A quick note: My thirst for adventure led me away from a conventional path and towards one that was harder to find, but has turned out to be wild and worth it. This article is my thoughts on how the job challenges and changes you for the better. I currently work for Outward Bound and highly encourage anyone who may be interested to check it out, whether you want to work as an instructor or just get out and challenge yourself by signing up for a course! As always, please feel free to contact me with any questions that you may have and happy adventuring!
The sound of the boy throwing up his breakfast intensified. Each inhale became more labored, followed by an overly-dramatic wretch on the exhale. The young man was on all-fours in the mud, trying to convince me that he was vomiting his guts all over the trail. It wasn’t working, but that certainly didn’t stop the young actor from giving the performance of his life. It was the fourth day of a 28-day Intercept Course and I knelt next to the teenager, rubbing his back while trying to convince him that the oatmeal wasn’t going to kill him. I didn’t want him to think I was going to let him get away with not eating. We had way too many miles to hike for that to happen. I was being supportive, but not too supportive. As an Outward Bound Instructor, you get pretty good at finding the balance.
With my free hand I swatted mosquitoes away from his face and mine. They bit my hand instead. My co-instructors were unsuccessfully trying to distract the rest of the crew that was swiftly swarming with curiosity. Up above, the thunderheads rolled in, fourth day in a row. Perspiration and tears mixed on the boy’s face. “I can’t believe you’re forcing me to eat!” he pleaded. My senses were keen in that moment, picking up the different stimuli one by one. I thought that if I didn’t feel so personally miserable at that instant, this would probably make for good watching on TV.
“Why am I still doing this?” I asked myself.
A minute passed and still no puke. I heard the sound of footsteps and laughter. Uh oh. There’s nothing worse than encountering other people in the woods when you’re responsible for the behavior of eleven at-risk teenage students. I watched out of the corner of my eye as a line of feet began to pass me and then stop. Looking up, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. There at the head of the line, stood someone I recognized. A former student I had just finished working with no more than two weeks earlier. It took me a second to connect the dots. My mind got fuzzy. Was I on that course still? Déjà vu? No, his boy scout troop was here training for an upcoming expedition in some high-up place. He looked good, seemed motivated and excited to see me, which is often a rare sentiment directed towards at-risk instructors. We chatted briefly, wished each other well and the line started moving again. The sound of dry heaving intensified behind me. At the end of the line, his father greeted me. With earnest words and eyes, he told me thanks. Said the work we do as instructors is invaluable and that he has seen so much progress in his son. He shook my hand and walked on.
The man behind him, who I guessed was another father, stopped for a second and asked: “Did he tell you that they elected him patrol leader? They want him to lead.” He walked on, and they disappeared around a bend.
“Oh right. That’s why I’m still doing this.”
The Benefits of Instructing
“That which does not kill us, makes us stronger” – Friedrich Nietzsche
Asking an outdoor instructor why they do the work that they do is like searching Google for funny cat pictures. You should expect many results. And it makes sense. Getting paid to hike, climb, and paddle in some of the most beautiful places on Earth? Seeing positive change in the lives of others? That’s hard to beat.
But what about those moments when we wish course would just end? When you haven’t moved an inch towards camp, a student is doing his best reenactment of the projectile vomit scene from The Exorcist, and the rain and mosquitoes are starting to seep into your skin? The days when you can’t stop yourself from asking: “Why am I still doing this?”
We work hard from day one to help our students understand that their expedition is not going to be easy. We spew forth quotes, speeches, and stories from people who underwent a great ordeal and came out stronger on the other side. When they finally hit the wall and want to give up, we are the ones who never give up on them.
But who is there for us when we feel the same way?
Just as we encourage our students to appreciate every moment of course, whether “good” or “bad”, we too should find how each experience benefits us. In fact, it may be in the most undesirable moments where you find the true fruit of Outward Bound. That’s where you find the strength you didn’t realize you had. The knowledge that there is more in you than you know.
The Power of Perception
“On the occasion of every accident that befalls you, remember to turn to yourself and inquire what power you have for turning it to use.”
I was riding the L-Train in Chicago when I first encountered the idea that there was no such thing as good or bad. “A load of Buddhist baloney,” I thought to myself as the hospital drew nearer and my palms began to sweat. Anxiety pummeled my stomach. For months, I had followed the same routine of going to bed worried, waking up worried, going to the hospital shaking, feeling better after it was over, but then worrying about tomorrow. As an inexperienced intern in an important hospital, I was not enjoying my life. I was racked with fear. “How can this not be bad?” I thought.
The next morning on the train, I read about the Stoics. The previous day’s thought about no good or bad had stuck in the back of my mind, like a scene from a scary movie; I hadn’t really wanted it there. It had actually been an OK day though. Things seemed a little less catastrophic. I decided to dig deeper.
One particular idea stood out. It jumped from the page right into the part of my brain where ideas are considered. It promptly got to work.
Every experience is an opportunity to practice some virtue.
The only virtue I had practiced that day was refraining from calling in sick. But I liked the possibility of it; the paradigm shift of turning something bad completely on its head until it became something good. It was kind of exciting. I felt a little more in control.
I decided to try it. Before I entered my first hospital room of the day, I reminded myself, through shallow breaths and racing thoughts, that this was an opportunity to practice courage. I plunged forward into the depths. Each time I encountered a new patient or problem, I asked what virtue I could practice in that moment. It became an internal battle cry, a mantra that I constantly repeated throughout the final months of my internship. When I had finished, I decided that comfort bored me. I wanted a challenge, something that would test my mettle and make me better. I became an Outward Bound Instructor.
Every Experience is an Opportunity
“Your disability is your opportunity.” – Kurt Hahn
As outdoor instructors, we are in the unique position to be challenged every moment of our working lives. We are primed to become something stronger than resilient. Every experience is an opportunity to not only stand up to the stress that course inflicts, but to become better each time we do. With this thought, it is no longer a pain to work with a difficult student, it is a privilege. It is an opportunity to practice patience and empathy. Getting to camp at 1:00 am is an opportunity to tell one heck of a story later. It’s raining? Good, because this is an opportunity to practice resilience while also bolstering the morale of others. Is that the best you’ve got, Mother Nature?
The next time you are in the field and asking yourself “Why am I doing this?”, try asking this instead: “What can I gain from this?” The opportunity to change lives through challenge and discovery may not be easy, but neither is life. And maybe that’s the way it should be.
“If you do what is easy, life will be hard. If you do what is hard, life will be easy.” – Les Brown