Podcast

Episode 82 – Emily and Erik Orton, Going Scared (on a boat for a year!)

Emily and Erik Orton were in a rut. After a series of professional and personal failures, they felt like they needed to resuscitate their life. So, they did what any parents of 5 children would do – went sailing, FOR A YEAR! Today, Emily and Erik share with Jessica their epic voyage of living at sea. And they’ll reveal how the journey of staying alive taught them more than just survival skills – it taught them how to live again.

TRANSCRIPT

Jessica: Hey everyone! Welcome back to the Going Scared podcast. This is your host Jessica Honegger, founder of the social impact fashion brand Noonday Collection. Join me here every week for conversations on living lives of purpose by leaving comfort and going scared.

If you listen to this episode this week in November, hop on over to Instagram because I am on an epic road trip. I’m starting off in Boston and then I’m headed to New York and then D.C., Greenville, Charleston, Savannah, and Atlanta, and I am gathering with women every day to storytell and style and gather and use our purchasing power for good on behalf of Noonday Collection. So, hop on over to Instagram, follow along, and also if you live in any of those areas, let me know because I would love to invite you to one of my gatherings. The best way to get in touch with me is Instagram, @jessicahonegger—two Gs, one N.

Alright, today’s episode. I am sent books a lot by publishers because I have a podcast, and this book caught my eye. It’s called Seven at Sea: Why a New York City Family Cast Off Convention for a Life-changing Year on a Sailboat. That’s right. Erik and Emily Orton decided to sail with their five children, one of whom has Down syndrome. For several months, they lived on a boat, they did school on a boat, and this is about the time when I was about to go live in the Airstream. So, I said, “You know what? I want to talk to Erik and Emily about this.” It is such a great conversation with insights about family, about marriage, and about finding your purpose.

Jessica: So, before we actually get on the boat, tell us a little bit about what your lives were leading up to the journey, and, Emily, you can start us out.

Emily: Yeah. Where we were at that point is, we had four kids and living in a two-bedroom apartment, one bathroom, in New York City. We had three girls and a boy, and Erik had just had a business failure, and it was really kind of bitter, kind of crushing for him. But he got back to work, had a night job temping, and we proceeded to have a fifth child, and he was still working there being kind of discouraged about not finding the sort of job opportunities he was looking for, just interviewing, working on creative projects during the day.

 

From Failing to Sailing

Jessica: OK, Erik, so you’ve had a business failure, and you’ve got four kids now, another one on the way, and you fell in love with sailing, so tell us about that.

Erik: Yeah. Emily was saying, and you talk about this a lot, Jessica, about this, coming from a place, or overcoming our narratives of shame and embarrassment, and that’s what I felt when my business failed, and I felt very responsible for everyone that it affected, especially my family. And when I found … when I saw these sailboats, it just seemed very healing and soothing to me and it, honestly, it felt like something that, if I wanted to try it, it was within my control. It wasn’t something that had to be coordinated with raising money with others and business partners and all the other things that go along with running a business. It just felt like something that I could do, and it would be healing and restorative.

But I knew nothing about it, and it felt very other to me. I didn’t grow up sailing. I knew nothing about sailing. I didn’t even know anybody who really sailed. Yet, there was this school and Emily encouraged me to just check it out. And so, I went into work early one day and walked in and, for me, crossing from the dock into this floating school, which was on the water, was a big threshold because it was going into a completely new space where I felt naive, and so that was scary.

“I knew nothing about it, and it felt very other to me. I didn’t grow up sailing. I knew nothing about sailing. I didn’t even know anybody who really sailed.” Erik Orton

But the people were nice, of course, and welcoming, and they wanted to help make it happen. And my schedule was tricky because they catered to people who were available nights and weekends, which is exactly when I was not available. But they said, "If you can get a group of four together, we’ll create a custom class whenever it suits your schedule." And I tried to recruit co-workers and friends, and nobody else was really into this idea. And so, my big idea one day was, I had this aha moment in the shower, and I jumped out, and I said, "Hey, Emily, what if you and Karina and Alison and me are the foursome and we take the class together as a family?"

Jessica: Those are your oldest daughters?

Erik: Yeah. Yeah. Karina was 11 at the time, and Alison was 9. So, I was like, "What if we recruit these elementary school kids to be our classmates?" Anyway, so that’s where it began. And we had to kind of rally and I had to get humble and I took on a little bit of extra contract work back in the theater business, which is where I had my failure, to pay for this because we were not making any really good money at the time and, but I was determined to make this happen. And we had to get babysitters for the other kids, and we had to drive to midtown or downtown, which parking was atrocious. And there were … even for this one little teeny step, there just felt so many logistical obstacles. But we pushed through. We did the class, and we all became 101 certified as it were.

