Lean In: Lessons From My Croatian Adventure

Croatian Yacht

I recently spent a few weeks in Europe crossing a some things off my Epic Quest of Awesome.

This all started few years back when I decided to stop living through a computer screen and start looking at life like a giant video game. Since then I have done everything I can to become a real life Indiana Jones (and occasionally a real life James Bond).

Welp, my latest adventure took me to the turquoise lakes and waterfalls of Croatia and the miraculously blue waters of the Adriatic (…at the bottom of which is where my phone currently resides).

What started out as a fun vacation and a chance to unwind actually seriously challenged my thoughts on fitness, business, and life.

Embrace Uncertainty


About four months ago I received an email from my friend Rob Hanly (the bearded fellow above).

I met Rob years ago while traveling through Australia – he reached out to me and we hung out for a few hours one evening. Although we’ve stayed in touch via email and the occasional skype call, I haven’t seen him since.

When he asked me in an email if I wanted to join him on an event called “The Yacht Week” in Croatia, I was initially quite torn.  Sure, the experience had been on my bucket list for years ever since hearing of it, but I hadn’t spent a lot of time in person with Rob, and would be committing to a week cramped into a boat with him and four people I didn’t know.

I was quite apprehensive initially. After traveling around the world for just $418, I have become a frugal, adventure seeking nerd. When I found out that I could actually use frequent flyer points to cover transportation to Croatia, and that the cost per person for this adventure was actually quite reasonable, it was decided:

I was going to spend a week on a boat, with relative strangers, in a country in which I didn’t speak the language.

To quote Rounders: “You can’t lose what you don’t put in the middle. But you can’t win much either.”

As you’ll see, this trip turned into an epic, once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I’m so thankful I made the decision to take the plunge. As nerds, many of us are shy, introverted, and not exactly known for our adventure seeking tendencies. Sometimes we have to push ourselves to embrace uncertainty and do new things. Sometimes we have to consciously decide to move past our limits.

It isn’t easy, but it’s an essential part of leveling up our lives.

Is there a new experience that you’ve said no to, simply because you were scared or uncertain?  A class you wanted to take but didn’t want to look foolish? A place you wanted to visit, but the idea seemed too daunting?

Sometimes, you just have to roll the dice, and see what happens.

Let go and Lean In!


On our first night of the boat, we ended up parked next to a boat of 12 Brazilian dudes who came to yacht week for one reason: to party as loudly as possible, 24 hours a day.  

Oh, and they had a megaphone that played The Titanic theme song.

After a night of zero sleep, we comically ended up next to them again the next day too! Thinking about the night ahead of us, we really had only two choices:

  • Be upset, try to sleep, and get super frustrated.
  • Lean in, and enjoy the ride.

So, as soon as the Brazilian boat docked next to ours, my buddy and I jumped over to their boat with a twelve pack of beer and introduced ourselves.

After just sharing a few stories (and speaking in broken Portuguese), I felt like I was part of their family.  It ended up being one of the most fun nights I’ve ever had, and we had a crew to high five for the rest of the week.

Whenever anything went wrong through the week or plans got screwed up (and anybody had the urge to complain), we quickly yelled “LEAN IN!” with a big chuckle. We forced ourselves to think, “what’s the opposite of what we would have done right now? Let’s do that and see what happens.”

Fortunately, “Operation: Lean In” was in full effect when I committed a particularly boneheaded mistake.

A few days into the event, I was wandering around one of the port cities taking photos and enjoying a quiet morning. Because my bathing suit was wet, my phone went in the top pocket of my shirt (for safe keeping…).

As I got back on the boat, I went to untie one of the ropes to get us free to start sailing, and my phone immediately fell out of my pocket and plopped into the bottom of the ocean.


The phone was definitely ruined, but also completely irretrievable, rendering the two types of insurance I had useless. (I even threw on a pair of goggles and got halfway to the bottom before deciding “I don’t want to die for a phone.”)

