We’ve been through our share of crises. All minor, so far… luckily.
First, there was the time that somehow one of us lost the car keys on a difficult hike, falling right out of a pocket (we think). That was how we learned we could get through stressful situations through communicating, planning and executing. (We hitchhiked down a mountain to a place with a reception, called an Uber, went all the way home to get the spare key and back, saw the beautiful sunset above, and finished the night with a delicious dinner at an amazing restaurant we wouldn’t have known of if we hadn’t been leaving around dinner.)
Then there was the time one of us forgot a water filter, only noticing we didn’t have it around an hour into a three-day hike. That was the time we realized that having one person in charge of any mission-critical element didn’t make it better when that element went wrong; being able to blame someone doesn’t fix anything. (We had in fact packed it, and found it after 10 minutes of rummaging, but learned a lesson anyway.)
NO, it wasn’t the same person in both those situations. Quit guessing who it could have been. Short answer: either of us. And things always go wrong, and that’s fine; it’s how you deal with it and what you learn that makes for a great adventure.
We have one over-riding principle that guides how we work: never make the same mistake twice. Underpinning this is the idea of the ‘log’: log all times we make a mistake (or a good decision), and remember how it was made.
Both of these ideas are from the book Principles, by Ray Dalio.
About the book “Principles”
Firstly, who was this guy? Ray Dalio was the founder of Bridgewater, one of the world’s most successful investment companies. “Oh great,” you might think. “Another Wall Street titan.” Yes. But they’re not all the same. When we read his book and appreciated the principled way in which he approached his work, we wanted to believe that his success was because of the way in which he worked and that he would have been successful in anything, investment or otherwise. Yes, perhaps even as an adventure travel writer.
Core to Ray Dalio’s principles was the (somewhat circular) belief that we should have principles to guide our decision making. He believed that we should never make the same mistake twice and that we should learn from good decisions being made. So he advocates keeping a log of all decisions, good or bad. For each one, he’d (either alone, or with his team) analyse how the decision was made and what the outcome was. Over time, the log itself became a valuable source of guidance. Its distilled wisdom became the principles he discusses in the book.
A few of the principles he mentioned that really hit home for us were:
- Be radically open-minded and radically transparent. Share everything we think about and be open to being wrong all the time. Communicate, let people help us, try things, and seek to be wrong.
- To progress, we must experience pain, measure results and then reflect. In order to improve, we must experience hardship.
- Spend time understanding what motivates people. Learn the many ways people think, how to communicate with them and how to work with them.
- Listen to people’s opinions, and weight their believability on a subject to help make a decision. We might listen to three opinions on any topic, but more heavily weight the opinion of someone with a lot of experience or knowledge.
The principles are here in highly summarised form. Be warned though—they’re all very brief (or sometimes one word, like “Meditate”), and topics on which he might have written a whole chapter in the book. The summary is not a good replacement, but it makes for a good reference index or sneak-peak.
How we started using principles to manage our travels
It started with one principle that came out of a frustrating experience.
When we realized we had forgotten our portable water filter only shortly into a three day hike, we also knew it wasn’t the first time we had forgotten a critical element. We were annoyed that it had happened again. We knew how it had happened—we had packed in a blazing rush that morning in order to be able to start the hike at a reasonable hour—but that didn’t help us feel better.
Luckily, after ten minutes of rummaging through our gear, we found it. Nonetheless, the almost-crisis gave birth to our first principle: that for critical planning elements, we should “double perform”, not just “double check”. We lifted this straight out of Ray Dalio’s book.
More principles came naturally over time. Designating a “head chef” and “sous chef” in tasks needing direction, like cooking. Taking time to communicate extra clearly when stressed, like the time I was inundated by swarms of ravenous mosquitoes and was, frankly, freaking out. (It was a swarm. I swear.) Communicating ANYTHING clearly is better than running around in circles yelling.
Below are our principles. We think of this as a working list, but it hasn’t changed in a while. Maybe over the course of 2019 we’ll discover a few to add!
Our principles for adventure travel
General principles for making better decisions
Use principles to guide our decision making.
This is circular but necessary. At times when we are considering how to do things we find it useful to think “wait, how do we do this again?” and reflect that we must, for example, “double perform”, and then do things in that way. If we are making a decision and decide to NOT use principles and just fly by the seat of our pants, we’re inviting disaster.