Emily: Yeah. I think the big thing was overcoming those limiting stories that we had about ourselves. Erik didn’t see himself as a sailor, and I was really afraid of deep water. I mean, I was traumatized when "Jaws" came out on TV in 1979, and I was 4 years old. So, I spent 33 years staying out of deep water at that point. And it was, I think it was something that we all had to overcome a fear and we all had to kind of rally together to get into this new place and start seeing ourselves in a new way. And even then, we just thought it was gonna be a class. It wasn’t until later that we realized this is gonna be a goal, and we articulated, we wanna sail for a year, as a family, before our oldest child leaves for college. And that’s when the heat really turned on because it was measurable because we had a timetable and things really started moving.

“I think it was something that we all had to overcome a fear and we all had to kind of rally together to get into this new place and start seeing ourselves in a new way.” Emily Orton

 

Sailing into Something New

Jessica: But I love the lesson, that even before getting on the boat, because it’s so counter intuitive, in the middle of a financial hardship and in the middle of feeling like a failure, to go and kind of start something new. I have a psychiatrist friend and whenever I go through bouts … I used to struggle with depression, especially after having my first baby, and I remember calling him one time and he just had this checklist of questions. And one of them was, "When’s the last time you tried something new?"

And there is something about getting out of our heads when we’re going through a hard time and trying something … That sort of acted as this, maybe a distraction but it gave you something to do together as a family and focus on something positive and an exciting new skill. And, I mean, you had no idea it was gonna lead to you now taking a journey for a year with your children on this boat and eventually a book and just a life of adventure. So, I love that you started it not from a high and from a bounty. And you talked at length in your book about the finances behind it all and how you went about the finances, which I so appreciated because it is easy to look and go, "Oh, they must have a trust fund." I mean, that’s what I thought when I saw the cover. I’m like, "Well, OK, obviously they had a trust fund." But then to actually read the sacrifices that were made to cause this to happen.

Now, I know Erik was … really fell in love with sailing and with the idea. Let’s talk a little bit about that dynamic between the both of you. Emily, I know you are a passionate, stay-at-home, homeschooling mom, and I just love … I am absolutely opposite of that … but I love meeting women that find so much passion there because it inspires me to love parenting in the same way that you love parenting. So, tell us about that dynamic when Erik’s getting serious like, “OK, y’all started talking finances.” You’re looking at boats. You’re putting it on the calendar. What were some of those real fears that then came?

Emily: Well, I was definitely concerned about the finances. I was concerned about school. I was concerned about social situations. I was worried … And, I mean, friendships. Who are our kids gonna be friends with and what was this gonna do to the friendships that they already had? I was concerned about our health and safety. I was studying medical books and stuff. And I appreciate what you’re saying … I did choose to stay home with my kids, and homeschooling wasn’t originally on the docket, but as that became our way of life, I try to take it very seriously and be very professional about it. Like, hey. I try to treat it like a career and so constantly studying how our brains develop and how relationships and environment affect the way that we learn.

And so, for me, all of those fears ended up being overcome by how good I thought it would be for our kids to disrupt themselves, to be in new situations, to experience new environments, new languages, new sights. All of that, I just felt like it was gonna be so good for them, and I also felt like it was gonna be really, really good for them to have lots of time around Erik, around their dad. He works so hard taking care of all of us and volunteering in the community, that meant he was away a lot, and I felt like they were getting too much my perspective and my worldview. And so, allowing them to just spend way more time with their dad and then in these other places.

“I was definitely concerned about the finances … about school … about social situations. … about our health and safety. … All of those fears ended up being overcome by how good I thought it would be for our kids to disrupt themselves, to be in new situations, to experience new environments, new languages, new sights.” Emily Orton

And one of the things I wasn’t counting on were all their friends and their perspectives that we’d met along the way, and that was so beneficial to them. And when we finally left, we ended up … I think our oldest daughter was entering into her junior year of high school. Homeschooling, but that’s still the year that you prep and take tests and things like that. And I just told her, "We’re going on this journey, and you’re gonna learn a lot of things that are not gonna be on the SAT, but I think they’re gonna help you in life. Can you trust us on this one?" Because those tests seem so important. But that is how it unfolded.

I care passionately about learning. Seth Godin talks about finding your smallest tribe, and I just saw my kids as that smallest tribe where I could have the deepest impact, and I just took that really seriously. So that’s kind of what helped me over my fears about the ocean, the weather, the health, and money and all of that stuff. I just thought, "Man, if this ruins us financially, this will still have been a good idea. Let’s do it."

 

Fools for Family

Jessica: Wow. You framed your mission around family and so that mission is what helped you overcome sort of the story you’re probably telling yourself. Erik, what about you? What were some of those fears when you finally are … you’ve bought the boat, and you’re actually doing this thing?