After freaking out for 5 minutes, I kind of laughed at myself and remembered to “lean in.” We’d been rolling with the punches up until this point, why couldn’t this also be an opportunity to learn something? So, I spent the next two weeks without a phone…and contrary to what I had expected, the world didn’t end:

  • Instead of having my face buried in my phone checking facebook and twitter, I conversed with my boatmates.
  • Instead of blindly following Google Maps to get to where I needed to go, I WROTE down names, kept my head up to enjoy my surroundings, and actually had to TALK to people to figure out where I was going. Imagine that!
  • Instead of watching my trip through my iPhone camera, I was forced to enjoy it and live in the moment, without worrying about capturing every single thing at all times.

When things go unexpectedly wrong, or life throws you a curveball...it’s very easy to get mad and feel sorry for ourselves. But as I learned, complaining does absolutely nothing to fix the solution. On top of that, I realized that I’m a pretty damn lucky guy, and that I should make smart decisions when something goes wrong.

Make the most out of even the worst situation, stop worrying about things that can’t be changed, and be thankful for the chance to learn something new. When you let go and lean in, you’ll be amazed how your mindset can change.

Why not say hey?


After our first night on our boat, I realized something about my group: they weren’t super late night people.

Which is fine! Some people are night owls, and some people are early birds.

Personally, I’m the type of person that never wants to miss out on any adventure, no matter what time of day it is.

But because I’m actually shy in most situations, especially when surrounded by strangers, I was in a bit of a pickle.

After that first night I realized if I wanted a change, I was going to have to make it.  I woke up the next morning, jumped over to the boat next to me, and introduced myself.  Not surprisingly, this boat was full of incredibly nice, fantastic people, who ended up becoming my home away from home.SteveASUourBoat

(Big shout out to Joe, Nate, Doug, Evan, Peyton, Elyse, and Christie)

As the week went on, whenever I felt uncomfortable or out of place (which is quite easy as a shy nerd), I had to literally force myself to say “hey,” when every part of my body told me to “crawl into my boat and hide like a hermit crab.”

So, I put myself out there.

And I was greeted with a hug, handshake, high five, or offered a drink… and ended up spending hours getting to know some awesome new people.

We’ve covered social skills here on the site before (here and here), so I know many Nerd Fitness Rebels know how challenging this can be.  When we’re presented with social situations that scare us or make us uncomfortable, its easy for our minds to revert back to grade school/high school days when life sucked.

It’s okay to be afraid to step outside of your comfort zone, but if you’re looking to have a great time in a new situation, it’s up to you to muster up 20 seconds of courage and say hey.

During this (and difficult social situations in the past), I have to constantly remind myself: what’s the worst that could happen?

And the answer is always the same: nothing.  Sure, you might meet a jerk or two (and thus choose to not talk to them again), but you will probably make some new friends.  Either is certainly better than going home with regret thinking, “damn I should have talked to those people.”

So, next time you’re in a situation where you don’t know anybody, or end up at a party, conference, or bar where you’re the odd man out, do the opposite of what your childhood nerd wants.

Pull a Costanza.  Introduce yourself and say “hey.”  Who knows what adventure (or friendship) could come as a result?

Bringing Fantasy to Life

Steve Plitvice

After surviving my seven days on a boat, I returned to Split, Croatia, and started formulating plans to cross off a big goal from my Epic Quest: Visiting Plitvice Lakes.  

If you’re not familiar with Plitvice Lakes, it’s one of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring national parks on the planet.  Imagine Rivendell from Lord of the Rings – millions of waterfalls, ridiculously turquoise water, and amazing hiking.

My first afternoon at the park started with a bit of exploration, and ended with me renting a rowboat to explore some of the park’s best waterfalls.

This being Nerd Fitness, I couldn’t help but get in some quick exercises before it was time to return the boat:

Boat Exercises

As I wandered over bridges, through trees, and across bridges, I couldn’t help but feel like Samus in Metroid Prime (one of my favorite video games).  Each new viewpoint brought another “holy crap, is this real?” moment.