For example, we have a principle of using checklists (we’ll get to that below). Every time we’re packing, we know that we have to use the checklist, or waste time and probably forget at least one thing. It’s tempting to think “I can’t possibly have forgotten anything! There isn’t anything else in the room I might have forgotten!” but our experience tells us otherwise (and the checklist does, too).
Take steps to avoid making the same mistake twice.
Remember the last time we did something, and actively recall the lesson learned. Take active logs of things that go wrong, e.g. equipment not packed. This is the basic reason these principles exist.
For example, every time we realised we forgot something on a hike that we should have packed, we make sure we immediately note it down to add to our packing list for next time. It only took two to three iterations to develop a foolproof packing list that makes packing ridiculously easy for every adventure.
Maintain an issues log of problems and resolutions.
We should track how we make decisions, to make sure we’re making them effectively. This should be both for mistakes as well as things that went well.
To be honest, we haven’t been very religious about this one, mostly using our memory, and mostly reflecting on mistakes we’ve made. For example, I know we waited too long to find Taiwan accommodation, so ended up paying about 50% more than we should have had to. And so in finding Egypt accommodation, we’re going to make sure we leave adequate time.
The most rigorous, documented way in which we’ve maintained an issues log is through checklists.
Use and maintain checklists.
From the first time we went on a long trip together (camping in the Southwest of the USA) we knew we both naturally inclined towards checklists. What became even more useful for us over time was maintaining checklists. The minute we realised we had not packed something, we would add it to a note to update the checklist when we got home.
The same goes for when we don’t need something. Like walkie talkies. They’re cool. We’ve packed the multiple times. Yeah, they were fun but we barely used them except to troll each other as one of us went to the bathroom.
The result: battle-tested checklists that are refined from experience. Plus every item in there tells a little story.
Principles for planning
Prepare for worst-case scenarios.
Oftentimes we’ve been caught by surprise by scenarios that should not have been that surprising. When we don’t see them coming, we have to use the principles above (particularly communication). But it helps to try to foresee a worst case scenario, have an action plan and execute according to it.
One time, we knew we’d have a very difficult hike ahead of us. It was going to be hot, directly uphill for 3000 feet (1km) with full packs, and it was at the end of a day in which we had already hiked something like 10 miles (16 kilometres). There was likely going to be mosquitoes, possibly bears and definitely hot sunlight. We had to do it—it was the only way we were going to see sunrise from Cloud’s Rest the following day. So we decided we’d take our time, go in five-minute spurts followed by five-minute breaks, and stay close enough to each other to constantly check how we were doing. We made sure our water bottles were full, our headlamps ready and we kept constant tabs on the navigation, making sure when we knew we were 10%, 50% and 90% of the way.
What happened? It was difficult. It took us hours. Turned out there were no mosquitos and bears, and we didn’t need our headlamps. But we got to the top still smiling and with nobody upset because we were prepared for that and even worse.
Have a plan to mitigate extreme stress when you know it’ll happen. Stick to the plan, and take it one step at a time.
Take steps to proactively prevent future pain.
A strong motivating force for us is that “the future Dana and Jo will be grateful”. Thinking this way makes us think about things that regularly cause us to have pain and how to avoid those situations from happening. This motivates us to have clean water and coffee in the house, for starters.
- Running out of phone charge: make sure our external batteries are full at all times
- Being hungry in a strange place: have cash and snacks available.
- Having no signal: Make sure we have maps, directions and important data downloaded
- Rain, sunshine or mosquitoes: have the right protection.
- Losing our phones: having a discipline of doing a “final check” when leaving anywhere.
And yes, I just realised three of the above pain situations involve our phones.
Sometimes focusing on potential pain causes us to over-prepare, but it just generally is a good framework for thinking of easily avoidable situations. About a dozen times Jo has said “Oh no, I’m at 6%” and then has been pleasantly surprised that my external battery is full, in my bag and paired with the right cable, earning me millions of partner points.
Focus on one main thing every day.
We sometimes get near the end of a day and feel like we’ve done nothing. “Damn it, all I had to do was book flights, and I didn’t do that!” This can be averted by deciding at the beginning of the day that all we have to do is book flights.
We decide what this is in the morning, after reflecting and meditating. It could be “finish this blog post”, “find us accommodation” or “fix a banking situation”. It usually just needs to be one or two things. It’s fine if it’s one thing! We have a tendency to make long lists and then never complete most of them—and we know we’re not alone in this. But by having one goal, and focusing on completing it, we get a much greater success rate, and motivation to keep going.
