Finding Balance

I have been back at work now for almost three months. And, not surprisingly, it hasn’t been easy to find balance.

I have tried hard by being super organised.

I have been planning the week’s meals and grocery shopping on a Sunday. However, by Thursday I am just too tired to find the energy to cook and we order take away.

I’ve tried to set up my days so I can exercise 3-4 times a week but the Winter weather here (dark, cold and polluted) has conspired against me to make it very difficult to go for a run outside. This means I have to run inside on a treadmill, which I find really boring which in turn impacts my motivation to get out of bed and exercise.

I have even tried to structure time in the week to write. (I call it Executive Time in my calendar.) Unfortunately meetings and work priorities have meant I haven’t had the opportunity to write very often.

All of these things have contributed to me feeling crappy, depressed and even a little bit cranky.

This week I found some “Executive Time” and wrote in my journal everything I was feeling. I poured out my feelings. I listed my frustrations. I even ranted for a bit.

Then I read over what I had written. Wow! I need to relax a little and not beat myself up because I’m not hitting every goal at 100%.

And I spent some time re-reading a few of my blog posts (and this one too). I should listen to my own advice.

So, today as I write I am making some commitments to myself.

  • I need to go easy on myself. No-one is perfect.
  • Winter is never the time of the year when I am at my best.
  • I’ve only just returned to work and it takes time to build routines.

Do I feel better? Not completely. But a little. And that’s OK. Life is a journey.

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Main Photo by Jon Flobrant on Unsplash. The one above was taken by my 9 year old son.






Book Review: Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy by Sheryl Sandberg & Adam Grant

I searched for ways to end the sorrow, put it in a box, and throw it away. For the first weeks and months, I failed. The anguish won every time. Even when I looked calm and collected, the pain was always present. I was physically sitting in a meeting or reading to my kids, but my heart was on that gym floor.

In Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy Sheryl Sandberg opens up about the grief she felt following the sudden death of her husband, her concerns about how their children will grow up without a father and her relationships with family, friends and colleagues.

However, this book is more than Sheryl’s story of the aftermath of her husband’s death. It is combined with research on finding strength in the face of adversity, building resilience and overcoming hardship.

Co-authored by Adam Grant, a psychologist at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, Option B offers advice on how you can build resilience in yourself and help others experiencing similar crises.

While I have never faced the devastating shock that Sheryl Sandberg experienced, I believe it is important to build resilience in order to tackle everyday challenges.

You don’t have to experience tragedy to build your resilience for whatever lies ahead.

I was also interested to read how this experience impacted Sheryl’s beliefs given her views expressed in her previous book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead.

I found much of the advice she and Adam gave to be helpful and thought provoking.

… psychologist Martin Seligman found three P’s that can stunt recovery: (1) personalisation – the belief that we are at fault; (2) pervasiveness – the belief that an event will affect all areas of our life; and (3) permanence – the belief that the aftershocks of the event will last forever.

It also made me honestly reflect on how I have supported (or not supported) friends and family going through hardships. And acknowledge that I really must do better.

For friends who turn away in times of difficulty, putting distance between themselves and emotional pain feels like self-preservation. … Others get overwhelmed by a sense of helplessness … Simply showing up for a friend can make a huge difference.

What I liked about the book was that it not only focused on steps in which an individual can build resilience but also how to raise resilient kids, build strength in communities to overcome obstacles and prevent adversity and create a workplace culture of embracing and learning from failure.

What I found frustrating was that the book didn’t seem to adequately achieve being either a memoir or a self-help book. It just seemed to be, well, kind of half way. And it left me somewhat disappointed. Luckily through reading the previous chapters I had built some resilience!

Resilience in love means finding strength from within that you can share with others. Finding a way to make love last through the highs and lows. Finding your own way to love when life does not work out as planned. Finding the hope to love and laugh again when love is cruelly taken from you. And finding a way to hang on to love even when the person you love is gone.

Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, Sheryl Sandberg, Adam Grant, London, WH Allen, 2017, Epub ISBN 9780753548301











An insight into my strengths

With my sabbatical nearing the end I am reflecting what I really want to do in terms of work. When I was younger, work was a central part of my life. It was essential to who I was. Now work is less important, other things define who I am and what I do with my life. I do not live to work.

However, I do want my work to be engaging, my strengths best utilized, and fit with my values. I don’t want to waste my time doing something that I don’t enjoy and doesn’t take advantage of my strengths.

So what are my strengths?

I had a reasonable idea but wanted something more objective. In my search I was recommended CliftonStrengths.

Don Clifton’s StrengthsFinder is based on 40 years of research. Millions of people have used CliftonStrengths to discover and describe their talents.

I have found that personal and professional development often focusses on improving your weaknesses. As a child you are told you can be anything you want to be as long as you work hard. But the reality is if you have always struggled with maths you are unlikely to be a great accountant. Tom Rath, author of StrengthsFinder 2.0, recommends putting our energy into developing our natural talents.

You cannot be anything you want to be – but you can be a lot more of who you already are.

According to research by Gallup (the company behind CliftonStrengths), having the opportunity to develop our strengths is more important to our success at work than our role, title or even our pay.

In the workplace, you are six times less likely to be engaged in your job, when you’re not able to use your strengths in your job.

Consider this; when you’re unhappy at work you are more likely to:

  • dread going to work,
  • have more negative than positive interactions with your colleagues,
  • treat your customers (clients, students, patients) poorly,
  • tell your friends what a miserable company you work for,
  • achieve less on a daily basis.

CliftonStrengths identifies 34 themes of talent, or core personality traits. Through an assessment where you have just 20 seconds to answer each question (top of mind responses being more revealing than if you have time to think about it) your top five strengths are determined and all 34 are ranked.

So what are my top five?

  1. DisciplinePeople who are especially talented in the Discipline theme enjoy routine and structure. Their world is best described by the order they create. Initially I thought Discipline was about self-control (definitely NOT one of my strengths) but I am all about routines, structure, and being organised.
  2. InputPeople who are especially talented in the Input theme have a craving to know more. Often they like to collect and archive all kinds of information. I really do find so many things interesting. I love to read just about anything. I love to travel because each new location offers a new experience.
  3. CommunicationPeople who are especially talented in the Communication theme generally find it easy to put their thoughts into words. They are good conversationalists and presenters. This is what I am all about. I love to write (hey, blogger!). I love to talk. I love to bring ideas to life, to energize people and to inspire them to act.
  4. HarmonyPeople who are especially talented in the Harmony theme look for consensus. They don’t enjoy conflict; rather, they seek areas of agreement. Of my five top strengths Harmony is the the one that that is least descriptive of me. I do like to argue and put my opinion forward. However, I do believe that while people’s opinions matter and people should speak up, we should be working towards agreement and consensus. We do need to find common ground.
  5. RelatorPeople who are especially talented in the Relator theme enjoy close relationships with others. They find deep satisfaction in working hard with friends to achieve a goal. I don’t always feel comfortable meeting new people or confident striking up a conversation with an acquaintance,  but I do gain strength from being around close friends and believe that so much more can be achieved by being friends with my colleagues.

Now I have an insight into my strengths it doesn’t end there. CliftonStrengths offers advice on how to develop your strengths and on managing areas of less strength (e.g by seeking others with talents in those areas). They also help you to be aware of blind spots caused by your strengths.

I am working on an action plan for improving and applying my strengths into the future.

To start with, each week I plan to select a different strength in my top five and ask myself, “How can I use this strength today?” and at the end of each day, reflect on how I intentionally used this strength and think of the impact it had for me.

Secondly, I plan to ask those who know me, especially my former colleagues, three questions relating to my top five strengths.

  1. What was your initial reaction to my report?
  2. Which strength or strengths do you see most in me? Can you give me an example?
  3. What do you see as my greatest strengths?

I hope that by focusing on my strengths, rather than my weaknesses, I will gain a clearer picture of how best to use my time and how I can best can contribute to my community.