Here’s a quick montage of some of the waterfalls and lakes, complete with Metroid soundtrack 🙂

Waterfall and Lake Montage

After spending a week in confined quarters on a boat, it was great to head up into the mountains and spend two days alone exploring, hiking, and adventuring.

Level Up


As you can tell from this photo, we had absolutely NO fun on our trip.

I’m going to be doing a big update on the Epic Quest soon (including why I started it and what’s next), but I wanted to share with you three big “Quest Completes!” I had during this week:

1) Attend The Yacht Week – Sure, not necessarily fitness related, but I’m a sucker for an epic experience that I’ll never forget.  I’m a firm believer that experiences trump possessions, which is why most of my money goes into trips, adventures, and experiences.

2) Explore Plitvice Lakes – Absolutely worth the 8 hours of bus rides and early mornings.  The only other place that had my jaw drop like this place was Machu Picchu.  I honestly felt like I was in Middle Earth.  If you ever get a chance to come to Croatia, this HAS to be a stop on your list.  My advice: skip the guided tours, buy a map, and go exploring on your own.  Be the first one in the park or you’ll do a lot of waiting on people who are blocking your path!

3) Complete five muscle ups in a row – While on the Yacht, I made sure to do a few things every day that kept me from losing all of my momentum from a fitness perspective.  I’ve recently been developing my false grip strength, and thought it would be fun to hang up my gymnastic rings from the boom of the boat to get some pull ups in!

I then wanted to see if I could do a muscle up.  Despite never attempting more than one in a row, I figured it was a good opportunity to try it out.  Surprisingly, I was able to string five together in a row! Sure, I didn’t go to a full deadhang, but considering I was hanging off the side of the boat and didn’t have any chalk (and thus destroyed the skin on my forearms), I’m gonna give myself a break on this one:

Boat Muscle Ups

After taking a big break from working on my Epic Quest, it was exciting to be able to cross off three things in just two weeks.  I’m quite excited to be back in Nashville now, working on the Nerd Fitness Academy, a big secret project that I can’t tell you about yet, and gearing up for CAMP NERD FITNESS, our first ever big-time Nerd Fitness meetup.


PS: Big shout out to our skipper Mathijas, Rob Hanly, his wife Lau Hanly, Sasha Gale, Shannon Weeks, and his fiancee Alexis Shields. Special thanks to Rob and Shannon, whose photos I used here on NF...as my photos are currently being enjoyed by fish at the bottom of the Adriatic!



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    28 thoughts on “Lean In: Lessons From My Croatian Adventure

    1. That’s so cool! The way you just took the leapt and turned all situations in your favor like a judo meister.

      Totally jealous of this trip. Adding Rivendell to my bucket-list.

    2. Man, Steve… I wanted to meet you for such a long time. Then you come to my backyard without even saying anything???

    3. This is sooo great! I do things by myself all the time to meet new people-concerts, the gym, sporting events, clubs….so much fun!

    4. Sounds amazing!

      Last year I was invited to join a team to do Ragnar Relay, where I would be stuck in a van with four strangers for 36 hours. Being an introvert, I wanted to say no, but jumped in and said yes. And, I ended up with four new friends….whom I ran Ragnar Relay again with this year. It turned out to be one of my favorite life experiences.

      So, I can’t agree with you more that we need to take that leap of faith to put ourselves out there in order to Level up!

