My idea of a break may seem to some extreme. After almost a decade running full tilt I recently took a break from Vend, OMGTech! and all my other commitments and disappeared off into the wilderness. For two months I grew a beard… while riding a bicycle... around the world. It was an awesome beard.
I needed to get out because I was burning out. Burn-out is very real thing in our industry. It comes in different forms with different labels. Fatigue and depression are close cousins. I had been there before so I thought I knew the signs, but when you live and breathe whatever it is you are obsessed with in life it sneaks up on you. It’s like having a pigmentosa and you go blind slowly. All of a sudden you realise you can’t see the wood for the trees. Well, I was walking into trees. So I booked a few months off to clear the brain and to grow a beard. Deciding to cycle 100km every day for months may seem like a strange way of taking a rest.
Every year I give myself a big challenge to prove to myself and others that most of what we think is impossible isn’t. I’ve started a $100 million dollar venture in the middle of a recession. I have run 1,000km. I learned to sing to get a paid gig in front of 100 people. 7 years ago I also cycled the length of New Zealand solo. All these things I picked because they felt like things that were impossible. Every single challenge I completed, learning a truckload about myself along the way. I would get a new perspective on things and they would energise me for the next adventure.
A change is as good as a rest they say. Don’t get me wrong, I like sitting by the pool drinking nice drinks, but it’s only when I do something radically different that takes me out of my comfort bubble do I feel like I get clarity, and like I am living.
So I put my bike in a box and bought a ticket to Cape Town then started cycling east. As the sun rose I rode towards it, in roughly a straight line until I ran out of land then made my way to the next continent and continued. I crossed South Africa, skirted the bottom of Australia (the top of Tasmania), cruised New Zealand coast to coast (Raglan to East Cape) and crossed the Andes in Chile to Argentina ending up in Buenos Aires. Two months from start to finish cycling almost every day.
The trip was amazing. Not only because of the stunning scenery you encounter every day. Not only because of the physical challenge. Not only because of the culture and people. It was also because of all the preconceptions I had were just way off. How I imagined it was totally wrong, just like most things in life, we can only conceive of things using experiences we have had before. When you dream at night your brain can only use faces and places it has experienced to construct the dreams. The same applies with how you imagine your aspirations, experiences enhance them. When I thought about singing in front of 100 people my only experience was torturing the kids in the car with my terrible off key songs. So I thought it would be impossible. But as I went I learnt to sing better, developed confidence and before I knew it I was on stage in front of a room of people singing for two hours.
For this trip I imagined every country to be different that it was in reality.
If I listened to all the warnings about winding up dead in a ditch travelling South Africa, I would not have gone. The reality was a beautiful country full of lovely people. Sure you don’t do anything stupid, just like you wouldn’t put yourself in a dumb situation in New York, Barcelona or Auckland. If I had listened to the stories about how hard it would be to travel in South America because of my inability to speak Spanish. Or about freezing to death on the top of the Andes. Or about getting mugged in Buenos Aires. Or about being run over by a petrol head in Tasmania (yes that’s a thing). I would not have gone. OK so I did get involved in a road rage incident on a deserted country road in Tasmania but hot air and rude gestures never killed anyone. I did also get stranded in the middle of nowhere in Argentina with no place to stay and no hablo español. But I figured it out and had one of the most hilarious evenings of my life involving a Bandoneon. I may have also had a run in with a mugger in Buenos Aires, but it was me tackling him after he mugged a lady and was getting away. I am sure he regrets that decision more than me, although there was a short period of time when we were both lying on the ground grappling with each other and I wondered what sorts of weapons he had that I would regret.
However, the best part of the whole trip was cycling over the Andes.
When I planned the route months earlier, it became very clear to me that cycling over a mountain in the snow would be a challenge and I obsessed about that fact the whole trip. It was six weeks before I would hit the Andes, but I thought about those mountains every single day. About how holy-shit-hard it would be. I was so worried I wouldn’t be able to do it it almost ruined the rest of the trip. Somehow I talked Tim Norton from 90 Seconds into joining me for the crossing of the Andes. To blow out the cobwebs I told him. It will be the most epic adventure ever.
Tim and I flew in to Chile and we started at the bottom of the ranges and we started turning our pedals a million times to slowly but surely make our way up to the top of the mountains. Word on the ground was a storm was on its way so we would get snow, and if we were too slow there was a very real chance the road would close and we would be stuck on the top of the mountain. In a snow storm. The challenge was going up a couple of levels. This bloody mountain was not stopping me now. It’s been the bane of my thoughts for two months. We weighed up the risks and decided to go for it. We could always grab a lift down if conditions got too bad. Or make a snow cave.
I don’t remember cycling over the Andes as being hard. Of course it was but looking back the one thing I remember was the joy of knocking the bastard off, one part at a time. The rivers, the ice, the views and then the last bend in the snow where through all the grey you could see the lights of the border crossing. I remember it all fondly. Plus we got to blow our cobwebs out going down the other side. They closed the crossing due to heavy snow the next day.
I continued on and made it to Buenos Aires a few weeks later and then I came back home with a whole new perspective on a lot of things. I learnt a lot about myself, more than I would in a book by a pool. I learnt that a change is better than a rest and was reminded that we don’t know what we don’t know. The fewer experiences you have the more limited you are in your ability to imagine and dream.
So what is the point of this story? Yes, doing awesome shit is hard. If you feel like you can’t see the wood for the trees, or like a dark cloud is hanging about, get out there and grow your hair long. Climb a glacier, trek and explore beyond your comfort zone. I guarantee you will come back armed with a bunch of experiences to be able to take on anything. At the very least with a couple of cool stories to tell the grandkids, with or without scars.
Vaughan Rowsell is the founder and chief product officer of Vend. He stepped down from his previous role as CEO in 2016. In 2014, he co-founded kids technology education programme OMGTech!
Idealog has been covering the most interesting people, businesses and issues from the fields of innovation, design, technology and urban development for over 12 years. And we're asking for your support so we can keep telling those stories, inspire more entrepreneurs to start their own businesses and keep pushing New Zealand forward. Give over $5 a month and you will not only be supporting New Zealand innovation, but you’ll also receive a print subscription, an Idealog t-shirt and a copy of the new book by David Downs and Dr. Michelle Dickinson, No. 8 Recharged (while stocks last).