(Photo by Alex wong on Unsplash)
Strengths Finder 2.0, Tom Rath, New York, Gallup Press, 2007, ISBN 9780-1-59562-015-6


Book Review: The Barefoot Investor by Scott Pape

If you want financial freedom, you need to take charge.

For a supposedly intelligent person I’m really not that smart when it comes to money. I have been lucky enough to have good jobs, am always cautious not to spend more than I have and avoid debt as much as possible. However, over time I have had that niggling feeling that I should be doing more with my finances.

Truthfully, I never had enough mental energy to think about it, let alone learn and understand all the financial terminology. Add that to a lot of negative media about unscrupulous financial advisers and knowing more than one friend who had lost a significant amount of money taking their advice. It was all too hard and overwhelming.

You can live the rest of your life with excuses about your lot – most people do – but they sure as hell won’t protect you from the financial fire that’s eventually going to work its way to you.

One of the goals I set myself at the start of my sabbatical was to gain a better understanding of financial matters and sort out our financial life. I spent a few months procrastinating, doing a few internet searches, reading a few articles but not really achieving much.

Then while browsing in an airport bookstore I came across The Barefoot Investor: The Only Money Guide You’ll Ever Need by Scott Pape.

This book – and the solid-as-a-rock steps it gives you – is built on values that have stood the test of time.

And that is what hooked me. No promises of get rich quick schemes. No give up a coffee a day and you’ll become financially secure. Just honest, down to earth common sense.

I don’t want to get carried away but this book changed my life. The Barefoot Investor is easy to read and more importantly the author clearly explains how to put his advice into action. The Barefoot Steps start with scheduling monthly date nights. (Scott even suggests a glass of wine or two!) Now this is a financial advisor who gets me!

The Barefoot Investor starts with a section called Plant where you build your financial infrastructure. Scott recommends setting up a number of bank accounts, or buckets, and give them memorable names like Spend, Splurge, and Smile. He outlines options for superannuation and insurance and how to cut your debt.

The second section, Grow, discusses buying your own home, investing and providing a bucket (called Fire Extinguisher) for emergencies.

In the third section, Harvest, he talks about how you can pay off your mortgage, have enough for retirement and even leave a legacy for your children.

I am working my way through Scott’s recommended steps. I’m not finished yet but when it comes to financial matters I expect that I will never finish. (More date nights! More wine!) And be warned, not everything applies to every reader. This is a book written for an Australian audience, some information such as the superannuation advice may not apply. However, the core ideas are sound and could be adapted for most people’s situations.

Also reading the book won’t solve all your financial problems. You have to do the hard work. The tips on where to look for more information and scripts to help when you call your bank and insurance company give you the confidence to do what you need to do.

I have joined the Barefoot Investor cult!

From this point on, no matter what you face in the future, you can look yourself in the eye and confidently say to yourself… I’ve got this.

The Barefoot Investor: The Only Money Guide You’ll Ever Need, Scott Pape, John Wiley & Sons Australia, June 2017, ISBN 9780730324218

One year on

Twelve months ago I embarked on a journey full of uncertainty. After 23 years in the workforce I decided to stop working and take time out.

There were plenty of naysayers; “You’ll be bored in six months”, “ You’ll miss work too much”. There was also lots of encouragement; “What a fantastic opportunity”, “I’ve always wanted to do what you’re doing”.

Early on I wrote down the goals for my sabbatical and developed a clear plan of what I wanted to achieve. This was partly because this is how I have always operated in the  work environment and I wanted to ensure my time was well used. But, truth be told, it was partly because I felt guilty for taking the time off and I needed to be able to prove to myself and others that I was achieving what I set out to do and not just taking an extended holiday.

As I prepare myself for a return to the workforce (albeit part time) I have spent some time reviewing those goals and reflecting on the past year.

So, did I achieve my goals? Mostly yes. And some no’s.

Did I learn anything about myself? Absolutely.


