The Regretful Adventurer?
July 15, 2009 2:10 PM   Subscribe

Any stories, published or personal, about those who've taken the road less traveled... and regretted it?

So I'm looking to undergo a large life change; I'm planning to sell or give away everything I own, and go off in search of adventure and self-discovery.

While I'm looking forward to it, and I can find any number of books or stories where people who have done something like this have described it as the best experience of their lives, I can't help but think there must be quite a lot of people who've "dropped out" and then been desperate to drop back in again. Realizing that they'd rather be in a cubicle than in the Peace Corps, finding that going to Tibet to become a monk was really NOT what they wanted, etc.

Are there any books or stories like this, or does anyone have any personal anecdotes to give me?

(I've read "Into the Wild", but McCandless apparently didn't actually -regret- what he'd done until he was pretty clearly dying)
posted by The otter lady to Society & Culture (18 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
Why make this a binary choice? Leave behind enough so that if your new journey tanks on you there is something left for you to return to. You may think that by doing this you'll only make it more likely for you to give up on your new adventure when the going gets tough. I assure you it won't. If anything, it'll give you the security to keep going.
posted by fantasticninety at 2:22 PM on July 15, 2009

You might be interested in books by people who were driven by big ideals and then wound up to do something counter to those original ideals. They're not as much stories of regret -- I am having a difficult time thinking of those off the top of my head -- but of transformation. For example Jerry Rubin's Growing (Up) at Thirty-seven talks about how he changed from a radical guy in the 60s to more of a businessman type. I'll nose around and look for others.
posted by jessamyn at 2:39 PM on July 15, 2009

Ernest Shackleton, the Antarctic explorer, might possibly interest you: although he wasn't regretful, he appears to have been perpetually dissatisfied and restless in spite of his amazing adventures.
posted by Quietgal at 2:57 PM on July 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

After Hours -- an overlooked movie directed by Martin Scorsese. The adventure -- going on a date in downtown NYC -- isn't exactly at the Peace Corps or monastery level, but the movie is very much in the spirit of what you're describing. It's sort of a modern/urban version of Alice in Wonderland or The Wizard of Oz -- which, by the way, could also be answers to your question if involuntary adventures count.
posted by Jaltcoh at 3:01 PM on July 15, 2009

Mouthful of Rocks by Christian Jennings. He joins the Foreign Legion and then boy howdy does he regret it.
posted by The corpse in the library at 3:15 PM on July 15, 2009

It's hard for someone to say he/she "regrets" making such a major life decision. Because of the amount of personal energy invested in so whole-heartedly changing your life, the human brain does a lot of post-change rationalization to support your results, no matter what the results may be. ("Yeah, I'm poor and I do miss my pinky toe, but God, I'm just learning so much about life right now!" ...I'm sure you are...)

This rationalization process is not necessarily a good or bad thing, just a true thing. So, chances are that you won't end up regretting your decision, if only because it's chemically difficult for you to do so.

I've heard numerous stories of frustration with the Peace Corps, and I know two people who have each been given an "early exit option" (for different reasons at different times)-- and both took the opportunity. It's really HARD to abandon everything you know and love for a system/place/group that doesn't support you back.

(Btw. Shoot for the stars. It's the only way to get there.)
posted by samthemander at 3:24 PM on July 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

When I was 19 I took some bad advice (thanks mom!), discarded my green card and sailed off to seek a new life in the big wide world beyond the evil, insular, gun-toting States. 12 years and two major "sell everything and move"s later, I regret that decision almost constantly. I've not only lost my legal right of return to the only country that's ever really been home to me, I've spent a decade moving, adjusting and trying to cope in foreign countries -- a decade everyone else has spent making friends, building a career and putting down roots.

I'm not saying you shouldn't travel, I'm just saying you have to come home sooner or later, so make sure you do it in good time.
posted by stuck on an island at 3:24 PM on July 15, 2009

Doesn't exactly fit the category of the author "being desperate to drop back in again", but...

If you enjoyed reading Into the Wild, then I thoroughly recommend anything by Joe Simpson, particularly The Beckoning Silence where he talks a lot about what he regrets (and what he doesn't) about choosing a life of adventure. It certainly made me think about what people sacrifice when they spend their time single-mindedly pursuing unorthodox goals. Rory Stewart's amazing account of his travels in Afghanistan,The Places In Between, kind of has similar themes...

Actually neither of these books are exactly what you're looking for, but I just think they're so great I had to recommend them to any potential solo adventurer! Good luck on your travels.
posted by Weng at 3:47 PM on July 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

And check out Are You Experienced by William Sutcliffe... fiction and funny as hell, but meets most of your criteria...

