On November 14, 1889, journalist Elizabeth Bisland began an epic journey. Departing from New York with little luggage and only six hours notice from the owner of the monthly family magazine Cosmopolitan (yes, the same one that now embarrasses you in front of your family at the checkout), Bismuth headed west across the US. Her goal was to race around the world in less than eighty days, faster than the fictional Phileas Fogg.
But beating the eccentric Jules Verne character wasn’t all she had in mind, because the real purpose of Bisland’s trip was to outstrip fellow journalist Nellie Bly, dispatched by New York World the same day, heading east on a steamer across the Atlantic on her own Fogg-esque journey.
The difference between the two was that Bly had no idea she was competing against anyone. She didn’t learn of Bisland’s trip until December 24 when someone in Hong Kong told her they thought she’d likely lose.
A few weeks ago, I set out on an epic journey of my own. A friend proposed starting a group on Facebook to motivate people who wanted to resolve to be better versions of themselves in the coming year. She suggested we all attempt to walk 2,017 miles in 2017.
That breaks down to about 5 ½ miles per day, which is doable for a fairly active person who puts forth some effort to get there. This is just the kind of challenge I love. I told her to count me in. Soon, because my friend is married to the kind of handy guy you’d like to have around to fix your computer, we had an app in which to log our daily miles, complete with a leaderboard so we could cheer each other on.
There are twenty-three of us in total. Some I know. Some I don’t. And we are, so far, a friendly, encouraging collection of people just trying to inspire each other and reach our individual goals, which for some, is not actually 2,017 miles this year. And that’s perfectly okay.
I love that we can encourage one another on our journeys. But if I’m being perfectly honest, I want to be on top of that leader board. Today, I am. Tomorrow is less certain, because there are two other participants jostling for that top position, and at least one other person has mentioned being a runner, which means that if we get a couple of nice days, that person could easily record a huge spike in mileage.
So every day I read all the motivational comments from my fellow travelers and I feel a little like Elizabeth Bisland, racing against someone who is (or was until they read this post) totally unaware of the competition. After Bly discovered Bisland, the tide shifted in the race. On her way to England, Bisland was informed that her fast steamship to New York had already left without her. This turned out to be false, but unaware of that, Bisland boarded a slower moving vessel.
In the meantime, Bly faced massive snows in the Western US, eventually overcoming them only at the tremendous expense of a chartered train on a southern route with purchased right of way across the country. Bly did manage to pull out the win, arriving in New York on January 25, 1890, 72 days, 6 hours, and 11 minutes after her departure. Bisland completed the trip on January 30, defeated, but still ahead of Phileas Fogg.
There are, I think, a few of takeaways from this story. First, writers make stuff up*. All the time. Sometimes it’s plausible. Sometimes it’s really not, but often the writer has convinced readers to trust him so they feel like it probably could be sort of plausible in the right circumstances. And then readers go out and try it.
This is how we ended up with submarines (inspired by a journey 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, made up by Jules Verne), rockets (inspired by War of the Worlds, famously made up by H.G. Wells), and those headphones you use with your iPod (predicted in Ray Bradbury’s made-up Fahrenheit451).
This leads us to the next lesson we should learn from the story. Writers need to stop writing dystopian novels about a terrifying zombie apocalypse or the inevitable rise of sentient, power-hungry robots. Right now. Seriously, just stop. We’re begging you.
And the third thing we need to learn is that no matter how friendly, encouraging, or supportive the motivational group, if there’s a leaderboard involved, at least one person (and I’m guessing at least three or four in the case of my Facebook walkers), is gunning for that top spot. It isn’t that we don’t want you to meet your goal. We just want to do it better.
*There is an outside chance that Verne’s Phileas Fogg was loosely based on eccentric shipping magnate and one-time presidential candidate George Francis Train, who circumnavigated the globe in 80 days in 1870. But, really, by “eccentric,” I mean that his life reads much like a fictional story anyway. I suppose writers do sometimes borrow from life as well.