Lessons from Maslow on a 12,000 Km cycling adventure
Applying project management in your day to day life can be useful and instructive, especially if you plan to cycle together with your wife from Cairo to Cape Town, covering 12.000km in 4 months!
Using Project Management is the first thing that comes to mind, especially when you are confronted with reactions from family and friends like “Are you going to Sudan? Is that not risky?” or “What do you do when you encounter an elephant on the road?”
Under physically and mentally challenging circumstances, will we be able to maintain the spirit to reach Cape Town? Maslow's triangle can give some guidance here.
The 5 layers are a good basis for assessing the threats and opportunities associated with the trip:
▫ Physiological: What to do to get enough supplies and of good quality to stay healthy?
▫ Safety: There are big and tiny animals in Africa, how to handle the risk that they can pose to us?
▫ Social: Locals will make the trip interesting, but sometimes annoying. How to stay friends and not be annoyed? And can the relationship with each other and other members of the group be at risk?
▫ Self-Esteem: What if you cannot finish the daily stage or worse the whole tour?
▫ Self-Actualization: How can you make a contribution to the continent you are traveling through?
Before the event we had thousands of reasons why we should not go, we still went and after the trip we have thousands of reasons to be glad we went!
The paper will illustrate how we ran the trip as a project, using the techniques recommended in A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) of the Project Management Insitite (PMI®).
Exhibit 1: Maslow's Hierarchy of needs
In 1879, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote: “It is better to travel hopefully than to arrive” and when, as for our trip, the journey is going to be spread over 4 months and cover the whole length of Africa, if you only focussed on the destination, the effort would seem worthless and the final outcome likely to be an anti-climax.
As all project managers know, the client and the sponsor are always impatient to see progress and dismissive of the time that the project manager insists on for planning and preparation. When, as in this case, I was the project manager, the sponsor and the client all rolled into one, with my wife as principal stakeholder, you can imagine the different emotions I experienced. In order to understand how we managed this, consider the project itself as composed of five phases:
- The Decision Phase, where my wife and I had to assess the arguments for and against the adventure and come to a common agreement.
- The Feasibility Phase: find out more about the company that would organize this journey, talk to previous participants and decide whether we still felt confident.
- The Preparation Phase: equipment and fitness; how to arrange to be almost completely out of touch for four months or more; organising how to sponsor children in Africa.
- The Journey: this is the big unknown! Managing ourselves, our equipment, working with the rest of the participants and the organizers, maintaining a diary, updating the blog, etc.
- Arrival and homecoming: preparing ourselves for the physical and mental change from the daily routine and tight fellowship of the journey to the freedom and space of our home environment.
The Decision Phase
We considered the hoped-for benefits (opportunities) and sorted them in order of importance:
▫ Sponsoring Children in Africa: we had decided to seek sponsorship from friends and colleagues
▫ “We did it!” – the satisfaction of success
▫ Opportunity to get closer as a couple
▫ Learn how to behave in a dedicated team and in foreign lands
▫ Try local products – new tastes and flavours
Against this, we developed a list of threats to be taken into account:
▫ Not enough food and water
▫ Aggression of other road users
▫ Disagreements between me and my wife
▫ Family friends laughing at you if failing
▫ Not able to finish
Assessing the desirability of the trip in this way was a challenge because our lists showed that the main reasons for going fit into the upper layers of Maslow's triangle (Exhibit 1), whereas the arguments against come from the lower layers. It is already difficult to balance pros and cons based on matching criteria, but in this case, the concerns were of a physiological and general safety type, to be balanced against the anticipation of excitement and satisfaction.
It is only in retrospect that we realized that this dichotomy exists in most projects: in general the impact of threats is more severe the lower down you are in the triangle, whereas the opportunities are more attractive as you go up it. In order to assess the threat-opportunity balance, and list the most important risks all together, you need to stand the triangle for opportunities on its head, next to the triangle you will use to assess threats in the standard Maslow environment (Exhibit 2).
The Feasibility Phase
When you think about starting such an adventure, you like to get confidence that you are able to make it. So two things were important for us to find out, first of all is the expedition company experienced enough and secondly, what have others experienced in the past (historical information).
