The Write to Roam

The Personal Blog of Ethan Brooks

My Favorite Notebook

What movie had the biggest impact on your life?

If you’d asked me yesterday I probably would have told you something like Poltergeist. I watched that movie with my dad when I was seven and hardly slept again until I could legally drink. The last four places I’ve lived were completely without bedroom closets, and I’d be lying if I said there was no connection.

Or perhaps I’d have pointed to Man of the House with Chevy Chase and Jonathan Taylor Thomas. After watching that I spent the next ten years trying to pull off Jonathan Taylor Thomas’s cool-guy attitude and his haircut.

But the truth — which I didn’t realize until I sat down to write this — is that the movie which has had the most powerful impact on my life is one that I hardly remember anymore.

I was ten the first time I saw Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and now, nearly two decades later I recall just two things: The fight scene where Indie throws a man out of a zeppelin and tells onlookers it was because the guy had “No ticket”, and the grail diary. Dr. Henry Jones senior’s Grail Diary was a battered leather-bound book in which he’d recorded every clue gleaned from his lifelong quest to find the Holy Grail. Its pages were filled with notes and sketches from a hundred different adventures in places all around the world.

What is it about the leather-bound notebook that’s so powerfully linked to the life of the traveler? Even now when I see one on the shelf at a book store I’m transported to places yet unseen. Gypsied away to the heat and chatter of a bustling Turkish market square, or to an Amazonian lodge when the rains are about to come and electricity is in the air. Not unlike real books, notebooks have a special power all their own. From the moment I saw that book I wanted one of my own. Perhaps more importantly, I wanted to lead the kind of life that could fill those pages.

I must have talked about it endlessly because on the morning of my eleventh birthday I unwrapped a beautiful leather-bound sketchbook.

“Dear Ethan,” a note on the very first page read, “Thought you could use a place to record all your adventures! Love, Mom & Dad”.

That simple gift changed the direction of my life forever.

It’s not easy to lead a life of adventure. Going places means you have to leave other places behind, and when those other places are filled with the people you already know and love it’s hard to make the move. It’s much easier on the heart (and the wallet) to simply dream of faraway places.

But when someone hands you an empty notebook, they are in a way telling you “go”. They’re telling you to get out of your head and into the world. They’re telling you it’s okay to leave them, so long as you bring back a story from out there. And once you have an empty notebook, you can’t very well leave it empty. An empty notebook is a constant reminder of all that you haven’t done.

Your life changes when you have an adventure journal to fill, even if you’re just a kid — especially if you’re just a kid. At least a couple of times a day you find yourself pausing to think about whatever it is you’re doing, wondering does this count as an adventure? Can this go in the book? I began looking for adventure everywhere, if only to have something to write down.

And of course the secret, that only eleven-year-olds with empty adventure notebooks and even emptier bank accounts learn, is that adventure can be found anywhere. Even the most remote jungles are home to someone. Far-off mountains lie in someone else’s backyard, and somewhere there’s a little kid who’s bored of seeing that same Turkish market square every day. They dream of a far-away place that looks just like your backyard. And so it’s not the setting, but the mindset that makes for an adventure.

Those early experiences, scrounging for excitement in the bushes around my house, shaped me as a traveler. But I don’t think it’s necessary to start young. Just that you should have an empty notebook.

And if you’re in the market for a notebook of your own, you could hardly do better in my opinion than the Canson 180 artbook. I won’t pretend to be an expert on paper. I don’t know what acid-free really means. But there’s one thing I do understand and that’s writing in awkward places. In the years since my eleventh birthday I’ve been lucky enough to scrawl notes while holed up on the floor of a frozen mountain shelter while snow piled up outside, and in the back of a truck in the jungle. I’ve made do with the desks in a hundred hotels and motels, and with the balcony of the Queen Mary II as she made her way from New York to England. I’ve written by firelight, and head-light, in the rain, and after not seeing rain for a month.

Write in enough places and you begin to appreciate the little things. The Canson 180 is the first notebook I’ve ever found that will not only open but lie perfectly flat on every single page. There’s no awkward grappling with the binding or paper in order to keep it open. Simply lay it down, and put pen to paper. They accomplish this using a unique technology called a “coptic” binding and it’s truly remarkable. I’ve been carrying one every day since September of 2015, when I left for a month on the Appalachian Trail. That notebook lasted more than six months before I finally filled it, and went with me everywhere from the southern states to posh English country estates, rural France, Mexico, and many places in between.

