Brendan Leonard promises that real adventure is not out of reach. I discovered his work through The Art of Getting Lost, a get-out-there excuse removing antidote to exploring more.
He writes, “The hardest thing is convincing yourself it’s okay. Now I know you’re important at work and at home, but trust me, the folks at work and at home can do without you for a day or a couple days. You’d be surprised what people do when you’re unavailable for a day or two: They figure it out on their own. It’s easy to get stuck in a rut where you’re working hard for everyone else and neglecting the things you want and need-like spending the night sleeping under the stars or going for a long hike-so you have to recognize it and schedule some time out of the rut for yourself.”
Friends, Brendan Leonard is a worthy guide to follow in the art of getting lost and doing work you love. Find his work at Semi-Rad.
About Brendan Leonard
Brendan started Semi-Rad in 2011. He thinks we all need to spend more time doing things we love, going to places that make us feel small, remembering to laugh at ourselves, and getting a little cold, tired, and scared every once in a while. He has bicycled across America, run several ultramarathons, and lived out of a converted van for three years, climbing and adventuring in the mountains around the West.
He is also a writer, and most of his work centers around adventure, travel, and human experiences with both of those. He’s a contributing editor at Adventure Journal and a columnist at Outside. His stories have appeared in Backpacker, National Geographic Adventure, Outside, Men’s Journal, Sierra, Adventure Cyclist, and other publications.
Brenda Leonard: I don't believe there are that many geniuses out there or people who are just raw talent. I feel like everybody puts in the work and gets there really to just pick something you can finish is so satisfying.
Aaron: Brothers and sisters. Welcome to another episode of Work Life Play, finding work, life, play rhythms that are sustainable. We can actually maintain and giving the middle finger to the idea of work life balance. It's not obtainable. It's not going to happen, but you can find sustainable rhythms in ways that you live, that are life giving. And our guide today is Brendan Leonard. So he is super rad. And what is cool about Brendon is that he is a Uber adventure. A friend of mine gave me a copy of his book. One of his many books called the art of getting lost. So we got a chance to connect and have a conversation. And what I loved about our conversation that you'll hear is that we talk about the everyday muscle building, this everyday-ness in us so that when we're actually stepping forward in things, we just create micro goals, no excuses just produce, get her done and move forward. So I know you'll enjoy his work. You'll find all of his work at semirad.com. Got some really cool stuff on Instagram. He's a really cool graphic artist is a contributing writer for outside magazine, just all around super rad dude. So enjoy the conversation is as always, it has a touch of soul to it, a venture to it, work to it, play to it, people to it. You'll enjoy it. It's good for you. You can do this. Keep going.
I just looked up, he did a F last year 52 marathons in 52 weeks, and it was all self directed on your own. You write books, you do these Uber adventures. And then on top of that, you're like, you're an artist. And so you're, uh, and I guess all of that's in the frame of an artist, but I'm thinking everything from like filmmaking to like, uh, sketches and drawings on your website. So kind of walk us through that, you know, is there a, a theme that you even as you try and describe the work that you do in the world?
Brendan Leonard: Boy, yeah, I think I do well with, um, sort of micro art, I guess, or micro goals, if you will, maybe in the, I guess my, I was trying to be a writer for sort of outdoor publications, right. When I got out of grad school in 2004, and it's a slow start, you know, it's, you know, outside magazine doesn't necessarily want buy your story when you're have zero experience and really know no writing experience to speak of, you said it's your college newspaper. Um, so they're not, they're not exactly going, yeah. Let's give this person $5,000 to try to tell a feature story about something that may or may not be very good. So I guess I kept trying to try and, and try and sort of, uh, got a few things into smaller publications and then was just starting to get it a bit of a foothold with, um, more glossy magazines, like climbing and backpacker was going to have some stuff published there. And I started my own blog.
So it was just like this thing where I decided I'm going to write something every week and see what happens. And, um, I'll do it for a year and if nothing happens or I get sick of it, I'll just quit. And if, if, if it takes off, maybe I'll keep doing it. And that was just over nine years ago. So I've been doing a weekly, weekly post every, every yeah. Every week for nine years and just sort of having fun with it and seeing what people respond to and mostly about adventure, but sort of bleeding into other things as well. Eventually I'm going to say it was like two years ago outside magazine just reached out and said, Hey, we'd like to just basically syndicate your blog, take it off your website, put it on outside's website, get it to our audience, you know, would you be into that?