Erik: Well, Emily and I shared a lot of the same fears. I might say that I have a higher tolerance for physical risk. I like to do things like rock climbing and things like that, but we both wanted to be safe. We wanted to keep our kids safe. We both felt keenly the financial risk because I was worried that if we went and did something like this, there’s no way that I would ever … Who hires a guy that just sort of drops off the grid for a year? Would I ever be able to get a job again when I come back? Would I be able to earn to provide for my family? So, those are some of our basic fears.

But I think the deepest fear was actually the fear of embarrassment and failure. And not that anybody was really watching beyond our family and friends, who are interested that we were gonna go do this thing, but this fear of making an absolute fool of ourselves and people being like, "Yeah, of course, that’s just a dumb idea." And, "Of course, it didn’t work out because nobody does that." So, "You got what you deserved." That was sort of the story that we were telling ourselves. That that was the worst-case…

“I think the deepest fear was actually the fear of embarrassment and failure. And not that anybody was really watching beyond our family and friends, who are interested that we were gonna go do this thing, but this fear of making an absolute fool of ourselves.” Erik Orton

Jessica: And what would failure have looked like in your situation?

Erik: Oh, I guess getting there and realizing, "Oh, we can’t actually sail this boat. We’re incompetent, and now we sunk all this money into this project, and we’re digging ourselves financially out of a hole, and then we have some accidents and…"

Emily: And we can’t take care of ourselves afterwards, or we just were so concerned about that. Yeah.

Erik: Yeah. The number of things that … I guess just that. That we’d come out of it somehow emotionally and financially crippled. And a lot of it sounds ridiculous when you say it out loud because you just kind of feel like, what’s…? The likelihood of that happening is pretty low but yet, at least our mind, went there and we said, "This could be the scenario, and we would just look like idiots." And that was hard to push past because nobody’s gonna say, "You know what? This is a really smart thing you guys are doing. This is wise. Go for it." Nobody said that to us. We had to just … Yeah.

Emily: "Excellent choice."

Jessica: "Excellent choice. Go for it. Go for it." OK. Walk us through a little bit because I loved, so I’ve read your book, and I loved reading about how the whole family … I mean, sailing a boat involves teamwork. I mean, it seems like a pretty skilled job. In fact, I recently watched a very depressing movie, by the way. "The Mercy," have you all seen that one? I thought it was so depressing.

Emily: Oh, no. No. We haven’t. We have watched most of the depressing sailing movies out there because there are many, but that’s not the…

Emily: We’ll have to put it on our list.

Jessica: Oh, yeah, you’ll have to put it on your list. It’s an English film, and it is about Donald Crowhurst and his solo attempt to circumnavigate the globe, and he…

Erik: Oh, boy.

Jessica: So, he was going on this solo journey and … Anyway, I’m not gonna give it away, but it’s depressing.

Erik: Oh, you know what? I think I … Is he in some kind of race out of England?

Jessica: It’s Colin Firth, yeah, it’s Colin Firth, and he is racing around the Cape and it’s…

Erik: Oh, that story is the worst.

Emily: I have seen the…

Jessica: That’s awful.

Erik: I know the story. I watched that movie. Actually, I did see that movie years ago, and I was like…

Emily: Was it a documentary? No.

Erik: I came away just scratching my head, thinking…

Emily: OK. We can’t say anything else because you don’t want the listeners…

Erik: OK. Sorry. Yeah. That’s the most discouraging…

 

The Ortons at Sea

Jessica: And it’s not good. It’s not good. But it gives you a really good idea of the skill … the navigation and the sails and then … oh, my God, all the things that break. I mean, we grew up … my dad had a ski boat growing up, and I swear every time we’d go to the lake to take it out, it was like, "Ah, now this is broken. No. We’re gonna take this. This is gonna to take a couple hours." And so, paint us just a picture. You get down there, you’ve got the boat, you’re about to set sail, what did a day of sailing look like? And y’all had to take turns. Some people sleeping. Some people wait … Really paint a picture for us of your five kids and the two of you actually sailing out, and you can’t see land. You’re out in an ocean that’s tossing you. What’s happening?

Erik: First of all, I guess when we got there, our boat was a mess, and so we spent, as having read the book, you know that we spent a fair bit of time just getting our boat situated. So, yeah, when we went out, as a family, we did. It was great for our family to work as a team. I was usually at the helm and navigating, but whenever we went on overnight crossings, we would take watches. And so, between sunset and sunrise, we would be in shifts, and two people would be on it at any given time. That would be me and usually one of the younger kids. Emily, with one of the younger kids and then the older kids, would do a watch together, Karina and Alison, especially, or Sarah Jane, who was our third oldest…

“It was great for our family to work as a team. I was usually at the helm and navigating, but whenever we went on overnight crossings, we would take watches.” Erik Orton

Jessica: And let’s talk about how old your kids are, real quick, now that we’re actually on the boat.

Erik: Sure. I’m gonna say they were 16, 14, and 12, and then Eli was 10.

Emily: No. Eli was eight.