After many years of working I discovered I had developed some unhelpful habits; emotional eating, intermittent exercise, dwelling on decisions made, spending Sunday evenings obsessively worrying about what might happen at work the coming week.

During the past 12 months I have consciously spent time on breaking these bad habits and creating new ones.

I now exercise four to five times a week (a mix of yoga, running and swimming and I have recently added kickboxing to try something new). I focus on making healthy eating choices four or five days a week and give myself permission to enjoy a few treats over the weekend while trying not to overindulge. (One or two pieces of chocolate NOT the whole block!) When I am eating socially I try to eat mindfully, stop part way through the meal, wait a few minutes and then ask myself am I eating out of hunger or because of my uncontrolled desire to just to eat everything in sight.

Leo Babauta’s Zen Habits and Marc & Angel’s Hack Life both gave me inspiration and easy to follow tips as I slowly tried to kick habits of a lifetime.

However, I know it could be very easy to go back to these habits once I return to work. For me regular exercise and making healthy choices when eating requires discipline. Which leads me to the next discovery…..

Mental strength

So many of my bad habits were due to not having the mental strength to make the right decision. After spending so much of my time obsessively worrying about past decisions and future scenarios I was too tired to focus on what I needed to do in the present.

Mindfulness is such a buzz word for today. However with the help of tips and meditation practices from Andy Puddicombe’s Headspace, I have come to recognise negative thoughts for exactly what they are “thoughts”.  They are not reality unless I allow them to be. I don’t ignore these thoughts but I acknowledge them for what they are and move on to a more productive route.

Please don’t think I no longer have negative thoughts or concern myself about the past or future. They are still there. At this moment I am worried about how I am going to balance my new found life with work commitments. How am I going to fit in the yoga and running, preparing healthy but delicious meals for my family, writing and pursuing my creative side?


This is where Mark Manson’s book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck has really helped. Mark’s message is not about not caring about anything, his message is to care about those things you value. Saying yes to what matters to you and not wasting time with the rest.

Prioritising what I value most; my physical and emotional health, my family and community. And also finding something that challenges me and stops me becoming too comfortable or complacent in the world.


I have set myself new goals and developed a new plan for the next 12 months, focusing on what I am passionate about, what is meaningful to me. Will I achieve everything I set out to do? Definitely not. But I will ensure I continue to direct my time, energy and passion to what matters the most to me.


(Photo by Delano Balten on Unsplash)

Book Review: The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson

Our culture today is obsessively focused on unrealistically positive expectations: Be happier. Be healthier. Be the best, better than the rest. Be smarter, richer, sexier, more popular, more productive, more envied, and more admired.

Ironically, this fixation on the positive – on what’s better, what’s superior – only serves to remind us over and over again of what we are not, of what we lack, of what we should have been but failed to be.

I am not a self-help book kind of person. I find them full of glaringly obvious advice, pointless and often counterproductive. I usually get bored before I have read more than a quarter of the book and lose interest.

I am quite comfortable saying that what first drew my attention to The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck was the obvious swear word in the title. However, once I read what it was about I quickly dismissed it as another one of “those” self-help books. But then over the following months the book kept appearing in my life; as a recommended book on my Kindle, a book review by a blogger I follow, then a former colleague posted on Good Reads that he had read it. Clearly something was telling me to read the book.

It did take me a while to read, I kept getting distracted by more interesting books, but I finished it! And I’m reviewing it. So it passed “Is it worth reading?” test.

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life by Mark Manson basically tells you to suck it up and get on with your life. It doesn’t pussy foot around telling you that your life will be a bed of roses as long as you follow some amazing formula for life that the author miraculously discovered.

The problem is that giving too many fucks is bad for your mental health. It causes you to become overly attached to the superficial and fake, to dedicate your life to chasing a mirage of happiness and satisfaction. The key to a good life is not giving a fuck about more; it’s giving a fuck about less, giving a fuck about only what is true and immediate and important.

Yep, the f-word is used a lot. If that upsets you, don’t read the book. But know that by Chapter 2 the f-word is used less and less.

