Ryan Murdock. If you’ve spent any time field testing fitness programs online, you’ll know this name. Ryan is half of the “Adam and Ryan” Shapeshifter Body Redesign team (alongside Adam Steer) that actively promotes bodyweight exercise, rapid body transformations through strategic diet and exercise programs, and writes some of the most hilarious subscriber newsletters you’ll ever read. He’s also a vagabonding master, having traveled the world on his own terms and for his own reasons in ways that would give Tim Ferriss a run for his money. Follow this man’s advice, and you’ll get where you need to go.
…which, if you follow his advice, is everywhere you haven’t been yet.
Name: Ryan Murdock
Relationship status: Married for 2 years, together 16
How many kids do you have? None! It’s not for me.
Gadgets: I do all my work from a Macbook Pro, iPad and Samsung Galaxy S3, so my lifestyle is completely portable. But I’m not a gadget freak or anything like that. I learned to use that stuff out of necessity.
Sports: Hiking, camping, canoeing, outdoor stuff, and weight training.
How did you get started on your current career/lifestyle path?
I guess I started writing seriously in about 2000, while living in Tokyo. But I’ve always written, even as a kid. I like travel literature because it can be so many things — autobiography, memoir, anthropology, prose poetry, cultural critique, history, etc. And the best combines elements of each. Writing about travel suits me because I’m only really good at writing about myself.
Did you have any mentors who helped steer you on this path?
I’ve been very fortunate in my life to have had access to a few tremendous mentors. My first mentor in particular has been my most important teacher, my research collaborator, a tireless advocate of my efforts and an honest critic of my work. And one of my closest friends.
In many ways I stumbled into this situation accidentally. Rick and I trained under the same martial arts teacher. When I moved away to university I looked for a city where I could continue my studies under someone well ahead of me on the path. That took me to Rick’s.
Unlike other places I’d trained, the atmosphere at Rick’s was open and encouraging. There was a big shelf of books next to the training area that acted as a sort of group lending library, and we were encouraged to help ourselves. (Five years later I was the only student in the group to have read every single book on those shelves.)
Rick was the first person to take me aside and offer me honest feedback—not just on my training but on life in general, my character and abilities, the directions I was considering, and the places I could go. He also exposed me to new ideas and new avenues of research, some of which only came to fruition a decade later, and many of which I’m using now to create the lifestyle I only dreamed of as a struggling undergraduate. The encouragement I received was invaluable. And the honest feedback, while difficult to hear sometimes, put me on the fast track to my goals.
He’s still the first person I run my ideas by when I want honest feedback on my work.
How has your work contributed to a) your development as a person and/or b) the lives of others?
When you write about yourself and your experiences, like I do, you’re forced to dig deep and to face up to parts of yourself you’d rather not acknowledge (well, at least you are if you want to write well). I spent 10 years writing my first book Vagabond Dreams. It’s about the first time I dropped off the map alone, to a place where I didn’t know anyone and where I didn’t speak the language. That time in Central America set so many changes in motion — some I recognized right away, but others took years to unravel, and only became clear as I wrote about it. But I knew when I came back from that trip that nothing would ever be the same again.
Ideally, even when I write a big feature for a magazine, I tease out the lesson and use each journey to uncover something new about myself.
Others — I’ve sometimes had people come up to me and say “thank you so much, you changed my life” because of my fitness work with Shapeshifter Media and Bodyweight Burn. I don’t feel all warm and fuzzy inside when this happens. In fact, I feel nothing. Not because I’m not happy for this person. But because I didn’t do anything—THEY did. They found the discipline, will and determination to make changes in their life. They don’t need me or anyone else to lead them. It makes me uncomfortable to have that “teacher” or “guru” status projected on me. They should be shining that light on themselves. THEY are the heroes of their own life story.
At the same time, I am happy when someone tells me that something I wrote in a blog or travel article or my book Vagabond Dreams inspired them to make a change in their life, or to take a journey they were afraid to set out on. Because I remember all those people who told me I couldn’t do it.
If you had one piece of advice for someone just entering your field, what would it be?
Master your craft. Don’t worry about anything else. For a writer that means learning how to observe, writing and polishing and constantly stripping away needless words. It also means reading the classics — the story of literature is one long dialogue with all those writers who came before you. Read poetry to understand how to create images. Read history to understand our collective past, and biography to understand the motivations of others, and how those motivations gradually shape the total picture of a life. Think about writing and art and books all the time. And then maybe, after you’ve done all that, you might be able to create something original.
Oh yeah, don’t expect it to be easy. And know that you’ll get there if you never ever quit.
Do you have a personal work philosophy?
Not really, no. I’ve always been an extremely disciplined person, very detail oriented, and I bring that to my writing. But no specific philosophy short of always seeking total honesty in my writing — even when it reveals something about myself that I’m not proud of or would rather not face. Owning up to that stuff and digging into it takes your work from good to great. And the same is true of your life.
What do you do for fun?
