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Three lessons from Outward Bound, 30 years on

Updated: May 3, 2020

Next week my colleague Kristen Gyorgak is heading to Anakiwa in the Marlborough Sounds, for a 5-day Outward Bound course. The programme is designed to develop leaders for business, using Outward Bound's famed experiential learning techniques.

When Kristen returns, all three development consultants here will be Outward Bound alumni.

I went to Outward Bound in December 1988. I was 26, young enough to do the full 21-day programme. I was the oldest person in my watch.

I decided to go to Outward Bound because I wanted to test myself in the outdoors. My successes had come from academic or craft activity, things that happened indoors.

Thirty years on, what do I remember?

I remember Outward Bound being tough. I arrived with questions about how fit and strong I was. I left with different questions - about what I need, what I offer, and how teams work. These are three things I learnt.

Trampers in high foliage

Preparation will only get you so far

My perception of myself as physically incompetent meant I took the preparation instructions very seriously.

I was diligent about running, breaking in my hired tramping boots, practising walking with a laden pack, and swabbing my feet with methylated spirits to prevent blisters.

In hindsight, I was terrified of being a burden or a laughing stock. It took me a long time to realise my mind was a greater barrier than my body.

I also found out you can get blisters on the front of your ankles if your boots aren’t laced right… And the only way I found that out was by tramping for three days at a time.

Rock face with climbing rope

Rock climbing is problem solving

Part of the Outward Bound experience is being briefed on activities. My memory of the briefing for rock climbing is that the instructor told me that rock climbing is about problem solving. And the problem is always the same: how can I have three points of contact with the rock?

Now, it may be that she told everyone that. But it was exactly the right instruction for me. One of my goals as a facilitator is to achieve that kind of connection - to understand what will have meaning for a learner.

Stack of chocolate chip cookies

Baking expresses care

During my 21 days, I received care parcels of baking from a wonderful friend in Blenheim. (Hooray for the post via boat in the Marlborough Sounds.)

I remember crisp chocolate chip cookies and buttery caramel slice. I'm pretty sure I shared with my watch... But regardless of how much of the baking I ate, I was emotionally sustained by its arrival. It let me know in a very real way that Melanie was thinking of me. Its arrival wasn't conditional on my ability to climb or kayak or tramp.

Anyone who knew me at the time might recall that I didn't enjoy Outward Bound. I did learn from it, and I enjoy being able to connect with others through our shared experience of it.


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