Such a strange yet fascinating word. Our fascination with the impossible and enticement of adventure are innate to human nature. The core of the human condition stems precisely from this thirst for adventure, a thirst that pushes humanity to always attempt new things, to go further and further, and that is the driving force behind its progress. The word “adventure” has a rather interesting history, and I think it would be a good place to start. We can first see its presence in the 11th-century French word “advenir”, which referred to the fate of individuals, to what would befall them. In an age when individual fates were subject to the will of gods, or the beautiful mechanisms of the cosmos, life had no surprise in store, no extraordinary encounters, no challenges to take on, or feats to accomplish. For many adventures amounted to waiting for the prewritten pages of the great book of human life to turn, one after the other, just waiting for the reveal of their predetermined fate. I’m sure our ancestors dreamed of a world where their movements, desires, and yearnings would be liberated.
Let’s fast forward 500 years and the meaning has changed. The 16th century was not only the time of the first maritime explorations around the world but also when traders and merchants embarked on audacious commercial enterprises. They did so with a real sense of precaution: “My ventures are not in one bottom trusted, / Nor to one place; nor is my whole estate / Upon the fortune of this present year,” says Antonio, the merchant of Venice in Shakespeare’s eponymous play. These men embodied on land and sea what the mathematicians had been studying on paper: calculation of probabilities and risk management. They no longer saw the world, or human fates, as divine playthings; the world was within reach, offered to the intelligence and enterprise of humans who could become, to quote Descartes, “like [its] masters and possessors.”. It was now up to them to take their fates into their own hands. From that moment on, the adventure was no longer what can happen to humans, but that toward which they choose to go.
Galileo’s account of his first astronomical observations imagined future adventures in space: “There will certainly be no lack of human pioneers when we have mastered the art of flight,” he wrote in his Conversations with the Starry Messenger, published in 1610. “Who would have thought that navigation across the vast ocean is less dangerous and quieter than in the narrow, threatening gulfs of the Adriatic, or the Baltic, or the British straits? Let us create vessels and sails adjusted to the heavenly ether, and there will be plenty of people unafraid of the empty wastes. In the meantime, we shall prepare, for the brave sky-travellers, maps of the celestial bodies — I shall do it for the moon, you Galileo, for Jupiter.” We would have to wait three centuries, however, for the foundations of astronautics to be laid, and 50 years more for a rocket to be launched into space. And then, on April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin, the first among us, crossed the boundary into space. One of the most long-awaited adventures of humanity had become reality.
Let’s rewind a bit from space travel and examine the modern adventure novel. As a kid I grew up reading Defoe and looking back, adventures communicated a set of values that was typically romanticized. People began associating energy, tenacity, faith, and most importantly work and knowledge with adventure. In Defoe’s tales, shipwrecked heroes rebuilt an entire civilization that they had lost. In the traditional fashion of Odysseus and Robinson Crusoe, the heroes of this literature wanted nothing more but, to go home. still, the detour was rewarding; an opportunity, from a classic perspective, to bring back objective knowledge, and, from a Romantic point of view, allowing young men to feel emotions and undertake adventures that, in the form of life experience, would usher them toward “maturity” and a place in society. Novels and narratives aimed at the youth-focused on society’s preferred values (religion, science, and the motherland) and made a strict distinction between heroes, who are guided by a mission and whose horizon is sacrifice, and adventurers, who think only of themselves.
Renouncing adventures marked the passage into adulthood. One could lament that certain men never became adults, but the emergence of colonization, towards the end of the 19th century, offered an original solution. The men who were still animated by the thirst for adventure and unable, in this respect, to find their place in society without throwing it off balance, were offered the perspective of the empire. St. Augustine said there are great passions that must be channelled so that they do not transform order into chaos. There was a rather paradoxical morality of adventure and the disapproval of adventure itself disappeared at the turn of the 19th century. Authors like Joseph Conrad assigned virtues such as fulfilling oneself at the moment, claiming one’s destiny through voluntary confrontations with death, and unveiling the hidden meaning of the world to adventure. The adventure was perceived as an aesthetic mode of existence. I think its no coincidence that this was the age of people like Ernest Shackleton who led the “Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration”. This was an ad in the paper looking to hire people for the expedition. For those of you with poor vision like me it reads:
Human Kind Wanted
For a hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete, darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful, honour and recognition in case of success.
That sounds terrible. You might be asking yourself why anyone would want to do that. 5000 people applied, which speaks lengths about the cultural mindset at the time. For those who followed the modern mystique of adventure, no cause was superior to the adventure itself. But, for some it wasn’t enough, so they went to the ends of the world to satiate their innate hunger for the thrill.
The modern mystique of adventure was a nostalgic reaction in the face of this shift. There is no better proof of this than the modes of the fictional transfigurations of certain figures, such as the cowboy or the aviator.
As early as the 1930s, authors like Ian Fleming dwelled on the fact that mundane spaces were just as likely to welcome adventure as the farthest unknown realms and suggested that adventure could be found “around the corner.”
I’ve been laying pipe for about seven mins now so you may ask- what the hell do literature and the history of the word “adventure” have to do with entrepreneurship. And I would answer everything. Let’s take a minute to think about who we now think of as the ultimate adventurer? brad Pitt? Journalists? soldiers? Astronauts? Wrong. It's people like Elon Musk. Our society is living in the age of the celebrity entrepreneur, where business people like Musk, Bezos, or Branson, are ingrained in our cultural fabric. You may ask why is that? I would answer with a story. Growing up I remember feeling upset after finishing Robinson Crusoe, it wasn’t because it was a bad book, it was because there was no way that I would ever be able to discover new territory, a new animal, or anything new. I can’t put into words what that felt like. I looked at a map and was frustrated. Hindsight is 2020 and I have come to the conclusion it was because there was no opportunity for an adventure. Entrepreneurship is the 21st century equivalent of the cowboy. Our thirst for adventure has manifested itself in entrepreneurship and thus will remain the dominant mode of adventure for the foreseeable future.
Is this a bad thing? If people are going into entrepreneurship because they want an adventure will this affect their commitment levels and the amount of success they find? It is hard to say but, I think that the fulfillment of oneself as an individual, the unveiling of the meaning that the world could have for oneself, and only for oneself, can only be done through adventure, and it seems to me that entrepreneurship will be the adventure of choice for many of our generation. No adventure, no intentional projection beyond the immediate limits of space and time, is possible without the willpower to confront what appears difficult, unfeasible, impossible. It is a drive that reveals a sense of urgency more than arrogance. The impossible is not a temptation, nor is it a utopia — that is, if we think and believe, as Pascal did, that “man infinitely transcends man.”