Many students dream about making a career of their passions. For one New College alumnus, this dream has become a reality.
Ryan Pyle (New ’01) is an adventurer, photographer, journalist and Guinness World Record-holder best known for his epic motorcycle journeys around China and India with his brother Colin. The two brothers documented these journeys for their television series Tough Rides: China and Tough Rides: India. As the founder of his own production company and co-founder of a successful Chinese-language school, Ryan’s entrepreneurial spirit and hard work have allowed him to thrive after graduation.
Last month, Ryan journeyed from his home in Shanghai to talk to the New College community about how he got his start and what he’s learned along the way.
During your time at New College, did you know that you wanted to make a career out of travel and photography?
No, not at all. When I graduated, all I knew was that I needed to get out of Toronto, even if at that stage I didn’t really know what that meant. During my first three-month trip to China I knew I liked the idea of storytelling, and I got into the habit of keeping a really detailed journal as well as writing emails to family and friends about what I was doing. This is how I got into the concept of reporting and sharing something with people who have no idea what that country looked and felt like.
Was photography already a hobby for you?
At that point, no. When I was in university, I had no hobbies. I played basketball, I went to class, I ate, I slept…It wasn’t until my basketball career ended that I had much time and energy to look at other things, and that’s when photography and writing really started to interest me.
I think we all have many interests, that we’re multitaskers and can wear many hats, but I never got a chance to explore any of those things until after university. I think in so many ways, China was my muse–for writing, for photography, for storytelling, for everything.
Why did you choose China as a place to start your adventures?
In my second year of university, I ended up taking a class called Introduction to Chinese History and Politics, really only because it fit my schedule. But I took that class and I was amazed–the book was great, Professor Victor Falkenheim was great. We still stay in touch today, and I’ve done guest lectures in his class since then. That class introduced me to a whole way of life and living in China, a history that I had had no exposure to until that point.
In high school you learn nothing about the nuances of the massive history China has, the various influences, the political turmoil it went through or that it has now come out on the other side as quite a progressive place. In my third and fourth year I took more classes on China and when I graduated, I just knew: “I have to go to China.”
That says a lot about the opportunities you can get at a university, and the benefits of pushing yourself and trying new things.
Absolutely. I would recommend that in your second or third year, you take half of your classes in subjects you didn’t think you have an interest in. It could end up leading your education, and your career, in a direction you might not have thought of. Take your engineering or math classes, but take a chance to branch out and you could end up putting your education toward something amazing in China or elsewhere. We live in a global world, and I think not enough people really stretch themselves.
What advice would you give to students entering the workforce who hope to translate their passions into a career, like you have? That’s the goal for many people, but it can be hard to achieve.
I think that the most valuable thing a person can do when they’re done their education is travel. Education is expensive, and most people feel tied down to getting a job that their university degree is based on in order to pay off their incredible university debt. But if you visit a few places you’ve never been before, it’ll give you new ideas about how to use what you’ve learned in a broader world.
You can be a doctor abroad, you can be an engineer abroad, you can be an educator abroad, but so many people are just so cash-strapped upon graduating that they don’t see that as being a part of their continuing education.
Only when you’ve seen other parts of the world can you really understand how to implement your skill base most appropriately. For me, when I first went to China there weren’t very many photographers or people reporting and living there full-time. I saw that niche, and realized that’s what I wanted to do.
You’ve said that your trips to India and China were motivated in part by a desire to break down people’s preconceived notions about those countries. What else motivated you to document these journeys?
I think the first reason for my show in China was a rejection of the current journalism practices. After seven or eight years as a journalist and photographer working for major media outlets, I felt like my work was becoming really repetitive and thought that everyone was focusing on the same things–the economy, pollution, exposing sweatshops. I thought they were portraying a really narrow image, and felt like the country deserved a wider dialogue.
The best way I thought to do that was to ride a motorcycle all around the country and show people the deserts, the grasslands, the nomad families, massive mega-cities, mountain base camps, everything China has to offer. When I talk to people about the show, the number one feedback I get is, “I had no idea China looked like that.” That is exactly what we were going for.
What was the biggest challenge of producing these series?
Everything’s been a challenge. I don’t think anyone should ever think for a moment that making your own television show is easy. Selling the idea to a broadcaster is a nightmare, selling it to corporate partners and asking them to believe in you is also really challenging. To be honest, the easiest part is actually doing the show: being on a bike every day is hard, but not as hard as hearing no every day for months. But in the end, if you just keep pushing you eventually get where you need to be.
What lessons have you learned along the way?
I think the more you see, the more you know yourself. Every time I see a new part of the world, I get a better understanding of who I am and how I fit into the bigger picture.
Also, I’ve learned that the more you try to do and the bigger bites you take out of life, no matter what it is you do with your life, the bigger the reward and the better your confidence will be. Being ambitious, maybe even over-ambitious, is the only way to be. You can get to where you want to go if you put in the extra time, and sometimes you’ll fail but you’ll learn so much more through the process.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Visit our Facebook page to view photos of Ryan’s recent presentation at New College.