Erik: Eli was eight, and then Lily was six. So, 6 to 16 were the ages. And the older two, we would trust them to be on watch by themselves at night. We took a lot of precautions. And so, we obviously had life jackets going on and whenever it was nighttime, the two people that were on would have a, what’s called a jack line, which is basically a strap that connects to a vest that you wear and it connects to the boat so that there’s no way you can just fall overboard and nobody knows about it. And once the other … The trickiest parts are getting going when you have to get the sails up, and so there would be somebody that’s helping raise the mainsail, which is the one that connects to the mast and then you have a sail that’s on the front of the boat. It’s called the jib and…

Emily: Some boats have these automatic. It’s another thing that can break, I guess, if you have a motor that does it for you and we didn’t have that. We just used our muscles. Yup.

Jessica: You had people…

Erik: We, yeah, we had…

Emily: People power.

Erik: Yeah, we didn’t have it automated, but we had simple, manual controls, and we had manpower, and our kids would help raise and lower the sails. And also, whenever you come to a stop, you have to get those sails down. And then, you have to drop anchor and set the anchor, and that was always a team effort because the anchor is going off the front of the boat and I’m at the helm, at the back of the boat, and there’s key communication and coordination that has to happen there. And so there was a lot of, initially, I think a lot of frustration as we … at least on my part, because I started out pretty wound up and pretty tight, and I think got more relaxed as we went along.

But, yeah, we really had to communicate and give each other the benefit of the doubt, and we had to hone real skills that, if you read the book, by the time we get to the end of our trip, those skills came in really … they were really crucial to the successful completion of our trip because we got into some hairy situations that we were prepared for by the end, but we weren’t prepared for at the beginning. And so, that progress was really important. And I think, to this day, our kids feel like because we did this, we’re galvanized as a team in a way that we never could have been otherwise.

“We really had to communicate and give each other the benefit of the doubt, and we had to hone real skills that, if you read the book, by the time we get to the end of our trip, those skills came in really … they were really crucial to the successful completion of our trip.” Erik Orton

Jessica: So let’s talk about that a little bit, just the relational challenges because I think my kids, by the way, have been gone for a little bit with their grandparents, so it’s easy when I’m away from my kids to think, "Yeah…" Well, I actually have frequently dreamed about … because our work with Noonday Collection, we work in countries all over the world, and we’ve taken our kids. We’ve taken them to various countries in Africa and in Latin America. And so, I’ve had this dream to take them around the world for six months and we would go stay with different Artisan Partners. And I got really serious about it for a little bit and then we started remodeling our house and it kind of got put on the back burner and … But every time I go overseas, it gets resurrected, and I’m like, "Why? Why am I not doing this with our family?" But then I actually spend a day with my family, and I’m like, "No way could I ever do this." No. It’s easy to dream about it when you’re like, "Oh…" And then you’re like…

Erik: It sounds like a good idea.

Jessica: Oh, my God, we would kill each other. I think that someone would throw another sibling over the boat. I think that’s actually a pretty real reality for our family. So, what were…? I mean, did you just…? Are you guys a unicorn? Do your kids…? Are they magical and just kind and sweet and get along? How does this really look? I mean, you’re stuck on a boat. On a really small boat with five people, five kids.

 

Change Is Fast—Transition Is Slow

Emily: Yeah. I think one of the things that I say to my kids a lot is change is fast, and transition is slow, and we definitely experienced that on the boat. We just, pap, showed up one day from, you know, hopped on an airplane and there we were. Now we live on a boat, and we have four tiny cabins, and you’re sharing here, and you’re sharing there, and this is our new life. But the transition into it takes longer. You don’t just show up, and everything’s, "The Good Ship Lollipop." So, we had to know … you have to know that it’s gonna take time to transition to this new rhythm.

And we also had to … Erik and I had to realize … I certainly thought that if we had set up the circumstances like this, then it would be all about this family togetherness. And that wasn’t the case. Once we got on the boat, there were still plenty of things to take away our attention, and we still had to be very deliberate about designing and establishing routines that were gonna work for our family in this setting.

“I certainly thought that if we had set up the circumstances like this, then it would be all about this family togetherness. And that wasn’t the case. Once we got on the boat, there were still plenty of things to take away our attention, and we still had to be very deliberate about designing and establishing routines that were gonna work for our family in this setting.” Emily Orton

Jessica: See, and I love that. I’d love for you to talk a little bit about that because I think it’s easy for us to think like, "Yeah, we’re just gonna go away and take away all screens, and then we’re gonna actually be a family that’s together." But it was interesting to read that you can get distracted by anything even if the internet is down, and so you had to be really intentional. So, what were some of those intentional ways? Because you think, "Oh, you’re stuck on a boat together." But being stuck on a boat together doesn’t necessarily create connection.