So that was super cool. And that's the way it works today too. So I do have to consider their audience when I do stuff as well. So like, how does this topic, how would this topic work for them? And, but for the most part, they leave it alone and it just kind of like do your thing. And, you know, if it it's good, it's good. You know, some weeks, some weeks I feel like I bumped or I, I, you know, get to first base on balls and some weeks you hit a home run. And I think the investment for them is hopefully worth it in the home runs. And by the time outside came around to me and said, you know, we want to publish this. I had on almost seven years of doing it and it was kind of figuring it out and it's not a big risk. I don't usually do very controversial topics. And I don't take these like sorta trolling type, the points of view or anything like that. I generally am positive. And I generally am just trying to, Hey, everybody let's have a good laugh at the weird things we do in the outdoors. And I hope it's working for them and it's been working for me too.
And I took that same sort of ethos too. I started drawing charts on Instagram, late 2016, just, you know, thinking of things. And I've started calling them emotional data visualization where it's just not actual data. It's like, here's what it looks like when I go to the grocery store that I always go to versus, you know, how, how long it takes me to get through a grocery store I've never been in before. Like where do these people keep the hot sauce? You know? And like, how so I'll draw a map of the two things side by side. And it's just this just ridiculous things that, and like bar charts and pie charts, and you know, things about my dog and funny things that I hope other people are going through too. And you're, you're giving people this, what I think of is like a digital greeting card to send to their friends or their loved ones, you know, about this, this perfectly captures, uh, how you're always trying to talk to me as you're walking away from me in the house and I have to follow you down the hallway and say, what did you say? You know, and funny things like that, that couples do or friends do, or, you know, dog owners do or whatever.
And I have tried to do three of those a week for gosh, three years now. Um, and that has sort of gained its own following as people's tastes have changed or willingness to sit down and read something that takes longer than 15 seconds. So I just keep trying stuff and you know, some of it works, some of it doesn't, most of it is fun, usually. So sort of business plan, I guess
Aaron: I'm looking at Instagram right now, one of this micro goals. So for nine years weekly posts, then that gets picked up and syndicated. Now three years, um, three years, three times a week on Instagram he's um, these charts, what was the phrase that you used for them?
Brendan Leonard: Emotional data visualization.
Aaron: Yeah, there we go. Yeah. I'm going to write that one down. And I like it, I guess just tell me more about like, what is it about the staying power that keeps you going, whether it's 52 weeks and 52 marathons, or it's three posts a week on Instagram with these charts, or it's nine years weekly posts on your blog, the micro goals, what is it about that kind of inner drum, the inner cadence that enables for you just to have that fortitude and grit to keep going?
Brendan Leonard: I do well with the set, a goal, get to the top of the mountain, get through the finish line, get through the mileage that you want to run today and then setting the goals for like my blog or how many Instagram posts I think I can actually do sustainably is as important to, you know, I think where nowadays you're taught that the, the algorithm rewards you, if you post seven days a week, every single day. And I just don't have that. I just can't do it. If I did that, four of them would be garbage, probably. So what's the point. Um, so I've had a very slow growth, uh, of that side of my creative following. But yeah, other than that, I don't know. I think it's just self motivated too. Try to maintain the freedom creatively and schedule wise of doing my own thing.
I hope I do my best by doing my own thing. I try to structure my job with as few conference calls, phone calls. So I just want to be in my space thinking of my stuff and like working on it for the most part I try to do to my own thing. And I really enjoy that. Just the, the ability to go, if I want to go on an overnight backpacking trip in the middle of the week, I can, or even just, just go out for breakfast on a Tuesday. That's, that's the best part of the job, you know, does it beat having a employer match 401k and like a health insurance and dental insurance? Probably not for most people, but for me, it's, it's pretty great. You know?
Aaron: So it sounds like very engineer's specific if this is what I'm wanting, this is where I want the, the experience of my life to look like the freedoms that I want, the et cetera than this, that means this so that black and white thinking seems to then yield that I guess, a linear connection to that, how to engineer your life in such a way that you can do that.
Brendan Leonard: Right. No excuses just produce that sort of idea. I think if it also is just backing away from the things you don't, you don't want maybe, um, where you realized, I don't know if I work so well in a nine to five office environments, uh, maybe I'll try to get out of that or maybe I don't do so well with this. Maybe I'll, you know, check that off your list and pursue other things until you have something to look sort of like what you, what you envision or what feels really good.
Aron: Tell me about your collaboration work, maybe even friendship with forest Woodward, I'm looking at your, the camping life book that you have.
