Which Real World? Seeing the World through Different Eyes

I wrote this article about 16 years ago, long before there was blogging in my world. It is reprinted from The Cracker Barrel (Fall / Winter Issue 1996-97). It is interesting how much the experience in this article guided my life since this time, and how much I find myself using today what I learned then. For me, this is what experiential education is all about.

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How many times have you had someone ask you, “So what do you do in the real world?” In a resort community frequented by visi­tors who are usually trying to get away from a faster paced lifestyle, I bet the question is asked quite often. As an employee of Mount Snow, I’m asked the question every day. I usual­ly reply first with a puzzled look to get some clarification, but then give in and acknowledge that I too have a job in their world.

As the Deerfield Valley has become my primary home, I’ve thought more and more about how to answer the question. Isn’t my world of teaching skiing and biking here at Mount Snow the real world? Isn’t our world of a resort community, nestled within the lush forests of the Green Mountain National Forest, real? Why do we see our world as separate worlds, city and forest, mountain and valley, work and play, mine and yours?

Well, one thing I know is that I’ve only learned as much as I know, so if I don’t know, I’ve got some more learning to do! Recently, I set out on an expedition to do some more learning. In June, I spent a month in the eastern Cascades of Washington state with a group of outdoor educators in the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). Not knowing exactly what it was that I wanted to learn, I knew the experience would help me see things differently, hopefully giv­ing me new perspectives that would help me understand more about all of my worlds. I spent a month above snow-line in a group of nine, travel­ing many miles per day in wet spring snow, climbing thousands of feet on rugged pitches sometimes approach­ing 45 degrees, and sharing our lives on a daily basis. I managed to have time to ponder a few thoughts on liv­ing in my multiple worlds, on how what I learn in one world really does apply in the other.

The best leaders are also the best coaches. It is not enough to tell someone you work with or live with just what to do and how to do it, you must give them the tools, show them how, motivate and coach them.

Jeremy was a nineteen year old college student from Michigan studying outdoor recreation. The son of two professional psychologists, he was sort of a free-spirit guy who didn’t pay much attention to details before jumping in and just doing things. He was the guy who stood on the edge of a cliff without being tied off, who would not think twice about the risks before crossing a rushing mountain stream, who would acci­dentally spill the boiling water you had just made from melting snow with a limited supply of stove fuel! Jeremy was also the guy we called The Bonk-in-ator because every after­noon, after a long day of backcountry travel… bonk! No more energy. He’d get quiet, doubt his capabilities, and slow down.

It was interesting to see how Jeremy responded to different leader­ship styles. It wasn’t enough to tell him to eat more food and drink more water. It wasn’t enough to just tell him how to take care of his feet. Every day, bonk! He had no energy to go on or to take care of himself once we reached a suitable overnight camp. Finally, because the success of the group depended on the success of each individual, we started to coach him. We showed him what to eat and when to drink. We even carried snack food for him. We gave him support and encouragement. We made him feel good about himself and his role in the group. And in the end, Jeremy was a vital link in the success of our group.

In business, isn’t it also an essen­tial ingredient of company profitability that staff succeeds and be satisfied, in addition to the customer? Maybe we all need to be better coaches in whatever world we are involved in. Maybe I can even apply some of my ski teaching skills to my engineering career?

Conserve energy. Work on what’s important.

 There has been much written on time management. I like what Dr. Stephen Covey speaks about in “First Things First”‘. Spend your time on what’s important; what is part of your personal value system. In skiing, we try to coach people to mini­mize excess motion which disturbs balance. In mountain biking and other endurance sports, we talk about not wasting energy and about relaxed breathing. In our personal lives, it may be about spending more time with the kids or participating in a community activity.

It was a long day. We climbed 2000 feet after leaving the town of Holden on Lake Chelan. Our packs were filled with our new rations of a week and a half. We picked up additional ropes and climbing gear for the ter­rain ahead. Our packs were heavy. We traversed avalanche slide areas and bushwhacked through alders and slide debris. As we sat on our packs, resting, waiting for the other part of our group at the designated meeting spot, we were silent. On all sides above and around us were the steep pitches of snow, rock, and avalanche debris which covered the slopes of a large, glacial cirque. Our route south to our next ration point, 10 days away, was up and out of the cirque.

