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What I learned at Outward Bound

Updated: May 3, 2020

10 days ago I got back from Outward Bound in Anakiwa. 10 days and I'm still trying to fully process all the challenges I faced (both physically and mentally), lessons I learned, and insights I had. This is in no way a comprehensive list, but merely a few thoughts I hope to continue adding to.

Aim for a 7 Our group, Shackleton Watch, kept each other to account through a simple scale of 1-7. A one indicated no discomfort or look to grow. A seven indicated that you were at your absolute limit, pushing yourself to the max, breaking way out of the comfort zone, and fully and wholly challenging yourself. "Are you at your 7?" was a simple, yet powerful question that made us question whether we were the most vulnerable and challenged we could be. Then, the follow up question we all dreaded, "If you aren't at a 7, what would make this a 7 right now?" Once, the answer to that question had me rock climbing blindfolded.

Another time it had me turning down the one opportunity to speak to someone else during a 24 solo experience - well beyond a 7 for my ultra-extrovert! When I told a friend from the course I was writing this blog, I admitted I was struggling with how vulnerable I should be. Her response was the same thing I found the whole week from my teammates, a supportive challenge to reach a little further than I would have initially. With the search for a '7' in mind, here were some of my takeaways.

At Outward Bound, you get out of it, what you put into it While teaming and the success of the group is forefront only you can motivate yourself. Both physically and mentally, you are the person accountable for pushing yourself into action. I liked being in charge of my own level of growth. I had quite a few powerful insights about myself in a relatively short amount of time.

I have a high need for communication

I lead with communication. I verbalise my thoughts constantly to help me think through them. Speak, then think. And speak often because you're thinking often. This is how I process the world. The positives and negatives of my constant communication are pretty obvious.

But what really struck me at OB is that not only do I need to speak out my thoughts, I have a high need for others to verbally communicate with me as well. And when my need for communication isn't being met - I find it almost tangibly painful. Here's one way this played out throughout the week:

It became very clear early on the first day that I was the most extroverted, talktive, and loudest person in our group. Trying to moderate myself a smidge, I tried (often unsuccessfully) to not be the person always speaking up first. So, when the instructors asked a question, I would dutifully zip my lips and wait for someone else to speak up. And wait... and wait. I would clasp my hands behind my backs and drum a beat. Count in my head. Argue internally whether I should speak or not. As I said, I found this almost painful.

But, that was just me. Firstly, this all was probably a maximum of 30 seconds each time. My team told me they didn't even notice there were gaps of silence because they were processing and thinking. But I did. Vividly. Every time.

A stark reminder that my preferences really are just that - a personal preference. Just because it works for (or bothers) me, doesn't mean others are having the same experience.

I like being in control

I found very clearly that I enjoy having a sense of control. I know this because everything at Outward Bound is designed to take away your sense of control. You have no schedule or rundown of the day so that you can remain in the moment. It's a great thought. In practice, I found it uncomfortable. It caught me off guard how uneasy giving up some control made me feel.

I equate control with leadership

Another realisation is how strongly I correlate leadership with control. When our group was given a team challenge, I would wait for someone to step and take control. Instinctively, I had to stop myself from immediately doing this everytime. And when no one would else would speak up, I found it quite easy to slot in myself and do this.

I am very comfortable both dolling out and receiving clear instructions about how to proceed. And when this doesn't happen, I'm distinctly uncomfortable. "Someone needs to just take charge" was a thought I had heaps. Often followed by, "No one else has said anything, so, okay fine, I'll do it!"

As I was simultaneously trying to moderate my extrovert, command style I grappled with something: How can you be a leader without being the one in front giving instructions?

And then another question hit me that I've never truly stopped to think about: "Who said they wanted me to be their leader anyways?"

Lead like a karate instructor

This might seem very obvious to some, but it took me over 20 years to have this next lightbulb moment.

The most influential leaders throughout my life have been my karate instructors. I started karate when I was four. And my first and longest leadership role was as a karate instructor. (Which is why I had to karate kick across the high ropes log.)

All of a sudden, it became clear why I gravitate towards command and control styles of leadership. I know that this style of leadership is outdated, overused, and should only be employed under specific (read: time sensitive / emergency) situations. And yet - when push comes to shove, this is my go-to. I need to think more about how this shows up at work.

Be in the moment

I am a very results-focused person. I can overlook people to achieve results. While this has been a great driver in my career, it can also mean I'm always looking ahead at the next step. Or creating the next plan. This mindset sacrifices being in the moment.

The solo challenge was the activity I was the most worried about. 24 hours alone. I've never spent that much time alone (without the comfort of a cell phone or Netflix to keep me company). Therefore, I decided to take an extra notebook and spend the time journalling, planning, thinking about how to apply this to my work.

I was as surprised as anyone when my day turned out the exact opposite. I realised how little I allow my mind to just be. So, I created a new plan of attack - For the full day, I kept myself in the present.

When I started to think about, well, anything, I did a quick five senses check - What can I hear? See? Smell? Taste? Feel? And more importantly, why am I grateful for this?

This time alone with my thoughts helped me discover this beautiful connection between the outdoors and headspace that I never fully grasped before. There is something intensely powerful about being outside in the natural world. I plan to, and already have been, purposeful about being outside.

Celebrate my body Like many people, when I think about my body my inner voice begins to share all the things that are 'wrong.' My stomach is not as flat as I want, my arms not as toned, and in every candid photo I have neck rolls (proof, far right, below).

But, I rarely think about what my body can do. I can run and swim. Pull myself up a rock wall. I can hike for miles. Tarzan swing from ropes. I can sail. I can sit. Stand. I can live independently.

While hanging some tarps to dry, I met Kevin, another instructor at the school. Kevin told me about a powerful experience he had while working their Activate course. Activate is specifically targetted "to enable those aged 18+ with a physical disability to experience the challenge and adventure of an Outward Bound course." During this course, the crew went sailing. Kevin explained to each member what their role would be and how much the success of the sailing would be them executing their role. "I need you to hold onto this rope as tight as you can, no excuses," he told one of them. At the end of the sailing, a participant was emotional, sharing "this was the best experience of my life. For 5 minutes, I forgot I was in a wheelchair."

Kevin sharing this experience with me was remarkably powerful. I wasn't there. I never met these people. But, I was moved. My physical health is something I very much take for granted. The way I'm able to interact and move in the world has never been a focus for me. It very much has been since OB.

Attitude of Gratitude The next morning, we were at Physical Training when R&D manager Kelly Hamilton, sharedsome lessons about having an attitude for gratitude. As she was sharing this, I was in the midst of intensely itching a cluster of sandfly bites that seemed to miraculously appear over my legs. I instantly flicked my mindset. Instead of intense annoyance and frustration from these bites, I celebrated the fact that not only could I feel the bites, but I could itch them too. It worked.

I'm committing to have a purposeful attitude for gratitude. To take notice of and appreciate the things happening in my life, whether big or small. I hope you can all help hold me to account!

A massive thank you to my Shackleton crew-mates; Junior, Fozzy, Scott, Sophie, Peter, Lana, and Anna and everyone in the Outward Bound community for the space, safety, and acceptance to take this journey.

The aim of Outward Bound isn't necessarily to drastically change your life. But, what my experience has shown me is when you spend time disconnected from technology and re-connected to your body, mind, and soul you just might get motivated to do that.


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