What’s a Quest, exactly?
Updated: Apr 9
[You may want to check out the first post in my Quest series, "Stuck? Try a Big, Bold Quest"]
When we hear the word quest, we tend to think of game-changing, monumental wins, like Gertrude Ederle, the first woman to swim the English Channel, or Junko Tabei’s Everest summit (she was also the first woman to complete the Seven Summits).
You’ve probably read (or seen) Wild, Cheryl Strayed’s story about hiking 1,000 of the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail, alone--except for some wild critters, and even wilder fellow hikers.
You may have even read my post about the astounding Lynn Salvo, who decided to get fit at 50 and is headed for a third Guinness World Record at age 72.
But let me propose that much smaller quests can also have a huge impact. Maybe you’ve trained for and run a 5K, or met your goal to hit the gym every day for a month.
Or maybe your quest isn’t physical at all. Maybe it’s about expanding your cultural horizons, like Ann Morgan’s quest to prepare for the 2012 Olympics in London by reading a book about every country in one year (nearly one book every two days).
Maybe it’s about following a passion, like my own research quest with my husband to visit 150 Virginia wineries in 150 days as we worked to launch a travel app. Or my lifelong friend Marcia Call's decision to follow her passion at 55 and launch her own recruiting agency.
Quests can help you find your spiritual center, hone your skills on what’s been just a hobby-remember the Julie/Julia cooking challenge?-or shush a life goal that keeps prodding you to just get started already.
Many women are called to tie their quest to a humanitarian goal or principle. Terry Myers set out to catch one steelhead trout a month for a year to call attention to climate change. In his book about quests, The Happiness of Pursuit, Chris Guillebeau writes about Miranda Gibson, a 30-year old who climbed and lived 200 feet off the ground in a eucalyptus tree for 400 days, to protest industrial logging on her home island of Tasmania.
Guillebeau defines quests this way:
A quest has a few specific characteristics: a clear goal, a real challenge, and a set of milestones along the way. Interestingly, while a quest is often an extended physical journey—like visiting every country in the world or circumnavigating the oceans in a small sailboat—there are many other kinds of quests as well. Over several years of research, I met activists, academics, artists, and others who chose to spend long amounts of time on something that mattered to them. I was interested in why they undertook such a mission, and what happened to them as they drew closer to their goal.
As I read about and talk to women--midlife women in particular--to better understand what differentiates a quest from a goal or a journey for them, here’s how I've come to define it.
Ten Elements of a Quest
1. It’s yours. It's not what your spouse wants to do, or your kids. It's personal.
2. When you contemplate it, your heart speeds up. You feel a rush of adrenaline. You may have to stifle a giggle because it’s just so audacious.
3. It will take a significant amount of effort over a substantial amount of time, relative to the quest you’ve undertaken.
4. You may have no idea how you’ll find the time/money/support/courage to tackle it.
5. You’re afraid that if you go for it and then fail, you will be disappointed in yourself.
6. You may fear that if you fail, you’ll look bad or disappoint others.
7. You wonder if people might think it’s just some sort of attention-getting stunt, and a little doubt may creep in.
8. You may already be well into your quest without even knowing it.
9. You know that if you complete it, you’ll be changed, even if you don’t know how yet.
10. The quest has a clear and powerful ending. (Or, at least, that's part of your plan.)
A quick aside: When I decided to create a travel app for Virginia Wine Country, I had no grand plan – I just knew that I had a passion to be part of the growing wine industry in my state. I couldn’t contribute as a maker; I had a full-time job, lived in the suburbs, and much preferred the couch over the outdoors. But I could write, so I started a little Virginia wine travel blog.
Then the universe kicked in, introducing me to someone who introduced me to someone who had developed a travel app framework and was looking for content providers. Well, hello, yes, please, and thank you, Universe. One year later, my husband and I had checked off 150 Virginia winery visits (in 150 days – a quest within a quest!), written it all up, photographed it, and launched. I became a legitimate, contributing part of the industry – on my own terms – and it completely changed the course of my life.
Why Call it a Quest?
Why not just say I’m gonna practice my guitar every day for a year and then do an open mic night, and then do it? Why frame it – even if just in your mind - as a quest?
Because words matter. We are emotional animals, and building drama helps to get us off the mark, and to sustain us as we battle through.
When Aragorn yelled to his motley crew, "A day may come when the courage of men fails, but it is not this day!" in Return of the King, didn’t you desperately want to get in there with them?
Didn't your blood stir when Bluto from Animal House shouted to his Delta House brothers, "Over? Did you say over? Nothing is over till we decide it is! Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell no!"?
Even when the call to arms is ridiculous, it’s still energizing.
Up next… Meet some questers