    5. Nice! Croatia is still on my bucket list. I just went on a big trip myself last month; backpacked a few weeks in Spain solo. I had been wanting to do a solo trip overseas for a while. I decided earlier in the year “F*** it, I’m going to Spain” haha. I’m used to doing many things on my own and although I can be relatively outgoing I still have a lot of moments where I don’t really approach people. I had a blast on my trip and met a lot of new friends from all over Europe. I stayed in hostels and on people’s couches (also a night sleeping in an airport). Couchsurfing definitely required me to get out my comfort zone but I had wonderful hosts who i can now call my friends. Speaking Spanish was what I was mostly afraid of. It’s my second language and I understand a lot more than I can actually speak. Even though I knew what to say, when I went to go say it I’d stammer and mess up a lot because I was nervous. Most people I encountered were very nice about it and were patient with me and so eventually I got better about speaking with other people the more I did it. I used maps or generally just wandered around cities and I had to ask a lot of people where things were and how to get there. Saw a lot of from a local’s perspective and not just touristy things thanks to actually conversing with people. Like you, I also had a few hiccups here and there and had to just make the best of it. My bank account actually got compromised halfway through the trip (ironically, by someone in my home state) and it was cleaned out. Had to call back to the U.S. to take care of things but since I had a back up card, some cash and a guaranteed plane home as long as I got back to the airport…I stayed positive about the rest of the trip. So after the bank phone calls I just continued on and still had a great time. Overall, it was an incredible experience and my wanderlust is more severe now. The trip definitely leveled up after I put myself out there.

    6. I love the idea of “lean in” It would make an excellent tattoo. 😉 It’s much different than “go with the flow” or “don’t make waves” in that those are passive, and leaning in is much more active. It’s about going where the action is, and being part of it, not just let everything slide by you.

    7. Hi,I’m so glad that you have visited my country and my hometown Split and that you had great time and enjoyed your stay.I can see from you muscle up video that you were just outside of island Brac or was that Vis,not sure right now.

    8. Awwwwwwww, maaaan! I live in Croatia, and l missed the chance to shake your hand and meet you in person! Well, really glad you had an awesome time here 🙂

    9. What an awesome trip! I had a wonderful time in Croatia when I holidayed there after completing Uni back in 2006. I felt like a videogame character as I ran around the ruins of Diocletian’s Palace in Split. I’ve been back for a brief conference trip in Dubrovnik but I really want to check out the interior and Plitvice Lakes next time I’m in that beautiful country!

    10. Sweet report dude! It’s amazing what we learn about ourselves and what we can permanently gain simply from stepping outside of our comfort zones.

      I remember on Twitter when you lost your phone. Worst feeling ever, but it’s never a big deal when that happens in retrospect 😛

    11. If you were interested there is place called Rivendale in Derbyshire in England that was the basis for Rivendell! The is even an old in there called the Prancing Pony where Tolkein got his inspiration for the Bree tavern

    12. WOW. Just wow. I’m adding these things to my own Epic Quest list, right after I go make one. I’m pretty sure you know this already, but YOUR LIFE IS AWESOME.

    13. I’m chuckling a little to myself, as I read this after I had a “why not?” moment tonight. A guy came up to me while I was hanging out with my friends and asked for my number. Despite suspecting that it was a dare or a bet, I went ahead and gave it to him. Should be interesting to see what, if anything develops.

    14. Being from Croatia, I tend to forget how things like Plitvice lakes are awesome. I’ve been there as a kid but I’m sure my experience would be much different if I visit now. It’s a shame you couldn’t swing by the capital (Zagreb), city has some great places to visit, from amazing architecture to old medieval ruins.

      Great post to read, very inspiring and I love the idea of “leaning in”. I took a trip to London a few years back and did the exact same thing. Traveled alone, didn’t know country, never even been on a plane before, but met a lot of awesome people and had crazy experiences.

    15. Wow, this is awesome! Thanks for telling us to Lean In. I’m always the typical awkward nerd who never speaks up in social situations. : I’ll keep this in mind!

    16. Basing on the wind and sun position, probably it is the island of Brac, “potkop” of Maslinova bay, between Milna and Bol

    17. For anyone wanting to know about the formations in the water, they are calcium deposits. Absorbed into the water, the deposits are never exactly the same. They break down after a while, and are redeposited elsewhere, creating new formations.

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