Swimming with dolphins in the Amazon, tracking tigers in Nepal, spending two years on an Alaskan island studying killer whales — most men just read about these kind of exploits, or watch them on TV. For Michael Modzelewski, they’re all part of the job. If you’ve ever tried out for Survivor — or better yet, found it not challenging enough — and yearn to spin tales of your rugged outdoor exploits, you may have what it takes to follow in his footsteps. Modzelewski, the son of a pro football player, has managed to take what he calls his “split personality” — an athletic side coupled with a poetic one — and parlay it into success as an author, motivational speaker, and TV personality, hosting an adventure series on the Outdoor Life cable network.
A thirst for adventure and exotic travel is essential, but it’s a love and knowledge of the craft of writing that can turn a thrill-seeker into an acknowledged (and paid) authority. “I went to college on a football scholarship, but I ended up going into journalism, art history, English lit; I just gobbled up all the art I could find,” Modzelewski relates. “The best thing I ever did was take a semester off and travel Europe for three months. I was living on like $5 a day, starving, staying in hostels, but it was good because it didn’t keep me insulated; I wasn’t at the Hilton with the other Americans. I was rubbing elbows with all levels of life I’d never been exposed to before.”
Needless to say, a job like Modzelewski’s is not for those who are satisfied with sedate, 9-to-5 office stability. Having sold his first story to Sports Illustrated while still in college, Modzelewski knew early on where his career path was headed. His advice for making a living as a writer, adventure-oriented or otherwise? Write, pitch, then write and pitch some more. And seize any opportunity to get printed, matter how small-time. “Build up those clips,” he says. “I’ve found that most editors don’t care if it’s published in SI of the Timbuktu Times. As long as its in print, black-and-white, with a byline.”
Being a writer is also half the battle for a TV hosting gig, according to Modzelewski. “They’re always looking for good writers because whether you’re a correspondent or a host, you’ll probably be writing your own stand-ups.” Experience in public speaking is also an asset, and an important rule to keep in mind is that no matter how many exciting experiences you’ve had, you can’t be too full of yourself to interview other people. And a healthy dose of ad-libbing is helpful. As Modzelewski recounts, “Sometimes it’s a crapshoot: you can spend ten days in Patagonia knowing what you want to get, and no matter how much prep work you do, nature doesn’t cooperate. Then sometimes the giant condors show up as if you’ve snapped your fingers.” (We’re hoping this rule applies only to the nature show tapings rather than Michael’s public speaking engagements.) In a nutshell, Modzelewski believes that his “beat” is one that provides lots of opportunities these days for those willing to tackle it. “The more high-tech and civilized we’ve become, there’s more of a need to see people out there pushing the limits,” he says. “Look at Fear Factor, Survivor, all those reality shows. Travel books are selling more today than ever. There’s just a sense of adventure in us that will never die.”