Exhibit 2: Balancing Threats and Opportunities by Turning Maslow's Triangle on its Head for Opportunites
The Expedition Company
From their brochure: “Tour d'Afrique Ltd. is a Toronto based company named for its flagship cycling tour that annually traverses the African continent from Cairo to Cape Town. Since its birth in 2003, two more transcontinental tours have been added; the Orient Express, crossing Europe from Paris to Istanbul, and The Silk Route, crossing Asia from Istanbul to Beijing. We, the five principal staff, are avid cyclists, humanitarians, outdoor enthusiasts, travellers and adventurers. We are passionately involved in creating unique cycling adventures” (Tour d'Afrique Ltd, 2006)
From Jenny Vonk's diary:
We benefited from the experience of others. We called participants of the 2004 and 2005 Tour and also visited a Dutch couple. There is a wealth of information, one of them Wilbert Bonné wrote a book about the 2004 Tour, many have information on a website, like Henk Jan van der Torren, who made a very complete checklist. We plan to build on that information and provide our inputs after the trip in May 2006. We also had the chance to visit the office of the organization in Toronto when Kees had to be there for a PMI meeting and I had a very useful meeting with the tour leader Randy Pielsticker.
The Preparation Phase
Our aim was to find sponsors to help two children in each country we were cycling through. This support will be for one year minimum, paying €25 per month. We decided to work with Plan France, which has projects in the first 7 countries we go through, so we need 14 sponsors. We contacted our friends and colleagues many of whom were very supportive. We finally got support for 17 children.
From Jenny's diary:
First of all our physical condition, having to do an average of 120km per day, you need to be in good shape, so Kees made a schedule on his computer and we kept track of how we are doing weekly. We started end of March, first with small trips around the house, later with trip that went further. Our goal is to have done around 6000km before the start of the event. We take our bikes everywhere we go, so we have cycled in Holland, Italy, Canada and around our house here in France. The trip to Canada also gave us the experience of shipping a bicycle with the airplane, we learned a lot from that! You almost have to wrap the bike up like a piece of china to make sure it arrives in one piece!
Secondly, our bicycles. Those we had before where already used heavily and no longer in good shape for this event. Kees looked around on the Internet and also visited a fair in Holland. We selected two shops, both in Holland, and visited them to make our final decision. Why we wanted to have the bikes handmade in Holland? There is a lot of expertise in our home country of making bikes that do not break down on such a long trip over sometimes rough roads.
The threats at the “thick end” of Maslow's triangle were ever-present throughout the journey
- the need to breathe
- ▫ We only found out later that in some places traffic is so dense and pollution to high that a mask would have been a good thing to have
- the need to drink water
- ▫ Toronto organisation took care of this, but we twice had problems with availability of drinking water
- the need to eat
- ▫ There were frequent complaints about this: food is always on a cyclist's mind – even more so when you realize that the efforts we were putting in burned up between 6000 and 8000 calories per day. We did ask ourselves whether we were perhaps spoiled by our normal easy lives, but that did not stop us grumbling. This did provide a practical demonstration of Maslow's findings that when your physiological needs are not met, the higher levels of the model provide little or no comfort.
- the need to dispose of bodily wastes.
- ▫ We prefer to leave to your imagination difficulties associated with lack of comfort or even privacy and the added consideration of keeping the countryside clean for the permanent inhabitants
- Physical security — safety from violence, delinquency, aggressions
- ▫ We did not know what to expect, but had some experience with other countries in Africa. Up front we verified the Foreign Affairs websites, on Sudan it said “do not travel to Sudan if not needed”. Well we needed to go there if we wanted to do this trip, so…..?
- ▫ Animals – minimal, only once we had a terrible night with all kind of animals “running” around the campsite.
- ▫ Locals – minimal to moderate (country dependent, Ethopia was difficult with stone throwing children, North Kenia was violent with police putting a gun against the head of one of us)
- ▫ Traffic – moderate (the more civilisation the more danger, South African drivers do no see cyclist as a road user but as a nuisance!)
- Moral and physiological security
- ▫ On the bicycle these two go hand in hand, if you feel tired, sick or not motivated the moral can go downhill rapidly, especially if you have to go uphill!
- Family security
- ▫ Perhaps those that stay behind are more worried about this as those that are on the road, but we called home regularly (and got a nice surprise coming home with a telephone bill high enough to take the whole family out to dinner for a week!)
- Security of health
- ▫ My wife Jenny was in charge of making sure we had all the medication to stay healthy. The extreme circumstances you travel in do, however, not guarantee you will not be sick. We both were twice not able to cycle, mainly due to food poisoning and muscle problems.
