I’ve attended dance parties in the jungles of Panama, founded a network of the world’s most extraordinary people (including Nobel Laureates, award-winning actors, Olympians, and members of royalty, among others), and hosted secret dinner parties in cities all across the country.
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Which is why when people hear that I was incredibly awkward and unpopular growing up, they think I’m lying. But it’s true: I was such a social outcast that when my eighth-grade classmates were given the option of setting our seating chart, they all requested not to sit with me. I was devastated! When you’re 13, school and your peers are your entire life.
Looking back, I’m not surprised. I was a geek who loved computers and sci-fi, and in the 90s, there were no cool nerds or dot-com billionaires or fun tech toys like iPhones and apps. So I found myself on the outside looking in. And if I was going to figure out a way in, I would have to rely on the one thing I had to my advantage. What I lacked in social skills, I made up for in my love of science.
Inspired by movies like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, where the charismatic hero creates audacious adventures, I thought that if I could learn to be as fun as Ferris, then maybe my life could be different.
Unfortunately, the transformation from outsider to world-class adventurer was a long one. It wasn’t until I was 15 that I felt like I fit in for the first time. I was telling a story to a group of fellow campers on the first night of a new camp, and to my surprise, they were laughing.
Outside of our normal social circle, we have the freedom to explore different aspects of our personality.
Before this, it never occurred to me that I could be the “cool” kid. Now I know that there’s a scientific explanation: Our brain responds and acts differently in unfamiliar environments. Outside of our normal social circle, we have the freedom to explore different aspects of our personality. We aren’t stuck with the same labels and are less likely to fall into routines.
For the first time, I had made friends that saw me as more than just a geek. Every weekend, we would hang out. But as teenagers, we had massive constraints, including money, where we could go, and time in-between homework assignments.
That’s when I discovered that the constraints actually made the experiences more fun by forcing us to get creative. We would have 10-person sleepovers where we cooked together, snuck into the park after hours to play games, and tried to convince the local bodega to sell us a six-pack. I realized fun wasn’t something that happened. It was created—and I could become masterful at it. The more fun I created, the more people wanted to participate. I had figured out my way to popularity.
By my early 20s, I was creating outlandish events like “The Drunken Dodgeball Bonanza.” I would get 70-plus friends together. We‘d have drinks and then go to the park for an epic late-night dodgeball battle. By my mid-to-late 20s, I’d become so social that I was going out four to five nights per week. But once you’ve done that for a while, even the most exciting nights out seem tame and uninteresting.
I realized to make my social experiences more exciting, I had to treat them like a laboratory. I would take scientific research and test how it applied to having an adventurous night. I developed deep insights, and clear patterns began to emerge. Research by Christakis and Fowler changed the way I would choose which friends to invite out; I would bring together different personalities to see what would happen. Nobel Laureate Dan Kahneman’s peak-end rule shows that we disproportionately value how an experience ends. So I always ended an adventure on a high note, even if it meant ending it early.
Research also shows that asking for small favors increases the chances that people will fulfill bigger ones and also causes them to like you more. Now I ask strangers for lots of favors to develop fast friendships. The list goes on and on.
Sometimes adventures went poorly (I was crushed by a bull in Pamplona). Other times they would be inspiring successes (I battled Kiefer Sutherland in drunken Jenga and even convinced the duty-free cashier at a Stockholm airport to leave her job and travel with me within 10 seconds of meeting). But as I was exposed to more and more research, I became fascinated with doing my own and exploring questions about human behavior.
Perhaps my greatest insight was that adventures don’t happen by chance; if they did, all of us would have similarly exciting lives, and we don’t. (But that doesn’t mean we can’t.) The key was decoding what adventurous people embody. This led me to create The EPIC (Establish, Push Boundaries, Increase, Continue) Model of Adventure, a surprisingly predictable four-stage process every adventure goes through and that anyone can apply to live a fun and exciting life.
The true gift of adventure is the person you become in the process, not achieving the goal you set in the beginning.
Taking purposeful action is really the point: If you feel trapped by stereotypes or labels, travel. You will discover parts of your personality that you didn’t know existed and create new friends. If you have limited funds or time, get creative. Use those constraints to your advantage and turn them into a mission. If something scares you but probably won’t kill you, do it. Getting out of your comfort zone is the only way to grow, and you’ll probably have fun doing it. If you fail, that’s OK. The true gift of adventure is the person you become in the process, not achieving the goal you set in the beginning.
As that eighth grader, I could never have imagined the deep and meaningful friendships I’d develop with remarkable people (who I now take on wild and EPIC adventures). The best part? Ferris Bueller’s schemes don’t hold a candle to the fun and craziness I’ve been able to create.
Jon Levy is a behavior scientist best known for his work in influence, networking, and adventure. He is the founder of The Influencers Dinner, a secret dining experience attended by more than 900 top thought leaders and taste makers, ranging from Nobel Laureates, Olympians, and celebrities, to executives, artists, and royalty. To learn more about how to create a fun, exciting, and adventurous life, pick up a copy of The 2 AM Principle: Discover the Science of Adventure.