Brendan Leonard: Yeah, we met, um, 2012, a mutual friend invited both of us on this charity mountain climb of Mount Whitney. So it was like snow climb up the mountaineers route with, uh, like 10 other people. And we just, we just kinda hit it. Yeah. I actually used to have that friend's job. And I was the previous person in that position where you've convinced people to do these charity mountain climbs, which is it's a cool job. Um, but yeah, you ended up doing a couple of them yourself and he invited us and I said, Oh, sure, that sounds great for us. And yeah, just a great photographer. We started doing magazine features together. And then, um, I only did like a handful of those. And then we started working on film projects together, which is really fun because I had no visual, you know, eye for anything and learned quite a bit from him just in watching him, you know, sort of over the shoulder thing. And then, yeah, we did want to be done like one, two, three, four, five, something like five or six films together, short films. And then we finally did a book couple of years ago. I think we spent the better part of, I think it was like 70, some days out in, in the field shooting these trips for this camping book. I'm just doing everything from big wall climbing to skiing, Mount Shasta, to snow camp. And multi-day sea kayaking trips backpacking. It's been a lot of fun for sure.
Aaron: I'm looking through the camping book and it's just exquisite. It's like coffee table quality
Brendan Leonard: Sticks around longer than Instagram. For sure. We've really had a great year just going all around the country with different friends and saying, Hey, can you go backpacking up the lost coast trail with us for four days? Or, you know, we want to take you skiing on Mount Shasta, or we want to take you to a tree house in, uh, Kentucky, or took some friends glamping in upstate New York and like touring and the CNO canal, stuff like that. So it was just really a cool cool year project.
Aaron: Yeah. Right on what I'd love for you to do, Brandon is, um, would you act as a coach for the next few minutes and coach us on this “no excuses just produce.” So for those people that are listening that are puzzled by that, and they have infinite lists of possibilities of things they could do should do lists that go with their lists. And yet really just struggled to convert that into action. How can you translate your superpower into some actionable steps they might choose?
Brendan Leonard: That's funny because as you say that I literally have all those things going on too.
Aaron: So I can't see you're able to hide all of that.
Brendan Leonard: Yeah, no, it's, yeah. They're all on my phone and every other place, but I think this is true in any creative medium, all you need is permission. And if you just give yourself permission, you can start doing it the way things go. Now, you don't really have to ask, you can self publish a book like in an afternoon, if, you know, if you sit down and do it and you have the writing finished, I think most people's problem is having the confidence to get started and say, I am doing watercolor landscape prints, and I'm going to put these out there and see what people think of them and try to drum up a following on social media or whatever it is, you know? And I think to encourage people, I would say it's, it's a very low risk endeavor to put creative work out there, you know, unless you're emotionally sensitive. And what you have to say is very controversial. Um, because I, I try to just shy away from arguing with people on the internet.
So, you know, when you put stuff out there at first, no, one's gonna read it. It's like, it's like, don't worry. You're not, you know, like your mom's going to like it. And then maybe five of your friends will read it, but you're not going to, like, you're not pushing, publish on the internet and immediately getting it in front of millions of people. And by the time you do have a large following, you can go back and delete that old stuff. It's like, I got, I hate that drawing. I know a few people liked it, but I'm just going to, I'm just going to take that offline. You know, I, I do, I have nine years of blogs and when I scroll through them, you know, sometimes I'll, I'll go through to make sure the sites work, you know, cannot be like, what was that one about? And I'll click on it. And like this piece of garbage, I'm going to unpublish this, you know, whether it's podcasting, you know, sculpting whatever, you know.
I don't believe there are that many geniuses out there or people who are just raw talent. I feel like everybody puts in the work and gets there really to just pick something you can finish is so satisfying for, for, for me personally, that's why I sort of tackle small goals before I try to, you know, Oh, I want to write a 900 page book, you know? And it's like, that's, that's huge. You know, that is, that gives you a lot, a lot of room to fail. And, you know, if you say, I want to write 500 words a day until I have a book that's manageable 300, that's even more manageable. Most days you'll end up writing way more than that.
You know, we're intimidated by trying to do something and being bad at it and, you know, sucking it first and then, and then waiting to get, having the patients to get better. But a lot of people will set goals that are really way too large. And it doesn't take into account all of the little work that goes into it to, to achieve that big goal. So it's like that classic new year's resolution, you know, I'm going to, I'm going to lose 50 pounds or I'm gonna run a sub four minute mile this year and I'm starting from zero and I'm going to go to a hundred. I'm like, do you try to get to 10, you know, start from zero and get to get to five, you know, like, see if you can make it happen for a week and then try to do something for a year, as opposed to saying, I'm going to do X thing every day, this year, um, these, these big unattainable goals that go fly in the face of our, you know, really human, uh, human things about us that, you know, things do come up, he maybe not be able to write 500 words a day for 365 days straight. You know, maybe you should only do it three days a week. Maybe you gotta, you definitely have to go to the gym on Tuesdays and Thursdays, or it's your turn to take the kids daycare or something like that. You know, it's like factor in that stuff before you put up these big audacious goals.
