It's not often I meet the setter of fifteen Guinness World Records for breakfast. But here I was this morning, a month after puzzling over the connection between play, education, and exploration that resulted in a Hail Mary email, sitting in a hole-in-the-wall breakfast cafe in Des Moines south of SeaTac airport with local legend Erden Eruç, hearing the tale of his solo circumnavigation of Earth by rowboat, bicycle, and very little else. That's right, he's the first human to go 'round the world under his own steam. (Not all at once; the rules allow adventurers to hit "pause" and pick up where they left off, which he did over the course of 5 years, 11 days.) From his childhood in the home of a Turkish army general to his dot-com career to captaining an intercontinental vessel built for one, Erden has lived more life than most people watch in a lifetime of films.
I will not attempt to recreate his entire story here. But his insight into the nature of play, the game of life in which we all participate, how dreams and ambitions get built by action and perseverance, and the influence we have on the lives of children intricately connects with my experience in play design.
Before you jump ahead to the end, yes, I did ask him the big question: WHY? Why traverse the globe under human power? His response: "To demonstrate mastery." That didn't make any sense to me, so I dug for more. "I'm controlling my destiny," he explained. How is that different from merely getting out of bed in the morning? "The greater the challenge the more satisfaction you derive from it." As I examined whether satisfaction is a good enough reason to risk my life on the open seas, he shared a quote from John Fairfax, the first man to row across an ocean by himself: "To test what we are made of, that is our pursuit."
That pursuit eluded Erden well into adulthood. Then in 1997 while working in Washington D.C., he traced his finger across a map on the office wall from America's Eastern Seaboard through the Atlantic to Turkey, his native country. In that moment his dream of rowing an ocean crystallized into an obsession. But he didn't act on it until tragedy propelled him forward. Five years of excuses later on a casual Monday climb, his friend—international adventuring celebrity Göran Kropp, who had once ridden his bicycle from Sweden to ascend Mount Everest alone—fell to his death as Erden watched helplessly from below.
A few months later, after mourning at Kropp's funeral, Erden sold his house on Lake Washington, cashed in his 401k, and began preparing for his own adventure. "I saw life was too short," Erden told me over his black diner coffee. "I didn't know what would happen. Do I pursue my hopes and dreams, or stay and wallow in the city?" In wintery February, 2003, he definitively answered that question by mounting his bicycle and riding through Canada and the Alaskan wilderness to climb Mount McKinley, the tallest point in North America. It would be the first of six continental apexes he intended to climb in honor of Göran Kropp. Following his descent from McKinley he rendezvoused with his fiancée Nancy on an Alaskan beach where they were married in a tribal ceremony, then he bicycled home to plan the next phase of his adventure.
Erden struck me as a businessman as well as an adventurer. This global excursion had to cost money. "If we can make play out of work, it's more fun," reasoned Erden as our skillets arrived at the table. Inspired to honor Kropp's legacy of sponsoring educational opportunities for underprivileged children, and to fund this endeavor, Erden and Nancy formed their own non-profit Around-n-Over. "I tried to make play into work," he told me, finding a way to leverage his audacious dreams and indomitable spirit toward funding international children's education and his own adventures—which would become the message itself.
He described using his satellite phone from the middle of the Indian Ocean to call the children in one of his sponsored Turkish classrooms. It blew their minds. "I might as well have been an astronaut," Erden grinned at me, recalling his own childhood memory of his Turkish boarding school's black-and-white television, watching astronauts from Apollo 17 land on the moon. He emphasized the transformational impact of his adventure on those children hearing from a brave hometown hero—"One of their own doing audacious things." When I asked the purpose of those audacious acts, his eyes burned with an internal heat. "Defining the game on my own terms," he stated boldly.
That is, in its essence, the message of his non-profit Around-n-Over: defining what it means to be human, finding our place in the universe. "Throw at them these stories," he said urgently. "Corrupt their thoughts a little bit, away from the message society tells them. Break away from the mold and do something worthwhile." The opportunity big adventures and big risks offer is the opportunity to determine what success means. "If I let society dictate success, I am playing to the drumbeat of someone else," Erden said, eyebrows pressed together. But by taking responsibility for decision-making, research, preparation, networking, and execution, "I'm controlling my destiny."
I pressed for the values underlying his actions and statements. He described growing up with an active, involved father who taught him to swim and ski at age four—uncommon in that day and place—climbing mountains together when Erden was eleven. (Decades later, they met up on Erden's bicycle ride across Africa to climb Kilimanjaro together in 2010 around his father's 78th birthday.) His father discouraged Erden from running to his younger brother's aid at times, respecting every child's need to conquer difficulties on their own. Erden described his father's concern that children must "learn how to get up." He explained, "If you keep hand-holding them, they never grow up."
In my view, this desire for independence, autonomy, agency, and self-actualization forms the bullseye of Erden's worldview. An he shared about his upcoming adventure, preparing with a crew of ten to sail a painstakingly replicated Viking longboat from Norway through the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean to his home country of Turkey, Erden gave an example. He told me how the Vikings, having exhausted their resources, weren't just plundering villages along distant coastlines—they were looking for a new future, a new home, unsure of what they would find. "It wasn't obvious to the Vikings," he believes. "They didn't know, but they decided to go." His eyes gleamed as he described their adventure, so similar to his own: taking off into the unknown, being comfortable in the elements, demonstrating mastery. Erden smiled as he reflected on his connection with those ancient explorers. "It's the human story being told over and over."
The human story. I guess that's what I'm looking for, and what I'm hoping my obsession with play helps me find.