Lessons from a Walk in the Woods

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There are opportunities to learn in everything we do. We just need to open our minds to receive the lessons. My mind was opened to lessons on a 10+ mile hike with my family in Shenandoah National Park. A mountain hike in a National Park can be very challenging and can be analogous to life. There are pitfalls, beauty, accomplishments and failures. The seven and a half hour hike gave me the chance to think, challenged me to my limits and reminded me of several lessons in achieving goals.

To achieve any goal, planning is important. Planning was particularly important for our hike since we had no way to replenish our resources. There are no water fountains in the woods. We needed to carry our own water and food. Also to achieve a goal, one also needs to know the destination and have an idea how to get there. The challenge of bigger goals is you may not know the exact path to your destination. On the hike the trails we were on were not loops. One trail led to the next and we needed to know which paths led back to the car. Our goal was to reach peaks over 2800 feet. We saw the opportunity to reach a second peak higher than our first (3300 feet) and we took it. This required us to change our plan and made the hike more challenging. The lesson is plans are written on paper, not carved in stone. Have a plan but be willing to adjust it to achieve your goals. When you are pushing yourself, you might find a goal bigger than the one you were originally focused on. Go for it!

As I mentioned, the trails we took were very challenging. There were obstacles on the trails, steep drop offs and bear scat (poo) everywhere. It was important to be attentive through the whole trip. Getting injured in the woods with no cellphone service can be a big problem. Having situational awareness, especially when you are tired, is very important. When walking through the woods on a steep trail, you don’t want to trip over a log or slide down a steep grade or come face to face with a bear. The lesson is to always know your surroundings. Whether you are in a business meeting, in a dark parking lot, shopping at the mall or walking in the woods, it is important to know your surroundings and to keep an eye out for pitfalls or threats.

Successful thinking and leading share a common foundation, remaining calm. Challenging situations even recreational ones like a challenging hike can give you moments of stress. Not reaching a milestone when expected, running low on supplies, or not seeing a member of your party can be a source of anxiety. The key is to not let the anxiety get the better of you. You may not think of yourself as a leader but if you can remain calm in a stressful situation, think a problem through and execute a solution, people will follow you and you are more likely to reach your goal. There were points on the trail where we felt lost, we were all sore and tired and it felt like the trail would not end. The lesson is to keep calm, especially when you are stressed or anxious. We can be our own biggest enemy. We sabotage ourselves when we doubt our own capabilities or are anxious about an outcome. Remain calm, think, then determine a solution to overcome your difficulties.  Your goal may be right around the next bend even if you don’t see it yet.

When we discuss accomplishments, we often speak of milestones. It is easy to forget that milestones are actual stone markers on a trail marking distances. Reaching milestones on the trail can be exciting and a relief particularly when you have been on a very rough part of the trail and you are concerned that you might be lost. Being in a dense forest with no landmarks can be unnerving especially when you think you should have hit a milestone but have not yet.  The lesson is to use your milestones. Having markers that show you have reached a certain point, particularly on large goals, helps keep you on the path and can encourage you to push forward. When you set large goals for yourself, establish milestones so can track your progress and make course corrections when required.

As discussed above, challenging goals can lead to anxiety. Fighting your anxiety and moving forward even though your goal is not in sight is hard. To achieve a challenging goal, you need to remain focused on that goal. In the forest there is no giving up. You can’t just sit there. To get back to civilization you need to move forward or back. The lesson is perseverance. We chose to move forward in the woods. It was challenging but we made it. It was the right path for us to take (even if it did not seem so at the time).

Learning from actions taken during a project takes analysis after the project. In the planning and execution of our hike we made mistakes. On the ride back from the hike we talked about what went right and what went wrong on the hike, so we could avoid the problems in the future. If you are going for a half mile walk in the park, you don’t need to go through this exercise but if you are going on a dangerous excursion and you plan on doing others, it is good to document what went right and wrong. The lesson is to review what has happened and document it so you can learn from past mistakes and benefit from past advantages. From our hike we learned that we need to double the amount of water we thought we needed, that we need to bring maps of the areas around our target hiking area and we should bring walkie-talkies for communication if we need to separate.  We took note of these items and will make adjustments for when we go again.

The number one lesson learned on the hike was Confidence born of achievement uncovers strength we didn’t know we had. About a quarter-mile from the end of the hike we were very discouraged. The last leg of the hike we estimated at about three and a half miles turned out to be closer to five miles. We knew that we were going to end up down the road from where our car was parked so about a mile from the end my son went ahead to get the car and comeback for us when we reached the trail head. As a cross country runner he had more energy than the rest of us and is very fast. We were tired and a little dehydrated so that last mile was slow going for us. When we got to the final quarter-mile, were very close to our goal but we didn’t know it, we weren’t sure if my son had made it to the car and our thoughts touched on the idea that going on this hike was a mistake. Then we heard cars on the road and we knew we were close to the goal. We made it to the parking lot and when my son got there he was honking the horn and smiling. We were smiling too. We achieved a goal that pushed us to what we thought were our limits and we now know that our limits lie beyond the effort we put into this hike.

Do the same in your life. Set challenging goals; plan but be pragmatic; know your surroundings;  keep calm and think things through; set milestones to mark you progress; persevere during the tough times;  accomplish your goals; see what you did right and wrong; then set your sights on bigger better things.

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