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Career 23 Part 1: Explorer – Interview with Sarah Outen

Updated: Jun 7, 2019

Ok – admittedly this was never going to be an easy one to do, but it was one of the careers that I was most looking forward to. As has probably become apparent, I like going to quite remote places to see what’s there. I also enjoy hiking up things, skiing down other things and generally being outdoors as much as possible. I was one of those annoying children who always ran ahead to see what was at the top of the hill, and then the next hill, who had posters up of Everest and read every adventure book going. A cliché I know, but there you go.

Before diving in head first (Me? Never!), I started by taking a step back and speaking to an expert.

Sarah’s Journey

Sarah Outen MBE has been described as “obviously certifiably bonkers,” so I felt we clicked immediately.

At 24, she had a bit of a different year to me, rowing from Australia to Mauritius - the first woman and youngest person ever to row solo across the Indian Ocean. This launched her career as an adventurer, author and speaker. She began her second expedition not long after, London2London: Via the World. Sarah looped the globe by woman-power alone, via rowing boat, bike and kayak –25,000 miles over 4.5 years. In short, she is unquestionably one of my adventure-heroes.

As with many, becoming a full-time adventurer was rather unintentional. Whilst at university, Sarah had already decided she wanted to row across the Indian Ocean, but thought after that she would “become a teacher”, but as it happened, while she was out on the ocean she decided to do just one more journey. Sarah says she had a “sense of this is the time to do it, now.” She didn’t have any responsibilities, so she made the decision that “this is what I’m going to do and I’m going to set a timeline for doing it.” Her logic is certainly something I recognise in my own life choices!

In reality, it was more than that though. A life of exploring is passion led and comes from “a curiosity about the world, and a pure love of adventure and challenge.” You need to love it enough to be able to keep going when life is a “spectrum from sublime to horrendous” out on the ocean, alone.

How She Made It Happen

The first journey was what kick-started her career, as she’d organised sponsors, logistics, getting a team together. Sarah “approached it like any other project – thinking OK, I’m here and I’d like to be there. What things lie in the middle?” It was much easier to take that knowledge forwards for the second journey.

Sarah had a loose idea that after the Indian Ocean, she would “quite naively” be able to “give some talks and make some money, expecting that would be a really easy thing to do”. From experience, I can assure you that it is . To help, she “said yes to everything”, having to be her own judge and seek criticism to improve. Impressively, she didn’t have an agent or manager to help with the load or guide her – it was all off her own back. Whilst many speaking opportunities weren’t paid, they came from being approached and through word of mouth, so it was all “good experience and good practice”. Whilst speaking is the major contributor to actually monetizing her career, Sarah has also published two books. She was successful in getting a book deal with a publisher “even though the first only paid peanuts”.

Initially, much of the work and organisation came from Sarah and her mum, but by the second expedition, she was able to put together a support team of six to twelve people, both volunteers and professionals.

“Being able to say, hey I have credentials, rather than being this excitable 23-year-old who has got this vision, made is much easier. The experience is there, the learning is there, you’ve got a clear idea of what you need and want.”

To get started though, Sarah recommends building up a profile of expeditions or challenges that you can do by yourself and then thinking about whether you need sponsors. “Do you need them because without them you can’t make it happen, or do you need them because it would just be really nice to have some free stuff and the kudos of it?”

Sponsorship needs balance and to be mutually beneficial, as some can say “I’ll give you some free socks but want you to sell your soul” – the type of thing Sarah has learned to move away from as she’s progressed in her career. She’s also more aware of the other side of it too, with plenty of companies saying that they’ve provided supported and kit and got nothing in return. “It’s all about relationships and ending up in a happy middle ground that works for both me and the sponsor.”

An Average Week

I’ve often wondered what being an adventurer actually means you do on a day-to-day basis, when you aren’t away adventuring. It is very easy to glamorise some careers and assume that you would get to do the sexy bits all the time. In reality, of course, rowing across oceans is only part of the job, though learning that there is “no such thing as an average week” is reassuring.

Sarah’s income comes from being a speaker, so some weeks she is away from home for much of her time, travelling to and speaking at different events. Other weeks, she is writing articles, giving interviews, planning her next books, scoping out future projects (see her recently completed Kickstarter, for example!). Some weeks, though, is time spent doing admin – invoicing, accounts, preparing for other talks and generally working away in front of a computer. However, that time is relatively minimal, and she has the flexibility to have a good work-life balance. When part of your job depends on your emotional resilience and mental fortitude, it’s important to build in time for good sleep, exercise and spending time with her partner.

How To Get Started

In terms of advice, Sarah highlighted that an optimism, faith and belief in what you’re doing is important, as is knowing when to listen and when not to - figuring out what advice is useful and who is just there to “piss on your bonfire” - is a fine art.

Whilst she is a “big believer in following your instinct and your gut”, allies and mentors are crucial too, as it’s a learning process, so having people you trust that have done something similar will make all the difference. When approaching potential mentors or industry experts for advice, “be specific about what you want, don’t ask for information which you could have found online and don’t ask open ended questions.” Time is precious – adventurers don’t spend much of their time in front of computers!

Adventures are more achievable and accessible than they seem though, Sarah insists. “The media portrayal of adventure, particularly male adventure, is laced with hyperbole… a spectrum of things that count as adventure - start small, build your base and work up is really important. Clubs are a good way to make it a more accessible, friendly setting.”

On the financial side, creativity is important. There are plenty of grants and trusts available, though some are hidden away, and the Royal Geographic Society is a cornucopia of information and advice -their annual Explore seminar weekend is a great place to start. Sarah believes that it’s important that young people are prepared to “work and put at least some money in themselves”, and not have the expectation that it should all come from other sources.

What’s Next

Sarah got married eighteen months ago so is currently taking some time to be at home. She is writing a children’s book, has recently successfully completed a Kickstarter to turn London2London: Via the World into a film, and is working on ideas for other journeys.

For me, I’ve been enthralled by explorers and adventurers for a long time, and spent half my time with Sarah gushing. So, it only follows that I get on with it and do my own!

Part 2 coming soon...


You can find out more about Sarah on her website and see her books here.

All images of Sarah Outen are available on Flickr under a creative commons license.

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