- Security of personal property against crime
- ▫ Safe in Truck, we could leave money and valuables in a safe in the truck, but decided to put our cash in our sleeping bag in the so called red box, but don't tell anyone please!
- ▫ My wallet changed owners in Nairobi, including the credit cards and my ID papers!
- – although we were travelling by bicycle, the replacement credit card always seemed to be one country behind us!
By the third layer of Maslow's triangle, we are getting some major benefits, but still some downsides of the adventure:
- ▫ With many group members we had and still have good contacts, Jenny has a “twin sister divided by birth” and I have a “brother divided by mothers”. In other words, we both became close friends with two other participants of the Tour d'Afrique, with which we still have contact.
- Sexual intimacy
- ▫ Physical exhaustion and lack of privacy had a considerable impact in this area!
- Having supportive and communicative family
- ▫ Encouraging messages before and messages on blogs during our trip, especially those received for our birthdays.
Maslow says there are two levels to Esteem needs. The lower of the levels relates to elements such as fame, respect, and glory. The higher level represents confidence, competence, and achievement.
- Fame, respect and glory were not our main needs here, although we did appreciate the attention our effort got in some press (like PMI Today)
- We wanted to test our competence, “Can we do this, will we be able to do it all?” Sometimes the desire to prove ourselves allowed us to overcome pain and tiredness and push on beyond what we would normally have considered possible or even safe!
Maslow wrote the following of self-actualizing people:
- They embrace the facts and realities of the world (including themselves) rather than denying or avoiding them.
- ▫ Helping the Children in Africa that are suffering from many things, like food, water, healthcare and education is one of those realities that we tried to help improving.
- They are spontaneous in their ideas and actions.
- ▫ Starting this effort in the first place is kind of spontaneous and perhaps foolhardy!
- They are creative
- ▫ When you find yourselves without water on a road where there are no houses or wells, you have to find a way to survive!
- They are interested in solving problems; this often includes the problems of others. Solving these problems is often a key focus in their lives.
- ▫ Helping other cyclists with their bikes and medical problems (heat stroke, not enough food for a diabetic person, eye irritation, etc.)
- They feel closeness to other people, and generally appreciate life.
- ▫ Intense effort, new environments and continual challenges gave every experience a new clarity and meaning.
Arrival and Homecoming
One month after coming home, I was still asking myself questions. What is normal?
I've turned this question around in my mind for some time. Normal means what? I have come to discover that normal is relative. In remote and distant places it means survival, existence.
- ▫ A tent was our rootless home; our mat, a place to lay our aching body on.
- ▫ A red box: a container holding all our worldly possessions.
- ▫ Our bikes: a mode of transport, both loved and hated!
- ▫ My iPAQ, - my intimate friend to keep our journal.
- ▫ My singing and whistling: a form of entertainment – for me, at least!
- ▫ Wet wipes, bottled showers and garden spades made up the bathroom etiquette.
- ▫ Seeing ourselves on digital cameras were the mirrors we used.
- ▫ Washing our clothes by hand, cleaning bikes, chains and cables, standing in line for supper, eating porridge at 6am in the morning, spending hours at the internet cafés reading and writing e-mails, that all was normal.
Coming home “my” world to me feels a little strange to me now. I feel somehow uncomfortable, as if wearing clothes that don't quite fit.
The other day I went shopping and got quite confused with the choices we have: which type of bread, what type of milk, low fat or full cream?
I feel I need a “re-entry ticket” to get back into society, this world of so much! I should probably camp in my tent in the garden for a while… take bottle-showers in the bath and have a garden spade handy in case of necessities.
Little things like thinking I am cycling too fast when I am in fact driving the car at 40 km/hr. I now think that the dishwasher is a stunning invention that uses far too much water!! I have been home for a month and still have not had the desire to read the newspaper, watch the TV or see a movie. Nothing has changed at home. The garden is in full bloom, the house still faces South-West and our pine tree has survived. Nobody broke into the house; things are pretty much the same since we left. I however, have changed. I have shed layers of unnecessary baggage and found incredible treasures in the Africa I will continue to love.
I have discovered things about myself that I would gladly put in a resumé and other things that I would definitely not.
I am so grateful to have been able to do this with my wife Jenny who allowed me to fulfil my dream and to “fly”.
Lessons Learned and Conclusions
What we got right, what would we do differently next time?
First of all, will there ever be a next time? Perhaps, but most likely not the same trip and not under the same circumstances. Lessons from one event are only partly usable for next time, as next time (hopefully!) will be different.