I read a lot. I also travel as much as possible. But I guess that kind of overlaps with my work in a way…
What motivates or inspires you?
Landscapes — some landscapes in particular resonate with you in deep way. The desert is like that for me — probably because it’s tied so closely to notions of Time. Certain writers also inspire me. Guys like Lawrence Durrell, Paul Theroux, Rimbaud. Also music and song lyrics. The Church and Steve Kilbey have probably been the single biggest inspiration (and influence) for me as a writer.
What has been your greatest achievement (personally, professionally or both)?
I’d say my greatest achievement until now has been my book Vagabond Dreams: Road Wisdom from Central America. But really I feel like I’m just getting started.
What is the one thing you hope to achieve?
You know when you finish a book that has touched you deeply, when you read that last paragraph and you feel goosebumps course over your arms and a tingle in your stomach, and a light mist creeps into your eyes, and you’re on the point of letting slip a few tears at the sheer beauty of it all? I hope to be able to do that, to really nail someone like that with my writing. That’s the greatest achievement I can think of.
What is your super power?
Stubbornness LOL? That’s actually a great trait for a writer, because it’s such a tough business to crack into. You’ve gotta just keep plugging away for years, and stay true to your vision no matter what everyone around you believes or tells you. YOU know deep down whether you’ll get there or not. Be ready to starve to death or succeed. Accept nothing else.
Who’s your hero?
I don’t have any heroes really. But I do admire specific things about certain people. Steve Kilbey’s ability to create that beautiful melancholy atmosphere of nostalgia, and to find the perfect image in very original ways. And Sir Richard Francis Burton’s abilities with languages and all those other explorer’s skills. I never worshiped these guys — they’re just people, with their own hopes, dreams and flaws. But I do respect them tremendously.
What are you reading (or watching) these days?
Insert any piece of advice, anecdote, villain story, funny story, joke, recipe or life lesson you’d like to share with our readers.
My travel motto: Never trust a fat fat man in a poor poor country.
Thinking back to a time when you had to make a hard choice, how did you decide, and do you feel, in retrospect, that you made the right move?
In terms of pursuing this lifestyle of travel and writing, the toughest choices I made were financial. I set out on the road right after university and so, apart from summer jobs, I didn’t have a consistent enough work history to build a normal career. By working short term jobs to save for long trips, I basically made myself unemployable in the droning 9 to 5 world. Prospective employers were impressed by what I’d done and by my experiences, but I just didn’t fit into their world in any useful way. And so I spent many years having to take one horrible temp job after another in order to eat. Mindless, menial jobs where the pay was terrible and where I was looked down on by the other office people, who sometimes didn’t even bother to learn my name. I hated it like the plague. Every morning getting out of bed to show up for that was misery. I watched as my friends built their careers, bought houses and cars, while we skimmed by in a tiny apartment filled with handed down furniture. My girlfriend paid most of the bills out of her small salary. I’d basically burned all of my bridges and everything hinged on the success of my dreams in an industry where success comes to so few. Sometimes I wonder how we managed to get by at all. These days I have a successful internet business and our lives have completely changed, but back then there were so many nights when I lay awake at 3 a.m. and wondered if I really was crazy and the world was right after all. Of course it didn’t matter even if I was.
I never felt I had a choice. The prospects of success or failure never entered into my decisions. This was just something that I would do and I never saw any other alternative. I didn’t know whether I would succeed or fail. That never entered into the equation. But I knew that I would do it
At one time I guess maybe I could have made a successful career in some government office (I graduated university with highest honours and a double major), plodding away in the daytime and reading books and dreaming at night, dreaming about the things that I would never do, taking my 2 weeks holidays each year in the places accessible to those with short vacations. I guess I could have taken that path, and perhaps I almost did. If I had never gone to Central America.
If you had it all to do over again, would you change anything?
I sometimes wish I had been nicer to certain people when we were kids, or that I’d taken more time with others. But everyone has those regrets. All the actions and decisions of my past led me to this point, for good or for bad. I can’t see how I would have gotten here any differently. Every setback and disappointment was an opportunity for growth, a chance to reevaluate my strategy and to change tack. So no, I wouldn’t change anything.
What’s next for you? What’s your next big idea, project etc.?
We’re working on a new health and fitness program for our online fitness business called Fat Loss TKO. And I’m starting work on another book. The next one will be about my travels in Mongolia, Tibet and the far west frontier provinces of China.
What one piece of advice would you give to your own son (hypothetical or otherwise) in the hope of making him a better man?
Read the classics. My love of reading is the thing I’m most thankful for in life. It has opened my mind to new worlds, new countries and new systems of thought. It’s taught me about the world and my place in it. It hinted at countries of whose existence I never imagined. And it offered consolation in times of sadness, companionship in times of solitude, and the wisdom of every writer or thinker who came before me. But you have to read widely and well. If you put junk in, you’re going to get junk out.
Ryan Murdock on the Web:
Ryan’s travel book Vagabond Dreams is available through Amazon.