Emily: Oh, absolutely. Proximity does not equate with connection. So, one of the things, how Erik talked about doing watches, the way we designed the schedule was partially to allow people to get bigger chunks of sleep, but it was also set up so that each of us had a chance with each kid. That we had a chance to be, as parents, together on at least one watch, and that those quiet hours would be one of the times when we could privately check in with our kids. And we would also build that into other parts of the day as … whether I was doing school or we set up a meal preparation rotation, so one of the older kids would be responsible for breakfast for a whole week, and a different one was responsible for lunch for a whole week, and then the third one was for dinner. But it was a very much a shadow leadership situation, where I would be in a supervisory role, around to answer questions and be at their side if they needed anything. And so, they were able to build confidence, but it also built our relationship.

And as we switched into them doing all the meals so that I could spend more time making sure we were prepared with whatever I was planning for school or our, just home management things, I learned that the main thing that they wanted from me as a mom was that emotional connection. They wanted to know that I heard them. I saw them, and I believed in them. And that really helped me sort of re-calibrate how I decided to spend my time. So, I’d be sitting in my cabin working on something like the lesson plan for the next day or whatever and I would just have … one kid after another would file in and want some attention, and I would set it down and look at them and hear them and…

So, yeah, I think we had to be very deliberate and very intentional about making a transition. We had to use screens. That’s one way to cocoon for privacy. Our kids had earbuds sometimes. We needed a certain amount of togetherness, but everyone also needed some one-on-one, and everyone also needed some alone time. So we just had to make sure we were cycling through that variety, and fortunately, there was the delight, the cherry on top of meeting friends along the way and that was always just the best for them to be able to go out, go to another person’s boat, play on their boat, make a movie, make a craft, and then come back home and tell us about it. That was really special, too.

 

Gratitude for Dumb Ideas

Jessica: Were there any moments during this journey, Erik, where you thought, "Oh, my God, I just, I made the biggest mistake of our lives, and I don’t know if we’re gonna make it."

Erik: Absolutely. We got to Saint Martin, and I immediately felt like we had made the biggest mistake of our lives. We had done the dumb thing because we got there, and we were making the rounds to do a few improvements to our boat and get groceries and things like that, and we were just astonished by how expensive everything was and we had done our best to budget and make sure that we had a responsible financial plan and I felt like we got there and that just got blown out of the water.

Emily: I think this chapter is called "Whose Dumb Idea Was This?"

Erik: Yeah. Yeah. "Whose dumb idea was this?" And, actually, there was a letter that I wrote to my dad, and it’s a chapter in the book, I think, called "Dear Dad," and it’s really just me lamenting like, "Oh, my goodness, Dad." It reminded me of when I bought my first car as a teenager and I was so intimidated and scared because I bought this car that was stick shift and I didn’t know how to drive it and I stalled out multiple times, two days before Christmas in this massive intersection, right in front of the mall, and I was just devastated and shook, and I literally got to the DMV where I was going to register the car, and I called my dad, and I said, "Dad, I think this is a bad idea. I should just take this car back." And he said, "No, Erik, it’s gonna be fine. Register the car, get it home. We’ll figure it out."

And I had a very similar experience with the boat, where I just felt like this was stupid. We should just sell the boat. We should turn around right now and fly home, and I’ll find a job, and we’ll just reverse right out of this thing. And, fortunately, we did not do that.

Emily: We got grateful.

Erik: We got grateful. We took a little trip out to an island that was just off of Saint Martin, and we went to shore, and we gathered up our kids, and we said, "OK, there is sort of a crap fest going on right now. There’s a lot of things that are going wrong, but what is going right?" And we went around, and we interviewed our kids, and we filmed them saying what was awesome about right there and then and that, I think, in a lot of ways, just helped recenter us and we realized that, yes, we were up against a tough challenge, we had a lot of things coming at us that we hadn’t planned on, but there were so many things that were going right. And just acknowledging that helped us recenter and recommit and we pressed on, and we didn’t reverse out. And I’m really grateful for that moment.

“We were up against a tough challenge, we had a lot of things coming at us that we hadn’t planned on, but there were so many things that were going right. And just acknowledging that helped us recenter and recommit and we pressed on, and we didn’t reverse out.” Erik Orton

Jessica: That’s amazing, what gratitude can unlock and just getting present, instead of thinking about all the things that could possibly go wrong in the future or thinking about, "This is some mistake and the decision I made in my past." You’re just in that moment thinking, "What are we each grateful for right now?" And that that gave you the fuel you needed to go ahead and keep moving forward. I love that. How long did you guys travel for? How long were you all on the boat?

Erik: We were on the boat for 10 months.

