Motorcycle Adventuring as a Design Bootcamp

On January 2013 I left my job at Groupon to embark with my wife on a year long motorcycle journey from San Francisco to Ushuaia, the southernmost city of Argentina. We crossed 14 borders, covered 32000 kilometers and made many friends along the way.

A couple of months ago we decided it was finally time to get back to work. We began by updating our resumes and online portfolios before calling our friends in search of solid job leads.

With such a long employment gap we figured it was only a matter of time before a wise recruiter started asking questions. Very much to our surprise my wife landed a job without raising any eyebrows. Just when I thought I might also dodge that bullet, the hiring manager I was interviewing with that one day asked:

“Say, that is quite a wonderful adventure you had, what would you say are the top 3 things you learned on your journey that might change the way you work?“

I took a deep breath, raked my brain for a few nuggets of wisdom and against all odds came up with the following.

1. Believe in humankind

A local draws a few litres of gasoline from an improbable container to help us getting to the next town

When we told our friends we were going to ride our motorcycles South through Mexico and Guatemala they immediately warned us about the many lethal perils we would be facing. “If the narcos don’t kill you then the corrupted cops will get you!” we were told. “Stay away from Guatemala, one person gets shot every minute, they have like the world record!”

Despite these words of caution we left the comfort of our Silicon Valley apartment and crossed not only Guatemala but also El Salvador, Colombia and Bolivia, all places of somber reputation. There, we found folks bruised by decades of civil war, people wary of foreigners whom, some said, are known to kidnap children, men trying to make ends meet despite dire circumstances, but foremost we found fellow human beings, ready to go out of their way to help a stranger. A few kind words, a nice gesture and a hand held out was all it took to break walls of a prioris and find a connection.

We learned a powerful lesson there, one we try to live up to both in our everyday lives and at work. In situations where differences in opinions or views on a particular line of action can easily create cleavages and lead us to antagonize the other party, the first step towards a solution often lies in reaching out, finding a common ground and connecting through what we have in common.

2. If best is not an option, settle for good

Dealing with a mechanical failure in San Francisco is a walk in the park, call AAA, let your favorite mechanic do the work, or if you are in the mood for greasy fingers order OEM parts overnight from any online shop. Things get trickier in, let’s say, Peru. Local dealers have zero inventory for your bike and need a month lead time for special orders. Parts shipped from the US collect dust on a shelf at the Customs office and most local motorcycle workshops tend to operate at worryingly low standards. Yet cars from the 70’s can still be seen smoking down highways and cheap chinese motorcycles zoom through traffic despite known reliability shortcomings.

The locals must know something we don’t. We saw gaskets cut from manilla folders, arc welders bring shattered frames back to life and rebars used as perfectly acceptable tire irons. Thinking outside the box is the only way to repair anything and motorcycle maintenance always turns into a highly creative exercise.

Similarly, the ideal solution to a design problem might not be a practical one. Instead of struggling against resource, time or financial constraints be flexible, optimize the use of what’s available and make judicious compromises.

A perfect workshop is rarely available to perform urgent repairs. Improvise to get the job done

3. Plan to improvise

Like many projects, our adventure began with a simple goal and a few constraints. Our goal was to reach Ushuaia and enjoy the ride there as much as possible. Our constraints boiled down to staying away from the main roads, taking the time to stop and meeting the people, no crash and no divorce.

Who said a 200kgs motorcycle could not got down a few stairs

We also had a deadline of sorts, in order to not freeze to death we had to get to Ushuaia in the Summer, the southern hemisphere one that is, spanning from December to February. Rapid calculations told us that we would have to cover an average of 105km everyday for 300 days to make it in time. Add to that the one hundred landmarks we wanted to visit and you get a solid roadmap.

Confident in our planning we left the Bay Area on February 28. Two months later we had not left Mexico and had covered 3000kms, 1500kms short of our objective. A stricter plan was needed and armed with a map and a calendar we defined for ourselves not only new waypoints but more importantly target dates to reach them. Over coffee we would then regularly assess our progress: “We still have two weeks to make it to Panama, we can chill for a few days on the beaches of Costa Rica but we’ll have to ride 350 kms per day for 3 days after that”.

This approach allowed us to stay on schedule and explore the spots we had picked ahead of time but significantly stifled improvisation.

Some unknown villages proved themselves surprisingly charming, teasing us to stay longer than planned. Locals were eager to recommend unique landmarks we were unaware of, and naturally, random trailheads conspired to make us take lengthy detours.

When we heard ourselves say: “we don’t have time to stop here, we need to make it there by tomorrow” we knew It was time to concoct yet a new strategy, one that will prove successful in the long term and applies directly to the corporate world.

  1. Define goals while scheduling checkpoints to reassess their validity
  2. Keep track of your progress but reserve time to wander off
  3. One eye stays focused on the goal while the other scans for opportunities

We also learned that sometimes we needed to follow our hearts while keeping sight of the consequences. That is how we ended up camping in random places, riding at night, having exhausting days or breaking some parts. The spice that turns a journey into an adventure and a dull narrative into wonderful stories.

more about our journey @