Mark basically says that we are hard-wired to be unhappy. That it is dissatisfaction that keeps us striving, building, evolving – to make things better.

Whatever makes us happy today will no longer make us happy tomorrow, because our biology always needs something more. A fixation on happiness inevitably amounts to a never ending pursuit of “something else” – a new house, a new relationship, another child, another pay rise. And after all our sweat and strain, we end up feeling eerily similar to how we started: inadequate.

Mark tells us some hard truths …. that nothing worthwhile is worth it without working hard, that you are not special or different from anyone else, that you and everyone else suffers, that you will make mistakes … and then you die.

The challenge is to know what to give a f*ck about and focus on that.

The only way to be comfortable with death is to understand and see yourself as something bigger than yourself; to chose values that stretch beyond serving yourself, that are simple and immediate and controllable and tolerant of the chaotic world around you.

Mark believes that “Values underlie everything we are and we do.” And that choosing good values are crucial.

Some examples of good, healthy values: honesty, innovation, vulnerability, standing up for oneself, standing up for others, self-respect, curiosity, charity, humility, creativity.

You’ll notice that good, healthy values are achieved internally. Something like creativity or humility can be experienced right now. You simply have to orient your mind in a certain way to experience it. These values are immediate and controllable and engage you with the world as it is rather than how you wish it were.

Overall I’d say that this book gave me a lot to reflect on as I continue my sabbatical into the second year. (A blog post for another time.)

And the quote which resonated with me most?

In the long run, completing a marathon makes us happier that eating chocolate cake.


The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life, Mark Manson, Sydney, Macmillan, 2016, EPUB format 9781925483857


Why I am learning Chinese (Part 2)

For one of my very first blog posts I wrote was about why I am learning Chinese. Last week I had my final lesson for the semester and I thought I would reflect on what I have achieved in the past year.

First up, my goal was to be able to go out for dinner with my Chinese friends and speak with them in their language rather than forcing them to converse in mine. A very ambitious goal! The old adage that the more I learn, the more I realise I know so little, is very true.

However, I am pleased with what I have achieved. I have significantly increased my vocabulary and can even construct simple sentences. It has been frustrating at times but I can see real progression. In fact, I have to say, I have even enjoyed it!

I am thrilled that I am setting a good example for my son. There were times when we were learning the same theme and could quiz each other. He often corrects my pronunciation! And I’d like to think that I even inspired my husband to start learning. Annoyingly he seems to be mastering it quicker than I. (I am trying hard not to be jealous of this.)

Importantly it has improved the connection I have with my Chinese friends. I sense that maybe they feel more respected and valued as a friend. They seem to enjoy explaining the nuances of certain words and phrases and teaching me new ones. What is particularly interesting is when I show off my latest vocabulary and they laugh and tell me that what have just said is not how real people talk, it is the formal way of saying something and then proceed to teach me the vernacular.

Of course I can’t have any real in-depth conversation with them. Our conversation is limited to basic sentences and as soon as they get more complex the language switches to English as I try to explain.

Learning Chinese has led me to understand and appreciate China better. I can appreciate how a language reflects the culture (or is it culture reflected in the language?). For example the Chinese language has many more words to describe a persons family connections e.g. where English only has sister and brother, Chinese describes whether your sister or brother is older or younger than you (jie jie, mei mei, ge ge and di di respectively), whether your grandparents are your father’s parents (ye ye, nai nai) or mother’s parents (wai gong, wai po). And don’t get me started on the variations for aunt, uncle, cousins and in-laws.


Learning Chinese has helped me to understand English better too. Or at least reflect on my complete lack of understanding of English grammar rules. If someone asked me to explain the use of nouns, determiners, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions and conjunctions in a sentence I would be perplexed. I can’t explain it, I just know it.

Someone once told me that while Chinese is hard to learn, once you know the rules it is  easy as you just follow the rules. This is in comparison with learning English which is full of exceptions to the rule. Not true! Chinese also has many exceptions to the rule. This makes it more frustrating to learn because just when you think you understand the teacher tells you about the exceptions. Arrgh!

