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Why does adventure travel make you come alive? Hint: It's not adrenaline.

The worn tips of my hiking boots dangled over the edge of the Auckland Tower, the tallest structure in the Southern Hemisphere. The view from the fifty third floor was breathtaking – misty blue harbor studded with ships trailing white wakes between the forested islands. The black streets, white apartments, red lettered shopping districts, and gray bridges of Auckland’s cityscape spread out below me like a patterned Maori textile, carefully laid down across a blue and green landscape. If I looked straight down, I could just make out my wildly waving family like tiny sugar ants on the street below. Was I really going to jump off this building with nothing but a thin cable and a whole lot of faith to hold me? Yes indeed.

I had made leaps of faith before. I left behind a premier NSF postdoctoral fellowship doing cutting edge neuroscience research at Cambridge University to become a middle school science teacher. I stepped out of my role as the leader of a charter school I loved in order to start my own business. While four months pregnant with my first child, we moved away from friends and family in the Bay Area to start a new career in a rural town where we had no connections. Leaping off Auckland Tower was just a different kind of adventure.

New Zealand is a land drenched in adventure. Heck, it’s the iconic setting of the The Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films. Whatever your favorite flavor of adventure, from skiing to sky diving to spelunking to surfing, New Zealand can provide.

“Gandalf: I am looking for someone to share in an adventure that I am arranging, and it’s very difficult to find anyone.

Bilbo: I should think so—in these parts! We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner! I can’t think what anybody sees in them …

Gandalf: You’ll have a tale or two to tell when you come back.

Bilbo: You can promise that I’ll come back?

Gandalf: No. And if you do, you will not be the same.”

~ J.R.R. Tolkein, The Hobbit

Adventure, to me, means a scary journey just this side of impossible that promises to change and challenge you. There’s just as many flavors of adventure as there are people on this planet. There’s the mach two, hair-on-fire, adrenaline rush variety (aka jumping off Auckland Tower). There’s the long slow burn of a tantalizing future luring me away from a comfortable research fellowship/leadership role/network of friends and family. There’s the tantalizing curiosity of what new experience or friendship might be waiting around the corner if I just let the day unfold and let my feet carry me around the next blind curve. One woman’s adventure is another woman’s worst nightmare.

The unifying feature to adventure is alluring positive energy towards a meaningful goal, laced with just the right amount of fear to be daunting but not incapacitating, and finally the promise that the adventure will stretch one’s skills and talents in order to succeed. The jump off Auckland Tower had all of those aspects.

Jumping off Auckland Tower definitely that tantalizing, alluring, seductive positive energy towards a goal for me. The first time I read about the SkyJump at Auckland Tower, I passed it off as a crazy stunt designed for risk-taking adolescents with a half-baked brain. Then a friend I respect mentioned that he did it when he visited New Zealand. That prompted a burst of late night daydreaming and web research. I must have checked the website at least a dozen times and read all the reviews. I was drawn to the idea of testing myself. Was I brave enough? What is bravery anyway? And drawn by curiosity. What would I see, feel, notice? How do they keep you safe?

Yet, it was the moment when I actually saw the Tower looking out over the Auckland skyline like Sauron’s eye that really convinced me. Every walk down the street, every glance out the window, my attention would be drawn to that irresistible Tower. It beckoned. It called to me. The call to adventure was irresistible.

No question that I was afraid… but not incapacitated. I love roller coasters and worked on ropes courses in my teens and twenties. My favorite spot on a ropes course is being clipped in at the zipline transfer station, sixty feet up a tree, overlooking a gorge with twisted trees tumbling out of the depths. The slight buzz of adrenaline in my system while perched sixty feet up a tree kept me present, aware, focused. Yet, the adrenaline and cortisol never spiraled into a full on stress response because the climbing harness and carabiners kept me safe.

Similarly, SkyJump had just the right amount of danger to feel really scary but not panic-inducing. It’s had just enough stress to feel exhilarating, but not so much to be incapacitated. I’d be harnessed, clipped in, and tethered the whole time. The wire attached to me pulls a fan which creates air resistance which controls my speed. I’d fall very very fast, around 52 mph or 85 kph for 11 seconds, but that’s less than half the speed of a skydiver in freefall. Base jumping with a wire? Yes. Skydiving at terminal velocity? Hell no.