Aaron: And I just love, like, again, it's just anchored in this. I would just call it like the gift of everyday ness.
I think, um, have to look at my phone, but I think it's 19 day running streak, just super small, like, you know, I'm going to do, I'm going to do one mile a day period, and I'll do more some days, but every day I'll do a minimum of a mile. And then I got some buddies and said, Hey, you guys should join me. And then we'll do it with a pool. And each guy that drops out has to put in a hundred bucks so that the last man standing gets, you know, whatever, the 300 of the other four. And, um, and so it's been super fun and I've done way more than a mile a day, um, some days, but then some days I'm not. And I go back to what's manageable. What can I do? What's the no excuses just produce the, do it or fail.
You know, why try like all those same things. And I think what I heard Seth Godin say once is that it's an easy decision once you make it once. And what he was about is in his case, he's been writing a daily blog for over 11 years and hasn't missed a day and I've asked him, I've heard other people ask him, like, how do you do that? And he's like, I decided to do it, period. I made that decision one time and I've never looked back on it. And then it builds over time. And then I appreciate your highlighting. Well, oftentimes when we see people we admire or aspire to be like, um, I read an article once it was about technology companies number of years ago. And it was saying that I'm an, an overnight success is actually 10 years in the making of somebody busting their ass every day. Very infrequently is what we see. What at somebody's pinnacle, like you mentioned is actually the reality. There's actually a behind the scenes that would you call it the invisible work or the hidden work.
Brendan Leonard: Yeah. For the invisible work is what I call it.
Aaron: Yeah. I mean, it's so many hours, days, months, years, thanklessness invisible. Hiddenness that? I think people just underestimate when they're sitting at the starting line trying to say, how do I just hurry up and get to the finish line, like I see Brendan's at today. And I think that's just the wrong question. The better question is what is it that I can start that I can do? And then if I can get over that fear, or you mentioned too, like, uh, the emotionally sensitive, you know, if you are doing controversial stuff, you better have some pretty thick skin, but if your ship a drawing on Instagram, like you said, your mom and three people are going to see it at first. So it's not a big deal and you can go delete it later if you have to.
Brendan Leonard: Yeah. I mean, it can go viral, but also I, I think of that slow grind as well. And like, I don't know that having two explosive things a year is a good motivation as opposed to like a good small audience. That's really engaged with what you do. And if I could go back to when I was younger and trying to write, I would say, look, do you actually just, do you actually want to write, or do you want to be famous? Because I think when I was younger, I thought, Oh my God, that'd be so great to be famous. And now I'm like, that would be the worst thing ever. Can you imagine being like Leonardo DiCaprio, trying to go buy avocados that, you know, the grocery store? No, I want to go, I want to go buy my own groceries. I need to be recognized on the street.
Would I like to make people's lives better in a small way? Sure. But being famous has nothing to do with that. You know? So I think there's a couple of different motivations for people nowadays with creative work or always has been, I think the more mature you are, the more real you can get about your motivations for it, or at least at least I am, you know, it's going that way for me, for sure. Some of my last summer's writing workshop students, or, you know, women in their fifties, sixties, 70, uh nobody's in their seventies, fifties and sixties. And it was great, you know, because it was such a pure, nobody was coming into the workshop, thinking they were, they were going to, you know, have a bestselling book. They all just had a thing they wanted to, to share with people. They had good stories too, because they already lived quite a bit before they started writing.
So I think about that a lot. I don't know. It's a pretty cool thing. If you can make some art and a handful of people are into it, or it makes a difference in their lives and uh, in a small way, whatever that is, you know, cause I think there's very few books or works of art that I have ingested in 41 years of ingesting art that I would say that book changed my life in such a such a massive way. You know, it's, there aren't that many that make you do a 90 degree turn or 180 degree turn, but there's a ton of them that make you do a little half degree adjustment to the writer, to the left and, and guide you a little way. So if you can be there for somebody else, that's a pretty, it's a pretty awesome thing I think.
*We’ve done our best for this transcription to accurately reflect the conversation. Errors are possible. Thank you for your patience and grace if you find errors that our team missed.
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