Jessica: Ten months, 10 months sailing around. And, let’s talk a little bit now about coming home. So, you’re 10 months on a boat, a small boat with…

Emily: It’s, yeah, it’s 38 feet long by 21 feet wide and, I think it was 56 feet tall, the mast and…

 

Culture Shock and Coming Home

Jessica: Yeah. Yeah. Not a ton of room for a family of seven and now you’ve gotten used to just living like this and living in small quarters and spending your days sailing and everyone is teamwork as a family. What was that transition like then coming home? And did you all have an idea of what you wanted to do then after you came home?

Erik: Coming home was hard because we knew that we had an experience that was gonna be very difficult to explain to other people or to have them appreciate. Our girls really had an experience where they just realized … we came home and say, "Oh, people…" Our friends, and say, "Oh, so how was the boat?" And it was … either, you just say, "Oh, it was great," or, "Come and camp at our house for a day, and we’ll talk." But it was really hard to do the in-between.

And so, I think there was sort of a reverse culture shock, where we’ve … and some of our friends that had followed along with our blog, were a little bit more acclimated to where we were in our heads but … And I won’t spoil the ending of our book, but we had kind of a traumatic landing when we came home and the fact that we came home in a different way than we had expected, shook us a little bit. But for me, my mindset was, "OK, now, I need to get back to work and earn some money because we’ve blown through our savings, and I need to deal with that." And Emily was wanting to just sort of … Well, I don’t wanna speak for you. You could say what you…

“Coming home was hard because we knew that we had an experience that was gonna be very difficult to explain to other people or to have them appreciate. … And so, I think there was sort of a reverse culture shock.” Erik Orton

Emily: Well, I know when we came home, we just kept saying like, "We’re never gonna do anything hard again." Before we left, I used to always love those little quotes about like, "Do something that scares you every day." And I was like, "Every day, how about once a quarter?" Let’s pull it back. Let’s just dial that back a little bit." And I think that we did go into a little bit of a recovery mode where people were like, "What’s next? What’s next? What’s next?" And we’re like, "What do you mean what’s next? We just did the…"

Jessica: We did it.

Emily: It’s just…

Jessica: We did it. So, you think that there was … Because you were talking, there’s the transition to the boat, and now there’s the transition to coming home. And so, were you were recovering a little bit of, like…? Because when you’re in the moment, you kind of just have to pull your boots up, and just get through it. So, was there some looking back and kind of almost processing some of the hardness of it once you were back?

Emily: For me, there absolutely was that. We went out asking the question, what could go right? That was one of the things that really helped us get over those fears. What could go right? What are all the good things that could possibly happen?

Jessica: I love that question, by the way, because we camp out on all the wrong and we’re constantly mitigating risk. But to be able to go, "Well, what could go right?" I love that.

Emily: And that’s … Yeah. When you’re looking at the opportunity cost … what had all this … would be all of the things that we would have missed out on if we got too scared to go, and so that was a real thing. And then, as we came home for those first couple of weeks at home, I just sort of thought about, "Oh, my gosh, what if this had gone wrong or that had gone wrong?" It’s totally illogical. Obviously, we were fine, and we didn’t get sick. We didn’t get injured, really. It was a very smooth trip health-wise and safety-wise. But I just let all that exposure, that vulnerability kind of wash over me and, at least for a week, I slept on the couch with my hand touching the ground.

And I checked out a whole bunch of books from the library about homemaking, but just interior design and I didn’t read any of the words. I only looked at pictures, and I just thought about having that settled feeling. And I think we all need varieties, so the problem is, once you get comfortable again, you start to feel bored. And so, it took a little bit longer after this…

Jessica: To get bored.

Emily: …huge, vulnerable thing. Before I was … We were like, "Oh, it would be so awesome if we watched Netflix. Or what if we had a couch or what if we could just order a pizza?" We were just dreaming about all the easy things we could do. "What would be easy? Ordering a pizza." But that is not a space that I think as human beings we can really live and thrive and be happy. We did think that recovery time was important. And writing the book was one element of actually just getting our brains around what happened and what we experienced and what we learned, and then we were just like, "Yeah. I’m ready. I’m ready for something else." We wanna do something else.

Erik: Yeah. And jumping in here. I think … I don’t think we realized … it took us a long time after getting home to realize and understand what we learned. It did … There was a little bit of shock, and I think we had to process for months and maybe even a couple of years to really…

Emily: I mean, even just little things like, "Oh, my gosh, Mom, those people just let the water faucet run and run and run." You know? Or, they’re letting the refrigerator door just sit open and I just … I can’t handle it and … So, there were a lot of little things that had changed.

 

New Perspectives, New Passions, and New Possibilities

Jessica: Culture shock. And then, Erik, what about you, because now you’ve tasted this life of adventure? And how did you sort of find your passion at being able to provide for the family? What did you do…? Do you think you’ve had to kind of…? Yeah, tell us tell us about that.