"A cynical, comical, and candid portrayal of late adolescence, independence, sex, drugs, and backpacking through a Third World country."
posted by Weng at 3:53 PM on July 15, 2009

I have a friend who just made the difficult decision to leave a Teaching Fellows program in an inner city. Not exactly the exotic adventure you're talking about, but definitely an alternative path for a kid fresh out of a small liberal arts college. He found it really unsatisfying, despite being devoted to educational justice.
posted by oinopaponton at 3:55 PM on July 15, 2009

Probably depends on the person. If they embarked on it because the adventure was the goal, then it's probably rare for there to be regret. But if someone was of the mindset that there is some pot of gold at the end of some road somewhere, there probably will be plenty of regret. Either way, you learn about life and learn about yourself. If you were looking for a magic solution, you learn the lesson that there usually isn't one in a really hard way.

Or, going into the unknown (or unknowable) with preconceived notions as to the result always leads to disappointment.
posted by gjc at 5:11 PM on July 15, 2009

Probably not exactly what you're looking for, but as a data point, Einstein said:

"If I would be a young man again and had to decide how to make my living, I would not try to become a scientist or scholar or teacher. I would rather choose to be a plumber or a peddler in the hope to find that modest degree of independence still available under present circumstances."
posted by Bort at 7:34 PM on July 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: From personal experience the answer is yes... and no.

I've sold up and moved on a number of times in my life since I was sixteen. Now I am 46 and, while I don't have a lot of material goods or a strong career path to show for the last 30 years, I have an extraordinary amount of life experience, skills, cultural awareness, extensive friendship network and a good dollop of self-awareness that I have only gained through taking leaps into the unknown.

That said, there have been times when I have regretted some of the moves I have made. Times when the only interesting/well paying jobs going in my town-de-jour were unavailable to me because my CV shows that I am not a regular stick-around-for-years type person or, while I have the skills, I don't have years of experience in that field. These times have resulted in depression, or the need to move towns again for work, or the idea that I have 'failed' and am headed for the dust-heap. This is especially so when my siblings who have taken a more conventional path are making their second million or being head-hunted for high kudos and satisfying jobs and I am pulling $10 an hour in a dull job.

However, regret is not really a useful emotion. Reflection is useful, but not regret. Reflection allows one to assess and move onwards while regret gets one bogged down in that other country called the past. So when regret hits I take stock of my life and count the advantages of being a risk taker. Fortunately, I have a few personal traits that aid me in this. I have the confidence and optimism that I will always fall on my feet, even if I have to go onto my knees sometimes first. I have a vibrant imagination that helps me find new ways of exploring and achieving in life. I take responsibility for my actions and choices and own them, thus I always have a platform of self-determination to spring from should things not turn out as planned. And no matter what else I am shedding, I keep friends. Having friends who have known me through all my changes helps keep me grounded and are invaluable sources of love and advice.

The underlying question here is about security. Wishing to be back in the cubicle is a wish for security. Wishing to be 'normal' is about the security of fitting in with social expectations and the flock. If you can be secure in yourself and secure with taking risks with your concept of your 'self', then the road less travelled may be for you. Just ensure you are moving towards something rather than running away. In my personal experience, running away is much more likely to lead to regret than a pro-active pursuit of adventure and self discovery.

Tips for taking the 'road'.
- keep a few thousand bucks aside for the times when you want to return to a stable life - these times will come and knowing you can move on and off the 'road' is a very secure feeling. Also, live within your means at all times. Debts are deadly for road travellers.
- keep your friends. Can't stress this enough.
- make new friends, especially with others on the road.
- don't let the fears of other people sway you from your journey. Take them into account and assess their validity but you are the only person who can live your life, and you only have one life to live.
- and remember, nothing is forever, everything changes, life is long, and there are no guarantees ever.
posted by Kerasia at 7:34 PM on July 15, 2009 [15 favorites]

One year ago I flew the cube. Spent most of my 20s wondering why the heck I'd gone the road well traveled instead of following my heart, and the simple answer was it was easy and the money was good. Most people don't want to climb over the mountain when there's a tunnel straight through.

So now after 10 years in high tech, I've traded in my Swingline for a bench scraper. I'm working harder than ever. My stress level is higher than it's ever been, but it's a different kind of stress. Stress is not stress is not stress. The stress I have now isn't pushing me towards a heart attack at 40. It's just pushing me harder.

Do I have regrets about making the jump? I'd rather say I have "I wish I would have's"...

I wish I would have paid off all my debt.
I wish I would have saved up more money.
I wish I would have spent more time learning my craft in my spare time than playing Call of Duty.
I wish I'd known the layoffs were coming...I would have volunteered and taken severence.
I wish I had done this 10 years ago.

Beyond that - remember what's important. Number ONE - take care of yourself. Health is wealth (mental and physical). Number TWO - take care of your loved ones. If you're married with kids, your spouse and kids should never feel like they're not a priority. Beyond that? Friends come and go, but the best ones will support you in your endeavors. Keep those friends close. Make new friends. Let go of naysayers.

And if you feel like you can't make the jump, ask yourself what's it worth? Have a nice house in the suburbs with nice cars and nice things? You may have to give all that up to chase your dream. Is it worth it? Just remember, happiness is all about perspective.