Despite this, I intend to continue learning Chinese. Next semester I plan to resume attending class. I also want to arrange a more one on one conversational chat with someone once a week. Now I have the basics I need to work on my confidence and actually start speaking the language.

Book review: Fall Down 7 Times Get Up 8 by Naoki Higashida

A worthwhile existence lies in playing whatever cards life has dealt you as skillfully as you can.

This book, more than any other in a long time, has made a huge impact on me. I read it a few weeks ago and I still regularly pause to consider the messages I have taken from it.

In Fall Down 7 Times Get Up 8: A young man’s voice from the silence of autism, Naoki Higashida shares his thoughts and experiences as a young man living with autism.

Naoki, born in Kimitsu Japan, was diagnosed with severe autism when he was five. Through the support of his mother he learned to communicate using a handmade alphabet grid. He went on to write The Reason I Jump at age 13 and has since published several books, essays and poems.


Photo: © Miki Higashida

I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that until I read this book I truly had not given much thought to the lives of people with autism and similar conditions. Naoiki’s story opened my eyes to the experiences, and more importantly, thoughts of people with autism.

Back in the days when I had no way to communicate at all … I was extremely lonely. People who have never experienced this will go through life never knowing how soul-crushing the condition of wordlessness is.

I know that if I was wordless, if I could not speak or write, I would be extremely frustrated. I would want to stomp, scream, hit out and make any noise I could. And when someone asked what was wrong, how could I explain to them the agony of not being able to tell them how I feel?

Through his reflections on life Naoki shares some excellent advice on how to interact with people with disabilities.

One of the lessons I’m grateful to have learned as an adult is that life serves up hard times to everyone, not just me. …. Many people with disabilities are, I think, kept isolated and insulated from society. Please give those of us with special needs opportunities to learn what’s happening in the wider world without deciding on our behalves – by assuming ‘They won’t understand anything’, or ‘Well, they don’t look interested’. On the surface, a sheltered life spent on your favourite activities might look like paradise, but I believe that unless you come into contact with some of the hardships other people endure, your own personal development will be impaired.

Naoki’s words certainly have caused me to reflect on my own preconceptions and attitudes. Perhaps, the focus should change from asking How can people with special needs fit into our society? to How can we embrace our differences and create a society where everyone benefits from these differences?

The value of a person shouldn’t be fixed solely by his or her skills and talents – or lack of them. It’s how you strive to live well that allows others to understand your awesomeness as a human being.


Fall Down 7 Times Get Up 8: A young man’s voice from the silence of autism, Naoki Higashida, translated by KA Yoshida and David Mitchell, New York, Random House, 2017, First edition, ISBN 9780812997392





Finishing the Great Wall marathon

I did it! I ran 21km and completed The Great Wall (half) Marathon! With seven kilometres of stairs there was a lot of walking as well. Particularly one steep section that was more rocks cemented together than actual stairs.


I feel so gratified by this achievement, the result of more than just one days hard work. I have been training for months. Building up from struggling to run more than 10 minutes to being able to finish a half marathon.

How did I do this? I had help from a couple of apps, Zen Labs Fitness C25K and 13.1 and Headspace,  the support of family and friends, and finding my mental strength (see my previous post on finding my strength).

I have to admit that this strength left me for a big part of the race. All that was going through my mind was “#*@! what the #*@! was I thinking? I’m a #*@! idiot for thinking this was a #*@! good idea.” (#*@! – insert expletives here.) However, I remembered the advice from Headspace’s meditation and pushed these thoughts out and instead focused on a time when I had been training and enjoyed running. It worked! Suddenly I felt free, it became easier to run. Similarly not feeling I had to run the whole time really helped. Drawing from my training with the 13.1 app I knew it would be more achievable if I allowed myself one minute walking then running for as long as I could.

So, what was it like? I compare it to childbirth. People tell you how hard it is but until you experience it for yourself, you don’t really understand what it is like.