But the real clincher was the question: Would it change me? What identity would I need to access to go through with it? Would I be a braver person afterwards?

The rest of my family and friends thought jumping off Auckland Tower fell into the “worst nightmare” category so I rode the elevator to the fifty third floor with strangers. One of them was a local girl named Poppy who decided jumping off a building was a wicked way to celebrate her eleventh birthday. Her sun-bleached brown hair and freckles radiated warmth. The same friendly warmth I’d felt from most of the New Zealanders I’d met along the way. Her anxiety about the impending jump, and not having her family with her, expressed itself through chattiness.

She asked for SkyJump as her birthday present but chickened out the day before – too tall, too crazy – until she watched a few others jump and, more importantly, safely land. She’s the only one from her family who loves the adrenaline rush of roller coasters. She said, “Roller coasters fill me with nervous anxiety, and then ‘Whoosh!’ the tension breaks into this amazing sense of calm and happiness. That adrenaline rush feels so good. Like I can do anything.”

I found that my own anxiety and nervousness dampened as I chatted with her. How could I be scared if an eleven year old kid was going to jump? But more than that, my purpose is encouraging other people’s light to shine. So I leaned into my gift and set aside any of my own fear so that I could make this girl’s birthday super special. We discussed travel and adventure as we looked out over the Auckland skyline awaiting our turn. She told me about her birthday celebration the day before. I told her about my book. I had a purpose now, one that was more than just a selfish experiment for myself, and that made my own fear manageable.

I monitored my heart rate. I did a quick body scan. Hmmm, not much of a stress response. My heart and lungs were working a little harder than usual, my hands were a little numb and jittery, but it felt like nervous eager anticipation, not fear…

…right up until the handsome safety crewman told to put my toes on the edge of the platform. I could feel the cable at my back pull me outwards over the ledge. Suddenly, instead of looking out over the expansive horizon, my head looked down, past the high rises, past the street, straight down to the platform where I was to land 11 seconds later.

Time slowed. There were some final safety checks that I couldn’t see. The wire tightened, pulling me further out over the ledge. My attention was riveted by the sight of the landing pad below. I intentionally, mindfully, breathed slow and deep. In times of stress, I immediately turn to my breath as an anchor to stay centered and present. I was in control of my own internal experience, no matter how out of control things may be externally.

“3!” The safety crew counted down. Though my stomach lurched, I realized I was smiling.

“2!” I took a final, deep, “oh shit” breath.

1!” I leaped. And I screamed. And screeeeeeeamed.

“Whoosh!” Just like Poppy said, the anxiety broke into a huge grin as the gale-force wind rushed by. It was like all the anxiety, doubt, and uncertainty in my head whooshed down into my body in a flood of exhilaration. My screams turned to laughter. The street soared up to meet me. I felt part of the landscape, as if my spirit were set free to fly with the spirit of the city around me. I was still laughing when I landed, full of delighted, ecstatic, joy.

Looking back, I do feel braver and ready to take on bigger challenges. I also feel a bit more connected with other fellow adventurers, like Poppy, and to my purpose in this world.

And this is why rats will press a lever for small injections of the stress hormone, cortisol. Adventure feels exhilaratingly good. It’s a “good” stress, laced with a sense of time slowing, laser focus on the task at hand, a deep knowing, a sense of control even when out of control, presence, clarity, purpose. Psychologists call this state of being: flow.

Flow is being in “the zone”. It’s the effortless physicality of a great basketball player dribbling a ball down the court. It’s the focused concentration of a composer when a new symphony crescendos in his head, and he eagerly captures the music on paper. It’s the weird bending of time a mathematician feels when she’s so engrossed in a problem that she looks up to find that the sun has set and suppertime has long since passed, but she doesn’t mind in the slightest. It’s how I feel swing dancing as the lights, music, movement, crowd, my partner, and I blur into a single swirling moment in time. Flow is what Alex Honnold describes in the movie Free Solo about climbing El Capitan without ropes: “I'm not thinking about anything when I'm climbing, which is part of the appeal. I'm focused on executing what's in front of me.”

