Recently I’ve read criticisms in several places that I’m “profiting” off of backpacking and that my primary motivation now is to “make money.” Some have been embedded in unnecessary and baseless personal attacks made by individuals with whom I’ve never been in the same room. I suppose this may be a good opportunity to start growing thicker skin — as something of a public figure, I’m aware that this sometimes comes with the territory. But while I find the personal attacks easy to dismiss, I struggle more with the questioning of my integrity and motives.
I considered whether to even dignify the criticisms with a response. While I suppose I now have, it’s more in a spirit of openness and transparency, not defensiveness. Three years ago I disclosed exactly how I make a living as a professional adventurer, and here I want to share some additional facts and perspectives.
Before I even take on the core question of this post, let me ground this conversation in reality, or at least in mine.
I’m supporting my family, not “profiting.”
Faceless, ruthless corporations seek profit. I simply want a roof for my family of three (me, Amanda, and fur child Oden), keep food on the table, and take an occasional vacation. Furthermore, I have no interest in earning more income than our expenses necessitate — the pursuit of infinite profit only interferes with the things that I actually want to do. While I enjoy my work, it’s still not as fun as actual play.
Passion motivated me, and still does.
I chose this lifestyle because I love it — talking about it, writing about it, reading about it, teaching it, and most of all doing it. If my goal were simply profit, I’d be a fool for having chosen this career when there are far more lucrative, reliable, safer, and easier options out there.
We’re not rich.
For most of my 20’s, my income was well below the poverty line. (Go, Duke!) My financial situation has changed recently, but it’s still within the range of average compared to other married couples without children and of the same age, race, education, and work ethic. We lead a modest lifestyle: we feel fortunate to own our home in Boulder; I drive a 2005 Pontiac Vibe with nearly 90,000 miles on it; we know all the happy hour menus in town; and we got married in our backyard for a cost of about $5,000. Extravagant? Definitely not.
Want an unconventional career? Be creative and resourceful, and work hard.
You won’t find my job on Indeed.com. Instead, I had to be much more entrepreneurial about it: I identified opportunities, sunk my own time and money into unguaranteed business ventures, and worked my ass off. If you own a business or receive multiple 1099-MISC forms each year (and no W-2’s), or know well someone who does, I’m sure you can appreciate what was involved. Overall, I prefer being my own boss, but some days I long for a stable paycheck, paid vacation time, and co-workers to share the workload and to help flesh out ideas.
Long-term, it’s counterproductive to be motivated by profits.
Suppose today that I convince you to buy a shelter, since I will get a small commission on that sale. I know it’s not the right shelter for you, but I pitch you on it anyway because it’s money in my pocket. Will you trust me again when you are shopping for a stove next month? No, you won’t, and you shouldn’t. Long-term, my authenticity and credibility are my most valuable assets. Without them, I would not have the trust of my community and I would be damaged goods for a partner like Sierra Designs. There is no price for which I’m willing to sell out.
The core criticism seems to be that monetizing a passion is somehow wrong. A related charge is that those who do cannot be trusted because their actions become influenced by money. (See #5 above for my reaction to that one.)
This charge seems so obviously hypocritical to me that it’s surprising it’s made. To those who have slung that mud: Are you willing to work for free? Probably not, and neither am I — for me, backpacking is not a hobby, but my career and my livelihood. And, fortunately, it’s something that I love to do. They need not be mutually exclusive.
And I’ll actually go one step further: I am thankful that other individuals have merged their passions with their careers. Many of the resulting products and services have been enormously beneficial to their respective communities. And their contributions are far greater than those made by individuals for whom their passion was a pure hobby.
Do you read daily posts by Philip Werner of SectionHiker or Joel Gratz of OpenSnow? Have you used a Yogi guidebook, or laughed hysterically at Mike Clelland’s illustrated books? Did you attend a slideshow by Appalachian Trail speed record holder Jennifer Pharr Davis when she was in town? Have you joined Geoff Roes at his running camp in Juneau? Have you watched Sage Canady’s instructional running videos on YouTube? Did you buy some of your gear from Ron Bell at Mountain Laurel Designs or Chris McMaster at ULA Equipment? Do you engage the forums at Backpacking Light (Ryan Jordan) or Appalachian Trials (Zach Davis)? Have you been inspired by Anton Krupicka, Alex Honnold, or Cameron Haines?
Certainly, these individuals could have held onto a “real job” and dedicated their remaining free time to their passion projects. But since they can’t pay for food, their home, or their children’s tuition bills with “personal satisfaction and fulfillment,” ultimately they took their passion to the next level due to the prospect of generating income. They should be applauded for that, not hypocritically criticized for their approach or falsely charged of perverse intentions.