  • The worst bit – the stairs, of course. Climbing a million stairs to reach the top and see you have a billion more to go really messes with your mind.



  • The best bit – the amazing views from the top of the stairs. When you have to stop to catch your breath it really helps to be able to look at the stunning scenery. And running through the villages with the locals cheering you on.



  • The funniest bit – having to stop running to allow a farmer to herd his flock of sheep across your path.


When I finished the race I was relieved it was over. As I crossed the finish line I vowed never to do it again. However by the morning I was texting my family telling them that we were ALL going to do it next year, my 9 year old son included.

Inspired by two of my friends who completed the marathon (one was the first female to finish, the other completing her first marathon just 20 minutes before the eight hour cut off time), I am seriously contemplating setting my sights on the full marathon.  All 42.1 km of it, including tackling the 7 km of stairs twice!




Book Review: Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer

One of his last acts was to take a picture of himself, standing near the bus under the high Alaskan sky, one hand holding his final note toward the camera lens, the other raised in a brave beatific farewell. His face is horribly emaciated, almost skeletal. But if he pitied himself in those last difficult hours – because he was so young, because he was alone, because his body had betrayed him and his will had let him down – it’s not apparent from the photograph. He is smiling in the picture, an there is no mistaking the look in his eyes: Chris McCandless was at peace, serene as a monk gone to God.

Having recently read and reviewed books about solo journeys into the wilderness, I thought I would explore a similar story that did not end so well.

Into the Wild tells the story of Chris McCandless who disappeared into the Alaskan wilderness, four months later his emaciated body was found by hunters. The author, Jon Krakauer, pieces together the years leading to Chris’s death and explores why Chris and many people like him feel compelled to leave civilization behind and to push themselves to extremes.

Understanding Chris’ motivations is much more difficult as he never clearly articulated them (and obviously he’s not around to ask). Jon delves into his reasons by speaking with family, friends, and people Chris met on the two year journey leading to his final trip to Alaska.

I’ve decided that I’m going to live this life for sometime to come. The freedom and simple beauty is too good to pass up. (Written by Chris on a postcard sent to a friend.)

To gain an insight into Chris’ mind Jon explores the experiences and stories of other  adventurers, himself included. He explains why people feel compelled to push themselves to the outer limits and how even the best prepared can find themselves in danger.

It is easy, when you are young, to believe that what you desire is no less than what you deserve, to assume that if you want something badly enough, it is your God-given right to have it. When I decided to go to Alaska that April, like Chris McCandless, I was a raw youth who mistook passion for insight and acted according to an obscure, gap-ridden logic. I thought climbing the Devils Thumb would fix all that was wrong with my life. In the end, of course, it changed almost nothing. But I came to appreciate that mountains make poor receptacles for dreams. And I lived to tell my tale.

These people journey into the wild alone because they are adventurers, physical extremists, escapees from society, romantics. They all have similarities, they are all different. They all have their reasons, sometimes knows to themselves and others, sometimes, I suspect, they don’t even know themselves.

Notably many are male, often young but not always. We know women do this too, Cheryl Strayed and Robyn Davidson for example, but they are in the minority.

What did I take from this book? Adventuring alone in the wilderness is not romantic, things can and do go wrong.  Solo journeys don’t always solve the issues you want them to. And tell someone where you are going!

I found Into the Wild an interesting read. Not just learning about Chris McCandless’ journey but also the authors, as he recognizes and accepts his own failings as an adventurer and as a writer.

“HAPPINESS IS ONLY REAL WHEN SHARED.” It is tempting to regard this latter notation as further evidence that McCandless’s long, lonely sabbatical had changed him in some significant way. It can be interpreted to mean that he was ready, perhaps, to shed a little of the armor he wore around his heart, that upon returning to civilization, he intended to abandon the life of a solitary vagabond, stop running so hard from intimacy, and become a member of the human community. But we will never know, because Doctor Zhivago was the last book Chris McCandless would ever read.

Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer, London, Pan Books, 2011, ISBN 978-0-3330-46998-2 EPUB

(Photo by Carine McCandless)