After so long on the road, as you can imagine, the notebook had seen better days. The people at canson were nice enough to send me a brand new one so that I could photograph it. But lest you think this is just a product plug, you should know this — I was in France when my first notebook ran out. The replacement they sent me was six-thousand miles away in my home in the US. Rather than waiting a week to pick it up when I was home, I walked to the nearest art shop and spent $25 to replace it then and there. All told I’ve spent well over a hundred dollars on these notebooks, and plan to continue spending that money for as long as they continue to work, which based on my experience so far seems to be forever.

Ethical Selfishness and Systems Over Goals

The Write to Roam -- How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win BigOne of the reasons I love biographies is that they help you to see that successful people are riddled with problems too. Did you know that Scott Adams, best-selling author and the artist behind the Dilbert cartoon, once struggled with spasmodic dysphonia, and was mysteriously unable to talk to any other human being for more than three years?

It is just one of the struggles he talks about in his sort-of-biography How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big. The book was recommended to me by a mentor, and from it I got two interesting lessons.

The first is regarding generosity, and the need to take care of yourself. As a business owner, I enjoy talking about business, and helping other people to pursue their ideas. But every once in a while, I’ll get so excited that I commit to something I shouldn’t, and then get crushed under the workload. Whether it’s offering free help, or just taking on a long term project that I don’t have time for, I have to consciously restrain myself from saying yes to opportunities on a daily basis. Sometimes I feel bad about this. I’ve got specialized knowledge in a few areas. Why shouldn’t I share it?

Adams, who is a straight shooter almost to a fault, says that when it comes to generosity there are only three types of people in the world:

  1. Selfish
  2. Stupid
  3. Burden to Others

In order to help others, he says, you first need to take care of yourself. You need to take care of your health. You need to make a good living. You need to pursue “enlightened selfishness”.

“If you neglect your health, or your career you slip into the second category — stupid — which is a short slide from becoming a burden on society.”

People who look out for themselves have the resources to help others. Whereas someone who’s overcommitted, under-charging, or otherwise too “generous”, winds up with neither time nor money nor enthusiasm to contribute. They become a ball of stress — a broke ball of stress… I’ve been there.

The second, and much more profound lesson is perhaps best introduced with a question:

If you woke up tomorrow with the thing you currently dream of having — money, abs, love, etc — based on the way you lived today, how long would it last?

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Let’s See

“Sometimes the stupid succeed because they don’t know that they’re stupid, and if they were only 5 percent less stupid they would be smart enough to know that they’re plans won’t work” —Neil Gaiman

 

“Risk comes from not knowing what you’re doing.” —Warren Buffett

 

Two successful men. Two different takes on the value of information. Each has its own risks.

Go into the frey with too little information, and you run the risk of being underprepared. You learn costly lessons the hard way, and may never make it out alive.

Seek out too much information, on the other hand, and like Adam eating from the tree of knowledge, you’re suddenly aware of your own ineptitude. You look upon the masses who’ve gone before you and failed, the warning signs, and pessimistic YouTube comments, and run the risk of snuffing out your enthusiasm before the fight even begins.

So which do you choose? The safety of knowledge, or the bliss of ignorance?

I offer a third option: Adopt a “Let’s see” mindset.

Let’s see if I have a special talent for this. Let’s see if OldRaven729 really knows what he’s talking about. Let’s see what would happen if I tried exactly the opposite of what everyone’s saying.

Being informed of the risks can help us to sidestep the traps that uninformed competitors never see coming. Adopting an experimental mindset, one that’s okay with uncertainty, can help us side-step the traps we lay for ourselves.

Reading List: Life of Pi

I love this book. It was gifted to me by the owner of The Creekside Paradise, a B&B where I once spent three days convalescing before a steep trek up into the Smoky Mountains. She said she’d found the movie mesmerizing, but the book rather dull, and that I could take it so long as I promised not to bring it back. I’m glad that I did.

When you live out of a pack, each item you carry needs to be worth its weight several times over, and in that way Life of Pididn’t disappoint.

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On Life’s Big Fucking Hills

Adventure starts at the place where your plans end. Sometimes, you set out with the goal of having an adventure, and so you purposefully avoid planning. Nothing more than a blank spot on the calendar, a sacked lunch, and an inkling to wander in one direction or another. Other times you’re thrust into adventure when you take a wrong turn, or the power goes out, or any of a thousand other things happen that shake you from the fragile web of your own carefully laid plans. This is more commonly known as misadventure.

Of the two, I tend to find the latter more enjoyable.

For nearly six months I had been traveling in Europe, doing work-trades in exchange for hot meals and a roof over my head. It wasn’t a bad way to live. Staying with local families felt authentic, and I’d lucked into some pretty posh digs. One house had two kitchens, and bedrooms overlooking the sea. Another had a walled garden with its own heated indoor pool. I was living like a millionaire without spending a dime.

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