Good luck.
posted by Doughboy at 8:55 PM on July 15, 2009 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Sun Tzu, in his Art of War, talks repeatedly about using tactics appropriate for various kinds of terrain to win military victories with an army. But he also advises motivating an army to fight by putting it on "deadly ground."
"XI. The Nine Situations: ... 58. Place your army in deadly peril, and it will survive; plunge it into desperate straits, and it will come off in safety. "
And history offers the examples of Cortez burning his ships (or not) when he reached the shores of Veracruz with his conquistadors.

So there are heroic, pan-cultural traditions throughout history of individuals and groups striking out on great adventurers, many of which come to naught. At least some of Cortez's men, we know from contemporary accounts, were not that thrilled to see their ships lost, and were not then inspired to greater efforts of conquest; some, at least, just wanted to get a message back to the governor of Cuba that this madman Cortez was trying to circumvent the governor's authority, and gain power for himself, by looting the new lands for precious metals and stones, and then sending that booty as gifts directly to the King of Spain, in a few ships Cortez kept expressly to do that. And we know, from battlefield evidence of spent rifle casings, brass uniform buttons, horseshoes and canteens, that even if Custer believed in Sun Tzu's tactics at Little Big Horn, many of his men died trying desperately to leave that awful place in a retreat they couldn't accomplish.

So I think, if you talk about groups of people, and the folly of great, but poorly planned undertakings, you can always find those who greatly regretted, at the end, their participation in such ventures. Historian Barbara Tuchman, in her book "The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam" lays out a number of other historical examples of governments pursuing and generally over-committing to courses of action that proved inimical to their long term self-interest, some of which occasioned serious regret by their citizens and successors.

But bringing it back to a personal level, and a modern one, I think, generally, that George Plimpton's several stories of wangling his way into competitions with professional athletes, despite their many passages regaling his high times with famous persons and sports figures, all carry a sad undertone of repeating, again and again, his attempt to measure himself against youth and talent, and finding out that he wasn't talented, and tired easily, and that, really, it was best for him and for the world as a whole if he just went back to his office and wrote entertaining pieces about it all. In the end, he made something of a career as a writer, in the character of Everyman, of failing to make a career as an athlete.

But his argument was, that there was value in moving beyond just imagining oneself pitching in an All-Star game, even if one was no pitcher. He maintained, perhaps for the sake of his publisher's bottom line, and his own income, that there was much to be learned by taking the mound, if you could find a way to do so, and upon his example, the entire industry of Fantasy Training Camps in springtime Florida and Arizona is still netting old, retired Major Leaguers 5 and 6 figure incomes for hitting fungo and sharing stories with untalented but fawning and flush middle-aged men, playing for a few days on the same Fields of Dreams as their boyhood heroes.

I'm not against that kind of timidity in approach, and perhaps neither should you be, the otter lady. I think you might take a further lesson from Plimpton, and not go so "whole hog" with your adventure, if you can. Instead of being Custer, or Cortez, be Plimpton, as a start, and see if there isn't some way you can "step on the mound," for just an inning or two, without "planning to sell or give away everything I own, and go off in search of adventure and self-discovery. " You might find that you can get 95% of the experience and self-knowledge, without taking the full risk of putting yourself entirely on Sun Tzu's "deadly ground." If you save yourself the possibility of fiscal and career ruin, by such a ploy, you'll have avoided folly, and proven to be wise, in the case your adventure does not live up to your imagination of it, in reality.

And if you take the mound, and find you do love it, and find you can pitch in the Majors, well, you can always call back home from the dugout, and have all your stuff sold or hauled off by professionals, while you go on to Fame and Fortune and boundless ecstasies of self-discovery, in your new Major League uniform, while you are still breaking in your glove, learning to spit sunflower seeds, and scuffing up your new spikes...
posted by paulsc at 9:46 PM on July 15, 2009 [4 favorites]

I always liked this one Star Trek The Next Generation episode called Tapestry. In it, Picard regrets being so brash when he was younger because it resulted in him getting stabbed, which then resulted in him needing an artificial heart, which is currently malfunctioning.

[SPOILERS COMING] Anyway, Q, this transdimensional trickster character takes him back in time to when he was younger and Picard decides NOT to be brash, not get stabbed, play it safe. But what results is that the now diminutive Picard doesn't get noticed by the higer-ups, and never is considered someone with the verve to command a starship. What he discovers is that his life is a tapestry, and that if you pull out one thread, you will unravel everything, all the good and the bad that comes after. [SPOILERS OVER]

He certainly regretted something, but sometimes living with a regret makes you more conscientious in other ways. Good luck!
posted by Sully at 11:22 PM on July 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

American Shaolin is one account of someone that did something like that and, while he felt it was a worthwhile experience overall, found that it wasn't exactly what he was looking for and preferred to go back to the western world.
posted by ignignokt at 8:17 AM on July 16, 2009

Black Wave is about a family that bought a sailboat to sail around the world. It ended badly, and wasn't too fun during either.
posted by smackfu at 3:38 PM on July 16, 2009

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