This is what I wrote on arriving in Cape Town, summarizing well what our first impression after the Tour was:
Tour d'Afrique 2006 is over!
We both feel that we have had a wonderful experience, one we never could believe we were able to do and one we would never do a second time as it is a Once In A Lifetime Experience. But that is not to say that we have not enjoyed the 4 months, we have enjoyed having the privilege of seeing these 10 countries so different than most of us can experience it, sitting on your bike being close to the scene and people.
We also have realized that biking is an individual sport, despite the fact that we have been cycling together, your legs have to put the pedals around, your brains have to get through difficult moments when you are tired, sick or just feel that the road is too long or the wind is too strong. We have also realized that being together 24 hours a day, doing the same thing every day in a row is an enriching experience for your relationship, at least for ours. We discovered aspect of ourselves that we had never discovered before, even after being together for 37 years. So in short, both physically, as well as mentally, we have become stronger and we hope to be able to use this strength for the rest of our lives.
On another note, we have realized that you can live with very minimal comfort (at least we could!), At home we have a big house with many things that we believe(d) are essential for our happiness, For four months we lived out of a “red box” that contained all our belongings and we were very happy!
What we got right are in the area of finding out about the experiences of others that did this trip before; preparing ourselves physically by taking a good 6 months to do many kilometres on our bikes, having a medical check-up done to minimise the risk of falling ill, getting our visa for countries beforehand; realising that cycling together is still an individual experience, you individually want to get to the end and you individually are suffering when the wind is heavy or the hill steep.
What we would do differently next time:
- Use a tent that is big enough for three people, not to invite anybody, but to have more space to live in. Camping for four months in a hiker tent is not exactly a good plan
- Dutch bikes are very comfortable but a bit heavy. Having to conquer 8 times the Mount Everest in altitude was not easy on these comfortable heavy bikes.
- You can prepare only so much, on such an adventure you also have just to experience it and not try to risk manage everything to the details: the unexpected is part of the adventure!
- Helping Africa is a difficult topic as giving money is not always the solution: do you take away the motivation of trying to solve the problems themselves? Next time we probably will try to find a project to help people in Africa that will allow for this.
Conclusion - Final words on Maslow
Although we promised ourselves and our family that our health was the most important, our enjoyment of cycling and desire to succeed was sometimes stronger than prudence would advise. This is an interesting reversal of Maslow's levels: at the very top of the triangle, motivation may become so strong that it overrides the natural instincts of the lower layers. As Maslow says, you cannot reach the higher layers if the lower ones are not satisfied; however, we also discovered that once you have reached those higher layers, you may feel that the rewards are such that nothing else matters as much. The inverted triangle of opportunity can become more powerful than Maslow's standard model: as we travelled down the length of Africa, the continent became our inverted Maslow's triangle.
Exhibit 3: Africa inverts Maslow's
The next adventure?
An adventurer is not happy if there is not another challenge in the (near) future, so we plan to do another trip, this time from Paris to Dakar, but not on a motorcycle, 4-wheel drive or truck, but again on our bicycles. And when that trip is over, perhaps with the same company that organised the Tour d'Afrique, their Silk Route from Istanbul to Peking, so who knows what the future may hold in store, but it will definitely be more kilometres on our bicycles.
Thanks to the organisation of the Tour d'Afrique, without their initiative we would have never been able to have this experience. A special thanks goes to the tour director Randy Pielsticker, being on the roads with 45 mad cyclists through Africa for 4 months is not an easy task and he managed it!
The information we got from cyclists that did the trip before, have been very useful and we would like to thank them all. It made the preparation even more fun and helped us enormously.
We also thank our friends and family we left behind whose messages and support helped us throughout the journey, and made homecoming such a pleasure. The adventurers would also like to thank the co-author for helping put some structure to their story.
Maslow, A.H., (1987) Motivation and Personality, Harper Collins, UK,
Project Management Institute, (2004) A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) Second Edition, Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.
Stevenson, R.L, Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes, UK: Oxford University Press,
Bonné, Wilbert, Tour d'Afrique 2004, ARS Grafische Producties & Communicatie, Roermon
Tour d'Afrique (2006) About us. Retrieved from http://www.tourdafrique.com/corporate/index.html
Dairy of the trip on www.zinintrappen.nl
© 2007 Cornelis (Kees) Vonk, Crispin (“Kik”) Piney
Originally published as a part of 2007 PMI European Congress Proceedings – Budapest, Hungary