Erik: Sure. Well, I’m actually working on a book about that. That’s the next book because I got my same job back, and the day after I got off the boat, I was, literally, sitting at my same desk in my same chair, doing the exact same thing I had been doing before I left. And, it just felt so very, very wrong because I was a transformed person. I mean, I was still me, but doors and windows in my mind and heart had opened, and I was just seeing myself and other people in the world in a very different way, and I just knew as soon as I got there I was like, "I can’t do this. I can’t do this."

And so, my mind was going to work on other things, and I ended up, I think within six weeks of being home, left that job and I pivoted into something totally different, which I never would have imagined for myself. I ended up going to work for a solar company because I had learned a lot about solar, living on the water, and you have to create your own energy and power. And I won’t go too far into that. But, basically, I did something that was a complete shift for me and … One of my big fears about leaving was that I would never be able to find work or earn money again. And, in fact, I came home, and because I had kind of opened up in a lot of ways, I was able to make tons more money than I ever did before.

“I got my same job back, and the day after I got off the boat, I was, literally, sitting at my same desk in my same chair, doing the exact same thing I had been doing before I left. And, it just felt so very, very wrong because I was a transformed person. … Within six weeks of being home, left that job and I pivoted into something totally different.” Erik Orton

Emily: By at least 3x or a little bit more.

Erik: Yeah, I, like, quadrupled my income. And just I was unafraid of failing. I was … I could care less what other people thought of me, and that’s probably an oversimplification. It took me a while to get there, but…

Emily: You cared a lot less.

Erik: I cared a lot less. And I still feared failure, but my tolerance for it and my tolerance for uncertainty had gone way up, and so those things opened me up, and I think us as a family to all kinds of opportunities. And I feel like the manifestation of what we learned on that trip has only started to play out in these past couple of years because we’re now, as traveling around the world with our kids, what 70% of the time?

Emily: We’ve been doing this for the last two years now and just taking the reins of our life. I think one of the things, for example, on the boat that we learned that was different is that, Erik had thought, "Oh, well as you get older, you’re more sedentary and you just, your waistline expands, and this is just kind of the natural process of life." But when we were living that indoor-outdoor life on the boat, he lost 20 pounds and was like, "What? I didn’t know that was possible." So, he ended up deciding to be really deliberate about it, and he ended up getting back into his love of rock climbing, and he climbed the El Cap. He got toned and strong.

Jessica: That’s crazy. I just watched "Free Solo" with the family like a month ago. I went rock climbing for the first time…

Emily: Yay, you.

Jessica: A couple of months ago and I … And it was ridiculous because I’m belayed and I’m in Joshua Tree and, I mean, I’m just…

Emily: Oh, gorgeous.

Jessica: … 50 feet up, but I was so afraid. I have never had adrenaline pumping through me like that, and I’ve done a lot of really cool things. But, I mean, the lessons that I have learned just from that one day of climbing… And I don’t know, you’ll have to tell me this because El Cap or "Free Solo" was so different. But my rock climber, what he told me, what my guide told me that day, was, he said, "Rock climbing is not mountaineering." Mountaineering is all about summiting and getting to the top, and summiting is actually a mountaineer’s term because rock climbing is the journey. It’s the next little step that you can take in the way, and it’s the athleticism that you use in getting up.

And that just spoke to me because I just thought, "Oh, my gosh, that’s life." I want life to not just be about getting to this next summit but to be about the little nub I’m gonna find in the rock. But then when I watched "Free Solo," it was like, "No, all that dude cared about was getting up to the top." So, now I’m confused, and I’m confused now.

 

Responsibly Adventurous

Erik: Oh, I think motivation for climbing is very personal and each person is unique, and Alex is just a really … he’s a unique and talented and gifted person, and I have very different goals from him when it comes climbing. I have wanted to climb El Cap since I was…

Emily: Fourteen.

Erik: …14-years-old because I started rock climbing and then I took 20 years off because I was like, "I’ve got kids, and I can’t do…"

Emily: Have too much adventure.

Erik: I can’t be taking those kinds of risks. And so, for me, I was telling myself a story that rock climbing and being a responsible father were incompatible. And my kids and Emily really helped me overcome that, and it wasn’t until… Again, this is another example of, we came back from the boat and we re-established ourselves financially, and my kids now know a little bit more about what my hopes and dreams are and have been over my lifespan. And when our daughter, Sarah Jane, found out that Yosemite was in the United States, she kind of just looked at me with this baffled, confused look and she’s like, "You’ve talked about this for so long, and it’s in our country? Why have you not done this?"

Jessica: Wow.

Erik: And she really held me accountable, and so I think within a few weeks, I had bought plane tickets for me and my daughter Alison, and we took a trip to Yosemite and … Because I had all these excuses like, "Oh, I’m not in good enough shape. My climbing skills have fallen off. I don’t have the right gear." And they just slowly kind of pushed me to do the thing that I was stalling on and…

Anyway, to get back to your question, the reason each person climbs is very unique. And for me, it’s just a beautiful exercise of body and mind, where it’s a place where when I’m there, I’m fully focused and engaged, and I cannot afford to be distracted, and I cannot afford to be … I am physically out of self-preservation, needing to be aware.

