The Modern Day Guide To Embarking On A Quest

A young girl was walking along a beach, and was horrified to reach a spot where hundreds and hundreds of starfish had been washed up during a storm. One after the other, she'd pick up a starfish and throw it with all her strength back into the waves.

People watched her with some amusement, and one man approached her and said, “Hey, why are you doing this? Look at this beach, you haven't even scratched the surface. You can’t possibly save all these starfish!”

The girl looked down at her feet, then along the beach at the dying starfish. She bent down, picked up another starfish, and hurled it as far as she could into the ocean. Then she looked up at the man and replied, “Well, I made a difference for that one.”

This is my quest too. There aren't any starfish or beaches close by, but holy shit do I want to make a difference. I'm not about to cure cancer, or solve poverty, or end wars. But if I can make a positive difference to one person, then another, then another, that's pretty good in my book.

The idea of having a quest is not a new one. Literature, folklore and movies are obsessed with them. But what does going on a quest look like in the 21st century? Is it even a useful way to go about things?

Here's my take.

Play the cards you have

I have a hard time believing that you pick a quest like you're picking an avocado or a new pair of shoes.

Frodo destroying the One Ring, Dorothy returning home, Jason seeking the Golden Fleece or even Indy going after Arc of the Covenant; quests are often presented to you, not selected by you.

You need to give a damn about any quest you embark upon, and that's the whole point. The things you give a damn about and care deeply about will already be in your life. Whether it's your family, a cause, a community, a passion, or an injustice, you go about a quest because it means something to you right now.

You don't simply select a quest. A quest requireS that you can't not do it.

Ignoring a quest for something that already matters to you deeply would mean being someone you don't want to be. Honoring what matters it what's important.

The injustices, inequalities or hardships you’ve been dealt may make your quest apparent. Or if you find yourself scratching around the floor for a quest, it’s possible that the cards you need simply haven’t been dealt yet. And that's okay too.

So, what do you already know you have to do?

Own it

Sitting at home binging Netflix is not the way to embark on a quest. Waiting for someone to call you up and ask you to come along on their quest, is not the way to embark on a quest. And waiting until the time is perfect is not the way you embark on a quest.

Going on a quest implies ownership; it requires some responsibility. Which, of course, is why a lot of people steer clear of them, because it seems to ask too much of us.

But look, embarking on a quest doesn't require that you give up everything you know and doesn't need to be earth-shattering. It can be gentle and graceful, and still honor what matters to you.

Just don't assume that someone else will pick up the mantle and don't wait for a “perfect time” that will probably never come.

Be ready to own it, no matter how big or small.

It's not about you

A quest is not about you gaining status, validation, recognition, wealth, fame or anything else. A quest is about doing something that serves other people, even if some—or all—may never know what was done for them.

It might impact an individual, a family, a company, a profession, a community or a cause, but if it doesn’t benefit others then it’s not a quest.

This isn't to belittle or demean the things you might want to do for yourself. It's important to invest time in the places that serve you well, secure your future and shape your life in the ways that matter. Just don't conflate the things you do to serve yourself, with the things you do in service of a quest.

A quest is bigger than you.

Hold an intention

The road ahead can be long and challenging with difficulties both deep and complex, and without something to remind you why you’re doing this it's easy to get sidetracked, diverted, distracted or lost.

What helps, is having an intention; something you can carry with you and rally behind that keeps you going.

The girl on the beach had the intention to make a difference to one single starfish at a time. My intention is to make a tangible difference to individuals. Your intention should be something that reinforces what matters to you in a simple way. Something that enables you in your quest, makes sense of how you're going about it, and allows you to take one step at a time.

So what would be a simple, smart and compelling way to complete the sentence, I intend to... ?


You don't have to do it all alone.

There's nothing noble about taking it all on your shoulders, it's not weak to invite others to help you, and it doesn't mean less if you don't do it all yourself.

You don't have to have all the answers, skills and knowledge need to embark on the quest, and that's exactly where other people come in.

It's not about pride, independence or strength (it's not about you, remember?), so if inviting people to help you out, contribute or support helps move things forward, then it has to be a strategy that's worth exploration.

So always be aware of the temptation to do it all yourself, or where an overdeveloped sense of responsibility has you over-extending.

How can you invite others to support you, help or come with you?

Put one foot in front of the other

How do you eat an elephant?

One bite at a time.

Embarking on a quest can seem like a huge challenge, and the end might feel unreachable. But all you gotta do is put one foot in front of the other, and take that next step.