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the founding father of the study of flow, describes it this way in a TED talk watched by nearly 7 million viewers:

“There's this focus that, once it becomes intense, leads to a sense of ecstasy, a sense of clarity: you know exactly what you want to do from one moment to the other; you get immediate feedback. You know that what you need to do is possible to do, even though difficult, and the sense of time disappears. You forget yourself. You feel part of something larger. And once the conditions are present, what you are doing becomes worth doing for its own sake.”

So why do people climb mountains, base jump, kayak, mountain bike, skate, scuba dive, bungee jump, hike, white water raft, and zip line? Why is adventure recreation one of the fastest growing tourism sectors globally (valued at $852.4 billion in 2021)? Why did I love my SkyJump? It’s because of flow.

Perhaps you too have experienced flow. Perhaps at work, perhaps at play, perhaps with friends. Have you ever been so engaged in something that everything else drops away – fears, worries, time, place, even identity all seem to vanish? The task stretches your capabilities yet feels completely doable. It’s effortless as if this is exactly what you are meant to be doing, right here, right now.

To really live, to feel fully alive, is to find flow. And adventure travel creates opportunities to do just that.

Susan Jackson from the University of Queensland, and colleagues, Andrew Martin and Robert Eklund, developed a widely used survey to determine whether someone is in a flow state. Many things carry me into a flow state. Sometimes it’s physical: paddle boarding and swing dancing. Other times it’s more artistic: writing or crafting. Sometimes it’s work related: coaching and teaching. Other times it’s social: building community. And sometimes it’s hard to categorize: adventuring and travel. Called the Dispositional Flow Scale 2 (DFS-2), it asks respondents to rate how often they experience each of the nine different characteristics that define flow when they’re doing a given activity on a scale from “1” (never) to “5” (always).

  1. Clear Goals: “I have a strong sense of what I want to do”;

  2. Concentration on Task at Hand: “I am completely focused on the task at hand”;

  3. Challenge-Skill Balance: “I feel I am competent enough to meet the high demands of the situation”;

  4. Sense of Control: “I have a feeling of total control over what I am doing”;

  5. Action-Awareness Merging: “I do things spontaneously and automatically without having to think”;

  6. Loss of Self-Consciousness: “I am not worried about what others may have been thinking of me”;

  7. Unambiguous Feedback: “I have a good idea while I am performing about how well I am doing”;

  8. Autotelic Experience (a scientific way of saying that the experience itself is worth the effort because it’s so internally motivating and rewarding): “The experience is extremely rewarding”.

  9. Transformation of Time: “The way time passes seems to be different from normal”; and

What is it with travel that makes us come alive? It’s not adrenaline. It’s these nine characteristics. “A typical day is full of anxiety and boredom. Flow experiences provide the flashes of intense living against this dull background,” says Csikszentmihalyi in Finding Flow. That’s what travel often offers us, a brilliant golden flash of intense living against a dull backdrop of grays and browns. “What is common to such moments, is that consciousness is full of experiences, and that these experiences are in harmony with each other. Contrary to what happens all too often in everyday life, in moments such as these, what we feel, what we wish, and what we think are in harmony.”

One of the more prominent theories about how flow states may be created in the brain suggests that there may be synchronized firing of neurons across brain systems, harmonious activity as if different brain areas were different instruments in a symphony, exactly like Csikszentmihalyi suggests. According to René Weber from UC Santa Barbara, Ron Tamborini from Michigan State, and their colleagues, being in flow means that the different systems for feeling (limbic areas), wishing (dopamine reward pathways), thinking (executive control and default mode networks, and doing (the cerebellum) are working together like a symphony. If that’s the case, no wonder leaders in flow are 500% more productive. Let that sink in. Working professionals are five times more productive when they are in flow.

You may be surprised to learn that flow is more often found at work than in recreation, especially for leaders. Csikszentmihalhi, the founding father of flow was surprised as well. “After further thought however, this finding is not that surprising. What often passes unnoticed is that work is much more like a game than most other things we do during the day. It usually has clear goals and rules of performance. It provides feedback in terms of knowing one has performed a job well done… Even the most routine tasks, like washing dishes, dressing, or mowing the lawn become more rewarding if we approach them with the care it would take to make a work of art.”