Jessica: Totally. That’s what I loved about it because I’m someone, you and I are probably pretty similar just love adventure and probably future-oriented and I’m just constantly coming up with new ideas and the next thing. And it’s just … it’s very hard for me to be in my body and to actually be present and I find the thing that actually gets me present is just super, super intense physical activity and that … I mean, rock climbing, you just, you’re nowhere else. You are nowhere else. You’re like…

Erik: Yeah. It’s a kind of meditation and you picked … and by the way, you picked a great place to climb.

Jessica: It is. It is. It’s beautiful. OK. And so how did that…

Erik: And you picked … and by the way, you picked a great place to climb.

Emily: Oh, Joshua Tree is one of the favorites.

Erik: J-Tree is the best.

Erik: So good for you.

Jessica: That’s what I heard. That’s what I heard. And our guide, his name was Tomàs, he was amazing. He was so good and just really coached me so well. So, we’re gonna take our kids as well. We’re gonna go on a rock climb with them.

Emily: Oh, awesome.

Erik: And if you ever wanna climb El Cap together, a team and…

Jessica: Oh, geez … Oh, my God, I just … Ah, no. I cannot even imagine. And, in fact, one of my kids watched … They were not inspired by "Free Solo." They were like, "That guy is dumb." And then one of my kids was like, "Ah, mom, please don’t make me rock climb when you go rock climbing." It’s funny because it was one of my more adventurous kids. But I think the whole heights is a real thing. So, anyway, we’ll see how it goes. I’ll keep you posted.

Emily: And you just say.

Jessica: But we’re all gonna go rock climbing.

Emily: Warm up to it.

 

The Ortons Going Scared

Jessica: And I was like, "You know what? You can go up, and you can come down, and you can go at 10 feet, and if you wanna come down after that, it’s fine. We’re just gonna try it. We’re gonna try it." I’d love to close just ask asking, other than doing something epic, what are some ways that people can do something different for their own life?

Emily: I wanna say something about this right off the bat. Some people say to us like, "Well, I’m not adventurous," and I don’t really believe that. I don’t really accept that. I really love how you talked about going scared. You talk about courage being when you’re afraid, and you do it anyway. And, for us, for a long time, we would just try to do something that neither of us has done before for our anniversary every year, something new and fresh. And one year, it was taking a yoga class, and neither of us had ever taken a yoga class, and it was this … let’s go into this space holding hands and do something scary together because we don’t know what it’s gonna be like and what will be expected and how it will turn out.

And I just think if you are someone who has people in your life, if you have friendships or relationships or marriages or kids, to me, that actually takes so much sense of adventure, and the stakes are high. The outcomes are never guaranteed, and when you bet on other people, I think you’re an adventurer, and, to me, it’s like just the setting keeps changing, but it’s always mostly about relationships. Erik will have some great ideas that answer your question in a more practical way.

“If you have friendships or relationships or marriages or kids, to me, that actually takes so much sense of adventure, and the stakes are high. The outcomes are never guaranteed, and when you bet on other people, I think you’re an adventurer. … The setting keeps changing, but it’s always mostly about relationships.” Emily Orton

Jessica: I love that. Thank you. No, that was great. Thank you.

Erik: We know that most people don’t wanna live on a boat or climb El Cap or do any number of things that might feel full hardy and reckless. But I think what you were saying earlier about your psychologist friend who said … what are you doing that’s…? What are you learning that’s new? And I think whenever … doing something small can be as simple as, "Oh, I wanna take a sewing class" And that, whenever we engage with the learning process and when we put ourselves into what Liz Wiseman calls the rookie space, and we are willing to make a fool of ourselves and take that risk, I think that’s a very healthy place to be because that does things for our health, our emotional health. Oftentimes, for our physical health and our social well-being, whether you want to strengthen your marriage or your family or your friendships or just get to know yourself better, learning something new is so powerful, and it doesn’t have to be big and dramatic and epic. It can be reading a new book. It can be learning a new skill, preparing a new recipe.

Emily: Oh, a couple years ago, I learned how to use a serger. Those machines look so scary, right? They have so many knobs and buttons, and I was like, "Ah."

Jessica: But you did it.

Erik: But she did.

Jessica: Erik and Emily are such a great example about a couple who is not going to stay seated and let fear hold them back, and I learned so much about how they’re bringing their family along on that journey as well. I enjoyed today’s conversation. If you did too, come on, let this be your good deed for the day, and go leave a review on iTunes. This way, other people can discover this podcast conversation too.

Today’s episode is by my good friend Ellie Holcomb. Going Scared is produced by Eddie Kaufholz, and I’m Jessica Honegger. Until next time, let’s take each other by the hand and keep going scared.