“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” Annie Dillard
Quest: (according to dictionary.com) a search or pursuit made in order to find or obtain something. Medieval Romance - an adventurous expedition undertaken by a knight or knights to secure or achieve something.
My definition: finding purpose through the pursuit of big goals and seeking adventure.
What do you find purpose in? If you’re like me, probably a myriad of things bring purpose to your life. I find purpose in my work, my service, and my family - but I need something more. I need a quest - and I’d argue that we all do.
Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that, “all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
To me, the pursuit of happiness is within the pursuit itself. The big, overarching goal or project that keeps me up at night. Right now, that goal is to visit all 59 US National Parks by 2025. A big goal to be sure, but that’s the beauty of it! Let me explain..
As part of another quest - last year’s 52 book reading challenge - I read the book “The Happiness of Pursuit” by Chris Guillebeau. He spent a decade visiting every country in the world and wrote this guide to help others on their quests - big or small.
He has some ground rules for quests that I applied to mine as well:
It must be a challenge
There are currently 59 National Parks. I have visited 19 as of this writing, and as a frequent park visitor have met many people on the same quest as I am. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
While a great deal of the National Parks are in the West, many are difficult to reach. Alaska boasts eight parks, including three (Gates of the Arctic, Kobuk Valley and Glacier Bay) that have no roads and can only be entered by boat, plane, or foot. There are two in Hawaii, one in the US Virgin Islands, one in American Samoa (the only park south of the equator) and three within the lower 48 accessible only by boat or plane (Isle Royale, Channel Islands, and Dry Tortugas). Even the parks that are “easier” to travel to are almost always in remote locations that requires a car, time, and considerable effort to get to.
It must require sacrifice
A quest can and should be something fun and enjoyable, but if it’s too easy it’s just a hobby. A quest is an adventure, an honorable pursuit leading to a worthy achievement - it’s going to take some sacrifice. Before pursuing a quest, it’s essential that you understand the sacrifices that will be involved. Time and money are the obvious sacrifices that are generally underestimated. I think of it as the “What am I not doing because of this?” question. If you aren’t okay with the trade-offs, don’t pursue it.
Personally, I’m okay with the trade-offs. I am gone on most long weekends and for several weeks in the summer, so I’ve missed trips with friends or events at home because I’m driving somewhere in the middle of a desert. Additionally, I’ve spent almost all my extra money on this pursuit. I have a National Parks Annual Pass ($80) which is a great deal, but there are a lot of extra costs. The obvious: gas, plane tickets, lodging, souvenirs, food - and the not so obvious: cell phone reception booster, special gear, ferries to the island parks, etc.
It must require considerable effort and persistence
Again, if it’s easy everyone would do it. If everyone did it then it wouldn’t be special. It wouldn’t be adventurous. It wouldn’t be a quest. Persistence has always been one of my greatest (and maybe worst) qualities. If I want to do something, I do it no matter what. If your quest isn’t something that inspires persistence, then it’s probably not the right one for you.
It must be clearly defined
This seems like such an obvious one, but also something that I don’t think a lot of us do. Just like any goal, it must be specific, otherwise when will you know you’ve met it? What motivation will you have to keep going? If my goal was to “visit as many National Parks as possible” well then, I’ve already done that - 19 is far more than most people I know. But then what? I’m just done? No way! I want to go to them all, and I want to do it by 2025. The time element is important to me. It’s long enough to be realistic, but still short enough to be challenging. I can’t sit around for years wishing or planning - I have to do it now.
While a quest should be challenging in itself, there are other challenges that you have to consider before undertaking one. Along with the aforementioned cost and time, there is also the element of risk. Everyone has their own risk tolerance - mine is actually fairly low - and a quest, like anything in life, is going to stretch it.
Another challenge is other people’s opinions. In fact, this is probably the most challenging part for many people. I mean, we know what opinions are like.. and everybody's got one. A quest, long term goal, pursuit, adventure, project - whatever you want to call it - is a very personal thing. I’m sure there are some people reading this who have no desire to visit even a few National Parks and think it’s a self indulgent waste of time. To that I say - ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ You don’t have to. But I do.
Chris Guillebeau writes in his book that, “There’s an obsession factor with many quests. When you wake up at night consumed by an idea, that’s when you’ve found a quest.” That’s just how mine started. I visited several National Parks before it became “my thing” which later became a quest. (hence why I never started getting Park Passport stamps - don’t make the same mistake!) As I visited more, it became more important, then an obsession. I literally stay awake at night and get up early in the morning to plan trips, book airbnbs, and read travel forums. Remember, the happiness is in the pursuit.
There’s also some argument that pursuits like mine are somehow elitist - and I get it. Actually, I kind of agree. I’m very lucky to be in a position where I have money and time to do this when for many people that is not the case. Until our basic needs are met - and beyond - it isn’t necessarily realistic or worthy to gallivant around the nation looking for bison and WPA postcards. But while it’s important to be aware of privilege, I think, for a lot of people a quest is fully within their reach - it's just not a priority in their lives. Just like any other habit, we pursue the things that are a priority. And like Abraham Lincoln said, “Most folks are as happy as they make up their minds to be.”
What happens when you achieve what you set out to do? Well, I haven’t yet so I can’t say for sure, but the obvious first step is - get a new goal! Find another quest - maybe it’s an extension of your last or maybe it’s something totally different. But don’t become stagnant. Life is a journey after all, not a destination. If you allow yourself to spend too much time celebrating your success it may actually have the opposite effect and leave you feeling empty.
Joseph Campbell said, “People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive.” We want to experience life as fully as possible, with as much joy as possible. Through a quest we find purpose through achievement, but also gain so many other tangible and intangible things. For me, I’ve gained all kinds of skills and expanded my worldview, but the two most important results I’ve seen so far are greater confidence and empathy. Confidence from doing it all on my own, and empathy from spending time all over the country with people I'd never encounter otherwise.
I’ve also gained a lot from sharing my experiences. One of the core values I try to cultivate in my life is leadership, and I believe that I am able to sharpen those skills through this quest. John Quincy Adams said that, “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, you are a leader.” I’m inspired every day by others who are on the same and different quests - by their photos online, their blogs, and their words - and hope to inspire others in some way.
So what are you waiting for? Maybe you're already on a quest - make it public, share your experiences, heck - overshare (I certainly do). If you're not - start brainstorming. Make a list that seems totally unrealistic then ask yourself why. Why do I want to do this? Why do I think it's unrealistic? What could I change in my life and priorities to make this happen? and do I want to do that? Then get started! As Albert Einstein said, “The pursuit of truth and beauty is a sphere of activity in which we are permitted to remain children all of our lives.” So pursue your truth. Get a little obsessive if necessary, but make progress! That's where the happiness lies.
“'The most important thing about art is to work. Nothing else matters except sitting down every day and trying.' So, too, for a quest. The most important thing is continuing to make progress.” - Chris Guillebeau