The benefits of more flow in one’s life is tremendous. More flow is correlated with greater happiness, improved performance, more motivation, less stress, better relationships, and even a longer lifespan.

So, whether your adventure is an adrenaline infused adventure, taking a big career leap, negotiating a major business deal, or washing the dishes, consider ways to inject a little more flow into the experience. How might you take whatever everyday adventure lies before you and bring out the flow within? Here’s five ideas to get you more connected with the different characteristics of flow:

  1. Reduce stressors that interfere with the flow experience. There are many ways to manage your stress response – breathing practices, doing things with friends, immersion in nature, creative outlets. Find the one that’s right for you.

  2. Be fully present. In our modern world, that can be hard, but it’s ever so necessary to find flow. That means put down your phone and computer so that its pings and dings don’t distract you. It means not multi-tasking. When you do something, like write this article or make dinner, don’t have a podcast playing in the background. Flow means being fully mindful and present so that there’s Concentration on the Task at Hand.

  3. Connect the activity to your larger purpose. For instance, there was a time I had a pile of utilities billing complications to sort out for my organization. Initially, it felt time consuming and stupid. But then I started to enjoy the project and even find flow in it when I connected it to my purpose of encouraging the light in others (specifically taking something off a colleague’s plate that was so much more in my wheelhouse than hers), and also connected it to my core value of inquiry (specifically treating it as a scientific research project to dive into and seek patterns). Connecting to your purpose brings out two characteristics: Clear Goals and Autotelic Experience.

  4. Dial in the Challenge-Skill Balance to something just right for you. If the challenge is too high and you feel overwhelmed, how might you lower the bar, break something big into small manageable steps, or boost your skills so that you get into the Goldilocks zone. If the challenge is too low and you feel bored, try to treat the activity as if it were an artform you are trying to perfect.

  5. Adopt a curious, explorer’s mindset to whatever you do. Every activity has variables you can Control to enhance your experience of joy, reward, and adventure. What might those be? With dishes, I put on favorite dance music and suddenly it becomes fun. WIth a walk through the park, I try to spot new-to-me living things and pause to investigate them. With a zoom meeting, I try to read people’s facial expressions to get curious about what they might be feeling that they aren’t saying. It might not be a full flow state, but mundane tasks have enough of a hint of flow that they feel like a bright spot, instead of being part of the mundane backdrop of life.

And, when you’re ready, like Bilbo in The Hobbit, there’s a thrilling adventure just this side of impossible awaiting you in the world. It will change you and challenge you. A place where you can come alive and find flow. Will you take the leap?

Read More

I highly recommend Csikszentmihalyi’s short, sweet read: Finding Flow. Or if even that is too long, check out his TED talk.

For leaders of teams, the McKinsey article that reported five times more productivity when a leader is in a flow state offers some great tips for how to boost flow in the workplace for your people. Offering more ways for employees to connect to the organizational mission and vision and offering ways for employees to tell their own stories resonates deeply with the five tips above.

Going Further

If the prospect of finding more flow in your career sounds amazing, but you’re not quite sure how to make that a reality, schedule a time to chat ASAP. The Collective Wisdom Mastermind is enrolling now. You’ll join a group of amazing leaders co-creating an authentic, caring, supportive community so that we can all “level up” and take action on our biggest challenges or wishes. Only four open seats remain.

If you love this article, consider subscribing to my blog. I’m writing a book, that explores the science behind why travel makes us come alive, and to learn how to come alive without ever wandering further than a day’s journey from home. For the next year, I’ll share more and more snippets like this one that come from it. Join the adventure! And if you’ve already joined, share this article with someone you know who loves travel + science + growth for a steady stream of insights and ahas!

Finally, if you are about to take a big leap in your life (off a tower or into a new career or some other grand adventure) and want a private, safe haven where you are fully seen, valued, honored, and embraced as the inspirational leader and messy human you are, reach out ASAP. I only have the capacity to take on one new client at the end of summer. Might it be you?

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