“It is the attitude you take in life that will lead you to outstanding experiences and opportunities”

 Gold Awardee, Mitchell Johnson traveled to the States and Canada as part of completing his Gold Award. The experience was one that changed his perspective and broadened his sense of adventure. Read his story below to find out how…

I’d never been the adventurous type. Of course, I’d never really thought so and, if you had asked me, I would have said “Yeah, I love adventure!” What I suppose I would have meant is that I loved the idea of adventure, or at least the concept of adventure that has been glorified in film and text. I consider myself somewhat risk and change averse; the fear of the unknown consequences of change is enough to paralyse me in decision making.

Through this well-meaning but extremely conservative attitude, I have, retrospectively, thrown away more opportunities than I care to think about, and I am now only 25. Said opportunities include travel experiences, living arrangements and employment opportunities, and I either deliberately ignored or mistakenly botched many such events, simply because part of me feared that they would interfere with the smallest details of my everyday life.

It didn’t go unnoticed either; some of my friends would say that I’m my own worst enemy. Even my employment provider contact, while discussing how every little thing was going, would become a little frustrated. Not over the missed opportunities, but because of my attitude once I had recognised the mistake; I felt I was never going to get any better at maximising life’s experiences. Encouragement to the contrary was always welcome, though.

Part of having an un-opportunistic view of the world is that I tend to do things slowly and deliberately. On a day in 2012, I was at an industry workshop in Melbourne. Sometime after having watched a particular presentation, I wished to speak with the presenter. I asked another attending presenter if she was available. He told me that she had already left for the airport, to catch a plane back to New Zealand that afternoon.

This surprised, confused and, finally, troubled me.

My automatic plan for travelling such long distances would be to seek accommodation, arrive the day before, and depart the day after. I brought this new idea before my regular critics, and was surprised to learn that this was quite a common arrangement. Many professionals regularly commute by aeroplane for meetings, interviews and presentations. In fact, many people reading this may very well be thinking “Doesn’t he know that many people fly in and out of places on the same day? It’s perfectly common practice.”

I believe I was raised to be risk-averse, by a single mother who was too concerned with safety and conservation to promote the values of adventure-seeking and entrepreneurship. If ever I was about to do something with any risk, she would start with the What-Ifs: “What if you decide you don’t like this”, “What if that doesn’t come through”, until I had an alarming amount of doubt and anxiety built up in me.

One negative attitude she never managed to impress upon me was the idea of giving up, at least not easily. Her words, when faced with opposition or initial setback, were “It just wasn’t meant to be.” Terrible though I am at recognising or taking up opportunities, I do not like to give up once I’ve started. If one way doesn’t work, I’ll look for another.

One opportunity I had managed to take up in early high school was the Duke of Edinburgh program. I had achieved my Bronze level and decided to skip Silver and go for Gold. Completing the Gold level had more challenges to overcome, and there was one component that did not translate from Bronze so easily: The Residential Project. I completed much of the award in my own time. I volunteered in a Salvos Store, I took the hikes that were offered at my school, my skill and physical recreation requirements were easy once I found something suitable that could hold my interest for a sustained period of time.

By the start of 2013, I had only two things left: my final Adventurous Journey and my Residential Project. Due to my being 24 years old and most certainly not a school kid, completing the Adventurous Journey was difficult at first, as most hiking programs that cater for the Duke of Edinburgh award are restricted to under-18s. I didn’t want to try to do it solo. After a few false leads and dead ends, I found one offered by Quest Skills for Life, which arranges Duke of Edinburgh hikes regularly.

This left only the Residential Project. I understood the premise: spend five days (four nights) away from home, contributing to a community through purposeful activity and mix with new people who aren’t “regular companions”. Most Residential Project examples that I encountered involved travelling, either domestic or internationally, to a rural community or camp, and learning leadership skills or helping a community build sustainable infrastructure.

I was set to complete an adventurous activity as an optional bonus to a course I was enrolled in. The course was about game development and business skills and included a trip to the Penny Arcade Expo (PAX Dev and PAX Prime) to display anything we had produced, and learn further about the game development business.

The trip was an optional, non-assessed component of the course and although I had spent a great deal of time with some of my fellow travellers working on the project we were going to display, I wouldn’t have called them my regular companions. Plus, we’d be mixed with students from other campuses, and then further with the international PAX community. I discussed the Residential Project with the coordinator, who agreed that the trip fit the criteria, and he became my assessor.

Here it became clear that I still hadn’t developed the mindset to recognise opportunity; I didn’t initially identify the trip as an opportunity to complete the Adventurous Journey component. It didn’t fit my self-constructed impression of “doing-it-tough” in a foreign setting. It was only when I discussed the trip with a fellow Adventurous Journey hiker that she said it may count.

The Residential Project component was easily completed: two days of learning, networking and teamwork, then three of displaying the game I had helped produce. As a somewhat introverted individual, I thought that I would have anxiety problems talking to so many strangers over a length of time. To my surprise, I managed about as well as everyone else. The highlight for me was one particular workshop, where I formed a group with two complete strangers and constructed the basis for a tabletop Role-Playing Game that I was quite proud of.

Yet still, I was coming close to completing the Duke of Edinburgh Award, and it was starting to have an effect on me. PAX was in Seattle, and I was aware of its close proximity to Vancouver, Canada. A random traveller planted the idea in my head, and I couldn’t let it go. The PAX experience was six days in total, but the last day I had to myself. I recalled the lesson I had learnt from an efficient presenter the previous year, and I planned a day trip to Vancouver, buying a same-day return train ticket. Most websites recommended Stanley Park as the place to go, and one of the most frequently recommended activities was cycling.

So, early in the morning on the last day, I made my way to the train station. My mother’s voice was loud in my mind: “What if it’s a scam?”, “What if you miss the train back?”, “What if you get hurt in Canada?” Danger, Danger, Danger! I was anxious, but I suppressed any hesitation.

It was worth it! I had a wonderful six hours in Vancouver, catching buses and cycling around Stanley Park in blessedly beautiful weather. I met many lovely strangers, including a woman who gave me some of her spare bus passes, and a couple who caught up with me to return the phone I didn’t know I had dropped.

I made it back into Seattle in the late evening, as though I had never left. Immediately, perhaps through pride in what I had just accomplished, I began to lament my fellow travellers; most would only see the one city during the entire trip, and some saw nothing other than that between the convention centre and our accommodation. Unfortunately, my lessons in travelling were not done. A manufacturing error in my phone, which I had used as my camera for the trip, rendered the photos I had taken irretrievable; the first rule of computing is “Always make a backup!”

So I returned home, a little changed and very excited about the prospect of travel. A final example on where I was and where I hope I am heading came during the lead-up to my Duke of Edinburgh presentation. I invited one local friend and my mother, but the application needed to be submitted within a very short time. Upon hearing this, my mother panicked and suggested I call my father. I couldn’t reach him immediately, but left a vague message on his phone telling him to call me back urgently. Later, he tried but couldn’t reach me, and called my mother, who told him what it was about. By the time I reached him later that evening, he had booked a same-day return ticket to Melbourne for my presentation.

The contrast between my parents was striking; while my mother hesitated with thoughts of getting time off work and flights and accommodation, my father had a very different attitude. When I mentioned this to him, he said “I was going to make it work, one way or the other!” Truly, it is the attitude you take in life that will lead you to outstanding experiences and opportunities, and I pity those whom I hear say, all too often, “It’s just who I am,” as though it was something they could never change.

By Mitchell Johnson, Gold Awardee

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