I would have viewed avoiding flying as missing out until I experienced what happens when I don’t fly. I don’t sit in the corner crying, feeling sorry for myself. I develop the skills to create what I used to pay for. I’ll give a few examples how avoiding flying, or as I put it now, staying local, enriched my life.
Wondering how I’d get off North America, I took sailing lessons, itself a wonderful experience. Sailing in New York harbor, a few miles from home, takes me to another world, living at a different pace, connecting to the rhythms and patterns of nature. But I learned to sail not just for pleasure or to take short vacations much cheaper and less polluting than flying. I want to sail across oceans, which led me to meet Dawn Riley, an Americas Cup winner who runs a school teaching Olympic level sailing on Long Island. Through her I met other world champion sailors, including Dee Caffari, the first woman to sail single-handedly and non-stop around the world “the wrong way”; westward against the prevailing winds and current, among other records, and Katie Pettibone, training for the 2024 Olympics. Another was Olympic Gold Medalist and two-time Crossfit Games Champion Anna Tunnicliffe Tobias. They all became podcast guests and shared phenomenal stories of sailing, tinged with their experience seeing ocean trash increase.
Researching for Anna’s appearance, I watched the Crossfit Game footage of the first year she won. That year one of the events was to row a marathon. I own a rowing machine and saw that its monitor listed an entry for rowing a marathon but had thought it was a playful joke. Nope, people do it. Having run six marathons, I wondered if I could do it. I tried a half-marathon one day, felt good, and a few weeks later rowed a marathon. In my late forties, never having rowed a quarter that distance before, I didn’t push myself too hard. Including breaks, I finished in under four hours. Having traveled throughout my life, I know the rewards of visiting new places—adventure, discovery, learning about yourself, learning about others. I can tell you the value and improvement to my life from rowing that marathon, which I wouldn’t have believed I could do had I not done it, combined with the people I met along the way, equaled or surpassed what I got from any trip, yet I burned no jet fuel nor paid for any ticket. As I see it, since the average American watches five hours of TV per day, I created a life experience with an hour left to waste and still save time. If you’ve finished an endurance event, you know what you learn about yourself and being human in that length an exertion. I rowed another marathon two years later, shaving thirty minutes off my time.
Another time I decided to ride my bike to visit my mom’s, normally a few hours’ bus ride. I thought following the Hudson would mean it was flat, but ended up being more hilly than I expected. At Bear Run State Park, near West Point, I realized I wouldn’t make the rest of the distance before sunset. The map said I’d ridden fifty miles, meaning riding back home would make my ride one hundred miles. I hadn’t ridden that distance in a day since the 1980s, so I felt if I turned back I could still call the day a victory. I called my mom and told her I was heading back and would have to visit another time.
On the ride home, I fatigued faster than I expected. It turns out at 49, my body can’t do what it could in its teens. With twenty miles to go, riding a road parallel to the Palisades Parkway along the beautiful Palisade cliffs overlooking the Hudson, I ran out of energy. Each uphill I had to shift to the bike’s lowest gear. The sun was setting and I saw no train stations. How would I make it home? If I could just make it to the George Washington Bridge, I could ride across and take the A train home, but how to make the bridge?
I considered calling a ride share, but what if a car came that couldn’t fit a bike? Then I thought of hitchhiking. I think it’s illegal, but if a pickup truck went by it could work. On one uphill I stopped and watched for a pickup. How many might pass by? What would happen if I stuck my thumb out? When did I last see a hitchhiker, the 1970s?
An SUV approached. I tentatively stuck my thumb out. It was a luxury Audi SUV. I don’t know if it saw me and my barely stuck out thumb, but it passed without slowing down. As it passed I felt ashamed. What was I thinking? I didn’t ride out here to rely on a truck. My shame fueled me to keep riding, using the time-honored strategy of saying at each mile market, “at least one more mile, just make it to the next milestone.” The side road became more urban and better lit as it approached the bridge. As my distance home decreased, my hope increased. By the time I reached Fort Lee, on the New Jersey side of the bridge, it was full night time, but the streets were lit like the city. Riding across the flat GWB was simple and took me to Manhattan.
At ten miles from home, no way would I take the subway the rest of the way. I rode from the bridge down to the Hudson bike path, which I expected would be flat, though construction forced my poor aging body off that path onto more hills, but I made it home.
In the ensuing weeks, I told people about my first hundred-mile ride since my teens. People congratulated me but something weighed on me until it hit me. My success riding the distance, even if it wasn’t pretty, meant that I hadn’t needed to stick my thumb out to hitchhike. When I had enough to finish, I’d given up on myself.
I’d like to say all my life experiences that came from avoiding flying were joyful. Much of that ride along the Hudson on a beautiful fall day were—the vistas, the idyllic towns, the parks—but I won’t soon shake the feelings from mismeasuring myself and giving up. That I finished felt bittersweet since it proved I could have made it. The direction of my feelings may not have been what I wanted, but the magnitude was greater. As far as a vacation, I wouldn’t have chosen it, but having experienced it, I could learn from the experience.
Besides adventure, I also flew for visiting other cultures. In New York, of course I can take the subway or ride my bike to neighborhoods without English spoken, which I do. Independently, I also realized that my mentor, Frances Hesselbein, who was born World War I, came from as different a culture as nearly anyone I would meet by flying. She’d lived through Prohibition, the Great Depression, World War II, and everything since. Her midtown office is also a subway ride away, so I went out of my way to visit her.
I wrote in Leadership Step by Step how that time changed my career. Peter Drucker, pioneer in the study of leadership, had called her the best leader in America. Her informal slogan “To serve is to live” and experience of living it from small-town Pennsylvania to transforming the Girl Scouts to the White House changed my life purpose from achieving for myself to acting in service of others. Our one-on-one time in her office and the cafeteria revealed her style, personal and professional, that no book could convey.
Her life of service included holding a leadership chair at West Point. She introduced me to retired four-star General Lloyd Austin III, whom she described in the same breath as Abraham Lincoln, her choice for greatest leader in history. General Austin she described as the greatest living leader. General Austin then held that chair at West Point and invited me to co-lead some leadership workshops there. I grew up with little connection to service. My mom’s father had served in the Pacific, but he died when I was a baby. I started my second company with a college friend, a Marine veteran of the First Gulf War and he remains one of my most long-term friends. So West Point was as foreign a culture as any other. As much as Frances changed my life, meeting the cadets at West Point choosing to risk the ultimate sacrifice in service of others, which these days means half the recipients of that service disagree with them, showed me service at another level.
I’ve since returned to West Point to record conversations with leaders of two departments, including Mark Read, and recorded conversations with other Generals, a Navy SEAL, and others. General Austin endorsed Leadership Step by Step. If his name looks familiar, it may be because President Biden appointed him to Secretary of Defense to bipartisan Senate confirmation.
I take the bus to West Point. It’s just up the river from Bear Run State Park so I could ride there, with the option of taking the bus or train back. Before learning to stay local, I craved all the places I couldn’t visit. The world is too big and beautiful for anyone to see everything. Instead, I’ve learned that there is more wonder, culture, adventure, potential to serve others and therefore control over my career, cuisine, and everything I used to pay airlines to create for me within even biking distance, though I’ll take buses and trains farther and expect to sail yet farther.
Read my weekly newsletter
On initiative, leadership, the environment, and burpees