Don't worry about how you'll get from step 2 to step 100. Just look at going from step 1 to step 2.

Two things.

  1. Don’t judge value on the pace you’re keeping or how many steps ahead you’ve planned. There’s value in simply taking a step.
  2. Sure, plan a step or 2 ahead where it makes sense, but don't worry about everything that could happen beyond that. Trust that you can figure that out when the time comes, and don't fall into the trap of getting bogged down in planning instead of taking meaningful action.

So no matter how small, what’s your next step?

Be ready to leap

You might not feel ready or confident enough. You might not know what you're doing. And you might be trembling in your boots at the scale of the task ahead of you. Doesn’t matter.

Sometimes, you gotta take a leap of faith.

It's going to be tempting to turn back or find another way around (and sometimes it might be the compassionate thing to do), but when taking that leap and crossing that chasm feels more important than the experience of doubt, fear or second-guessing, you can take a breath, remind yourself of how far you’ve come, and leap.

Your confidence scales both by taking things step by step and by taking a leap of faith, so don't shy away from the hard choices out of convenience or discomfort.

You’ll never be more vulnerable

Theodore Roosevelt wrote:

The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.

I love this so much that I had It is not the critic who counts tattooed on my arm, as a reminder.

Embarking on a quest requires you to show up, often when you have no idea what you're doing or what's going to happen.

This uncertainty and exposure will have you wanting to run back to safety, but being willing to stride into the centre of the arena and stand exposed is what's needed.

A quest needs you to embrace risk and change with the same grace as you would the fruits of your endeavor, and this is the very essence of natural confidence—the deep understanding that you’re okay no matter what happens.

Are you ready to stand in the arena?

A quest leaves you changed

I don't think it's possible to embark on a quest and come out unchanged. A quest requires growth, stretch and learning. Often at a level we're not even aware of.

My work in helping individuals gain greater confidence and peace of mind has changed me deeply. In learning about how confidence works, I've learned about myself and have left old ways of thinking and being behind.

And I didn’t know it at the time, but my diagnosis with M.E. in Autumn 2008 was the start of a very personal quest. A quest to change the illness from disabling to enabling so that I can go about what matters to me.

I’ve had to continually make changes in order to adjust to the ups and downs of the illness. I've had to dig deeper than I ever thought possible, reaching down beyond a core of strength to find a core of peace and stillness that I never knew was there.

I never expected it, but what the illness has given me is of immense value.

These quests have made me a better confidence coach and a better person, and by no means are they finished. And so I think that a quest that doesn’t leave you changed isn’t a quest at all.

It’s a hobby.

Your quest, your way

The dictionary defines a quest like this:

1. a search or pursuit made in order to find or obtain something.
1. to search; seek.

So I can't help but wonder, what would your quest be?

  • Great article. Thank you for writing! One note- the “man in the arena” quote- I think that was Teddy Roosevelt who said that, not FDR. 🙂

    • Thanks! And – doh – you’re absolutely right of course. Sometimes my fingers write things without my brain getting involved!

  • Well, men go on many quests, some more worthwhile than others. They go on a quest for fame and fortune, success in the eyes of society, breaking some record (let’s say a sports record), finding the best partner, discovering some ancient artifacts, going to the moon, etc…No matter what kind of a quest one goes on, one learns many worthwhile lessons along the way.
    I belong to a unique category of questers- I have always wanted to discover my divine self. I spent a life time as a spiritual seeker. I am happy to report to you that my mission has been accomplished.

  • Thanks for the inspiring article Steve.

    As for your question, I am on a quest to building a life of freedom. Doing something I love and spending time with the people I love.

    “a quest that doesn’t leave you changed isn’t a quest at all” -> I love this.

  • Thanks Steve for a very interesting article. I hadn’t seen it before, but my current work project is very much a quest. While there’s no Rings to dispose of, I am frequently having to travel 200 miles north from home. Funnily enough, back to my old university town, so there are inner demons to slay. There are more fingers in the pie than Mrs Miggins’ finest, and you start to realise the Elders don’t give a damn about the Little People on the ground. I am learning so much about myself, and how much I care about the other people involved as well as the business outcome. I’m terrified of the timescales and the level of commitment needed to achieve them and the cost to my family. *Gulp*.

    • Gulp indeed Rob! Sounds like you’re doing some important work, and I can see how deep it’s making you dig. Just imagine how grey and comfortable life would be without what you’re doing though. You’re living, and that’s to be applauded.

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