Avoid unnecessary risks.
We both have high risk tolerance and know we get a little rush from pulling things off. This can be making it to a flight or ferry with minutes to spare, or something as simple as managing to carry a whole stack of plates and glasses to another room without dropping any.
Then one day (fairly often) we miss a flight or drop a glass and think… what the hell was I doing? Was that really necessary?
Rarely is a risk necessary with enough forward planning, so we just have to realise that tendency within ourselves to embrace risk and not indulge it unnecessarily. There’s enough risk in life.
Principles for execution and resource management
Do the hard things first.
There’s so much we want to do as soon as we wake up. We have a tendency to think: “I’m tired. I just woke up. I’ll do this nice easy thing until I wake up and THEN I’ll get started with the day.”
So we start doing nice easy things. Read email. Check instagram. Make coffee. Read the news. Write an email response. Check a website we like. Make more coffee.
Suddenly it’s 10 am and we realise we have to start thinking about food, and we haven’t even meditated, done exercise or anything important.
An easy way to develop a discipline of doing the hard things first is routine. For example, coffee, then meditation, then exercise. These put us in the right mindset for the rest of the day and help us do things like focus on “just one thing” or boring administration tasks.
Designate a head chef and sous chef in key tasks.
This started in the kitchen when we found we butted heads on how to do things. “Wait, are you frying the beef? Shouldn’t we grill it?” “I think frying is easier” “WELL I DISAGREE LOUDLY!”
It doesn’t have to be this way. Things go a lot easier if there are two distinct roles: a head chef and a sous chef. The sous chef can provide input, but the head chef decides what is done and by whom.
This also extends to other things we do. For example when going somewhere, if we don’t assign a person responsible for navigating, frequently checking the map and making sure we’re on track, we risk getting into conflict when it turns out nobody was checking. Particularly if we miss a turn, and especially particularly if we’re exhausted on a long hike through snow. For example. (It won’t happen again.)
Double perform; don’t just double check.
It’s useless having someone to blame when something goes wrong when that thing affects both of us (and the entire trip).
Double performing means we both do a task. We both have to apply 100% of our brains to it. We do this for our most mission-critical things: getting to transport on time, packing essential items or planning flights and accommodation.
Occasionally, we’ve made mistakes like leaving too little time to get to a port or booking accommodation for the wrong dates. These mistakes have all been made by entrusting something entirely to one person. That person might have even asked the other to double-check the work.
It doesn’t take much more work to “double perform”. For example, instead of looking over dates for a trip to make sure they look right, going the extra length of comparing them with a calendar on their own computer to make sure there are no conflicts.
We’re always both 100% accountable, so we may as well act that way.
Of course, you don’t have to double perform everything, like making dinner or going shopping, as it’s a waste of resources. It’s just for things that are mission critical. (It’s useful to decide what those things are in advance. Maybe dinner is mission-critical for you!)
Do the quick easy tasks before they become urgent, time-consuming and expensive.
Sometimes we put something off because it’s so trivial; then it becomes difficult.
A classic example of this is not acknowledging that a process might take a while. Things like ordering a product online or applying for a visa. Leave either of those until the last minute and they become much harder tasks: going somewhere in person, paying more money and spending more time.
We have to think proactively what these will be. They’ll include:
- Buy something online, especially when delivery will take a while
- Buying tickets or booking accommodation
Do the boring administration tasks regularly.
We are racking up expenses as we go through our year. We know that we’ll be racking up random bits of income throughout the year as well. How will we plan for this?
- Option 1: Panic and throw a whole bunch of emails and receipts at an accountant who insists this isn’t how you do things and they can’t help us.
- Option 2: Carefully file away receipts, log expenses and income into a spreadsheet, and prepare for the crunch (which will happen anyway).
There’s a LOT of boring admin that goes along with this path. Things like
- Financial admin: Budgeting, cash-flow monitoring, banking
- Life admin: Finding flights, accommodation, gyms, places to eat
- Health admin: Making sure we’re still alive
- Technical admin: Diagnosing problems with our WordPress installation
Ugh, I don’t want to think of any more. But the important thing is we have to do them regularly, not leaving them to the last minute, and blaming nobody but ourselves.
