape Town. All I felt those first few days was fear. Sheer terror actually.
Every day of the journey presented new challenges, adventures, and lessons (like: aren’t most challenges just adventures in disguise?).
Nearly a quarter of the forty riders who set out from Cairo didn’t make it to Cape Town due to a severe accident or illness. Another quarter made it, but suffered a broken wrist, rib, or collar bone along the way. The other half of us who were lucky enough to avoid such physical damage still endured our own share of challenges — gastrointestinal illness, malaria, thefts, rock assaults, flat tires, you name it. Thankfully the scorpions and hyenas and hippos and elephants that we encountered kept their distance.
Cycling an average of 125km (or ~80 miles) per day, over all imaginable terrains and in all imaginable conditions, redefined suffering and relief for me. It’s hard to imagine feeling as hungry, hot, sore, tired, bored, or terrified again. Which, in hindsight of course, was the entire point.
On a daily basis, I would reach what appeared to be yet another physical or mental limit. Then — out of sheer necessity — I would manage to push right past it, until my concept of ‘limits’ dissolved entirely. I found that beyond my imagined physical and mental limits lay my practically unlimited potential and a whole kaleidoscope of feelings.
Gradually, I began to feel things beyond fear and terror. Things that actually resembled fun.
Until I reached the top of the Blue Nile Gorge, our most grueling and relentless day of uphill cycling, I didn’t realize that satisfaction wasn’t exactly the same feeling as happiness. I’d lived my whole life believing words like joy, equanimity, and wonder were virtually synonymous with happiness, not different states of being entirely.
When I paused at a viewpoint in Namibia, exactly 10,001 kilometers into our tour, my eyes traced the cobblestone road which lay ahead as it wound down the hill and stretched out into the horizon without a single other being in sight, I had the thought “ahh, so this is serenity.” Upon seeing my first giraffe, “awe.” Cycling on dirt roads during a downpour in Kenya, “exhilaration.”
Fear too started to take on different shades: worry that I might not have enough water on me to get to the next rest stop in the Sudanese desert was distinct from the nervousness I felt approaching groups of drinking men reaching out for me from the side of the road on Saturdays in Ethiopia which in turn was distinct from the anxiety I felt after consuming (too many) edibles on the beach of Lake Malawi.
I must have experienced the whole range and depth of human emotions over the course of this transformative tour, but nothing compared to the sense of confidence that unfurled in me when Table Mountain appeared on the horizon and all the trials and tribulations of the past 120 days suddenly made sense.
Did I have fun on this tour? Yes! My god, I had more fun than I could ever write about. If I had to describe the entire experience in one word, it would probably be “fun.”
But did I do it “for fun?” The easy answer to give to a doorman is “yes.” But the truth is, I wasn’t motivated at all by fun. I was motivated by something that felt completely out of my control.
All I can say is that the idea of cycling across Africa got into my head, and after it dominated my thoughts for a good year, I knew I wouldn’t be able to get it out of my head until I did it.
Deep down in my gut, I knew I needed to do it. I also knew I could.
Fun followed following my gut.
We don’t do the things we feel compelled to do for a myriad of reasons. Maybe (probably) they don’t make financial sense. Maybe (probably) they feel too hard. Maybe (probably) we’re worried what others will think of us.
I definitely felt all of the above before my bike trip. I had to do most of my dreaming and scheming in secret. My flat, frozen hometown wasn’t conducive to training. My boyfriend at the time didn’t want me to go. Only a couple friends were really cheering me on. I had to wait for my mom to die before I could do it.
What if I had ignored this voice in my head telling me “go!”?
I feel very sad thinking of that young woman who might not ever have realized how much bigger she was. Than her boyfriend, her hometown, her mom’s terminal illness, her self.
That woman is now on day three of a year-long world-tour, that similarly was motivated not by fun, but by a feeling that there was no other choice.
My gut was first whispering, then screaming, at me to do it. Ignoring the whispers was making it hard to have fun, no matter how hard I tried.
It’s too early to say whether fun will follow listening to my gut again, but more and more I believe that we can only have fun if we are being true to ourselves, which means listening to ourselves, even when what we’re hearing doesn’t quite make sense or goes against what others are saying.
However this trip turns out, I’m left wondering if there is a difference between doing something “just for fun” and doing something “just because I felt compelled to.”
Curious to hear your thoughts…
* I came across this awesome article by Oliver Burkeman (author of Four Thousand Weeks) in the NYT that reinforces the point I was trying to make last week about rushing sucking the joy out of pleasurable activities:
“The uncomfortable truth is that the only way to find sanity in an overwhelming world — and to have any concrete effect on that world — is to surrender such efforts to escape the human condition, and drop back down into the reality of our limitations.
Distracting yourself from challenging tasks by, say, listening to podcasts doesn’t actually make them more bearable over the long term; instead, it makes them less enjoyable, by reinforcing your belief that they’re the sort of activities you can tolerate only by distracting yourself — while at the same time all but ensuring that you’ll neither accomplish the task in question nor digest the contents of the podcast as well as you otherwise might.”