We decided, as a group, that the only way we would get all members of our group up, over, and back down the other side in one day, would be to start early when the slope was still frozen. Afternoon slush had a greater likelihood of slid­ing and the slopes we were on were very susceptible. We had decided not to carry our crampons on this ration period because of the weight and the snow conditions. Our strategy meant that a few of us would have to kick steps in the snow, up a 1500 feet high pitch, late in the afternoon, so that they would set up for the rest of the group and allow early morning trav­el. At that moment, it became very clear to me what conserving energy meant! Determine what is impor­tant, and focus on it each and every step of the way!

 If something unexpected happens, deal with it immediately.

On the way down that same range, Jeremy accidentally slipped into another member of our group. Luckily, no one was hurt. However, Joanna, a small, careful, and very detail-oriented professional women, was inwardly very upset with the more casual Bonk-in-ator. Jeremy, constantly under the guiding hands of various group members, was inwardly embarrassed and felt detached from the rest of the group. And we still had to descend the most treacherous terrain on ropes, depending entirely on one another. This was no time for pent-up anger and ill-willed feelings.

How many times in my life had I not been able to deal with a situation effectively because of pent-up feelings which I had not previously dealt with? I try to remember this situa­tion with Jeremy and Joanna con­stantly now when I feel something brewing within.

Our individual worlds are as big or as small as we want them to be, or as encompassing as we see them, but in the end, they’re all connected.

For 15 years, I spent the majority of my life engineering structures for buildings where attention to detail was my world. I became immersed in it. On weekends, however, I was drawn to the grandeur of the moun­tains. There, teaching skiing was my world. There, standing atop the mountain on a clear winter night, everything seemed so distant from my other world.

I think it was our third night together on our expedition. It was another long day. We didn’t find a site near water until near nightfall. We dug small shelters in the snow to protect our tents from the cool winds which blew down over us to the long valley below. After eating, we all sat down to discuss who we were, where we were from, and why we were there. Not just names and places, but who we really were. What events and influences brought us to be who we were at that particular time and place? I sat there and listened to Rick read a Native American story. I looked up to the stars, which looked just like they do from the top of Mount Snow, and down to the dis­tant lights in the valley which also looked so familiar. It occurred to me that everything I had experienced in my life brought me to that moment. Everything.

It was that moment which gave me the focus for this article. For the rest of the trip, for the rest of my vacation to this unfamiliar land, my thoughts became directed on how my experiences on that adventure were connected to my real world. It seemed like the more I learned, the more I could begin to see all of the connections between my other worlds. As I have seen the connec­tions, the more I have wanted to apply them in whatever real world I was in.

Our environment is our world. Our earth, our atmosphere, and all forms of life they support, are connected. We are each a vital link.

One last experience… It was the end of our trip. We were picked up by a van after living for three weeks with the forest as our friend and with each tree as our companion. Tired from a twelve mile hike out of the woods, yet elated at the thought of a shower (Jeremy ran out!), a sudden silence overcame the whole group. Just as the sounds of U2’s Bullet the Blue Sky came on the radio, the chop­pers of a cut and run logging opera­tion flew overhead suspending the trunks of salvaged timbers. The music rang out “Outside is America…” I was a cultural shock; a rude awakening to the real world. We were trying to understand. Suddenly, my perspective changed. I could no longer look at distant lands and forests, and what goes on in them, as being separate from my real world. My world just got bigger. Just like guests who come to our southern Vermont community and take away experiences they will always remem­ber, the forests were telling me, “Don’t forget about us.”

About the author: Bob has been a structural engineer with Ryan-Biggs Associates in Troy, NY, for 13 years. He has also been teaching skiing for over 20 years. Recently, Bob changed his real world and is the Director of Staff Training for Skier Development at Mount Snow, VT. He spends many winter nights snowshoeing on top of the mountain look­ing out at both worlds.