Principles for communication
Understand the emotional context of how we’re feeling and indicate it to the other person.
We sometimes react to things in strong ways and the other person may not even know why we’re reacting in this way.
For example, if one of us suggests getting up at 3:30 am to get to a site in time for sunrise, the other one of us may not be so happy. We have two options for how to express this:
- Grumpy acquiescence, followed by muttering something like “I guess we should not have dinner and go straight to bed”, then being silent and distant most of the evening.
- Anything but that.
It is difficult but much more productive to explain all the things going through your head. You’re hungry and have been hungry for hours. You wanted to do some night time photography and didn’t want to head straight to bed. You are dubious whether the sunrise is very good, anyway.
The difficult thing is that understanding and expressing ourselves clearly when we’re exhausted and slightly annoyed is harder than it usually is. It takes extra effort to dig deep, understand the feelings and then put them into words. So we’ve learned to identify those times and proactively resolve them.
Communicate extra clearly when stressed.
When we’re stressed, we have a tendency to start communicating less than effectively. A few examples:
- “Why is the internet so slow? I just need to do this one thing!” (me, when trying to fix the something wrong with our server)
- “I hate Google Maps!” (also me, after misunderstanding an audio navigation prompt)
- “Aaargh!” (also me again, when I was surrounded by a cloud of mosquitos and running around in circles in pure panic)
In all the above situations, there was something Jo could have done to help—even if it was just to offer a suggestion to take a break and chill out. But by failing to communicate well, I just dumped the stress on her. As soon as I realise this I naturally feel like a fool.
Lesson learned: Make the effort to be understood and share the problem and the opportunity to resolve it together, and don’t let the stress compound through extra communication.
Wake each other up for urgent things.
One time we were applying for a visa kind of at the last minute. We received notifications that we had to update some documentation. Jo received it late at night while I was asleep. I woke up early and took care of it while she was asleep.
I ended up updating the documentation the wrong way; she was annoyed she didn’t do it the night before.
Lesson learned: When the stakes are high, timing is tight, and it’ll avoid making an important mistake, put compassion to one side and wake each other up.
Praise generously; criticise compassionately.
A lot of what we’re doing and learning is actually totally new to us. And often quite hard.
Sure, I’ve maintained servers before. But never have I tried to run them in the way you have to run a WordPress server. We tried to do it about five ways before settling on the current way, and I doubt this will be the last.
And sure, Jo has done e-commerce marketing before. But mostly for large companies or on Instagram. So learning how to use Pinterest as a traffic generation tool has been new for her, too.
In all of the above, praise goes a long way. Especially if it’s real, genuine, and sometimes quantified praise. We do occasionally get praise from the outside (e.g. “that article on principles was brilliant!”, perhaps), but it’s easy for us to give it to each other.
On the flip side, when something needs to be criticised, having given ample praise puts you in a good position to criticise compassionately.
In summary: Say more nice things than we need to, so when we have some criticism, it is better received. Start with why we say the criticism.
Teach as soon as we learn.
Something we learned at work is that the best teachers are often those that just recently learned.
Yes, experienced professors or authors in a field may know a lot, but their audience might be enormous, and the information they have in their heads might not naturally be sorted into what is most relevant for someone trying to do something. For example, learning how to move to a certain country (e.g. Taiwan or Estonia) choosing a blogging platform, learning a web technology or getting better at photography.
Along the way, as we learn how to do this, we’re also taking notes and trying to write articles and how-tos as we go, going into as much detail as possible. We’ll add them as fast as we can!
Ask for help, because the payoff is huge.
We both have a tendency to be stubborn and try to do things alone. We’d often just rather figure things out than ask anyone for help. For example:
- Asking for directions. (Inner voice: “I can figure it out! Let me just load this terrible map on 2G data”)
- Asking for the WiFi password. (Inner voice: “It’s probably the name of the place, or the phone number or something obvious… let me try a few more things.”)
- Asking for a ride when we’re on foot on a busy and boring road. (Inner voice: “Let’s just walk for 3km even though we’re tired”)
Asking is hard, especially in situations where people might say no (e.g. asking for a ride). So we both have to make an effort to get over our stubbornness, fears and insecurities and remember that the payoff for asking is huge.
What principles do you use?
Is there a set of rules or principles you have agreed to that make travel, planning or just life in general go more smoothly? Would love to hear about it—maybe there’s something we can add to our own list.