What does our professional work-life have in common with a bunch of strangers in the wilderness?
Actually, a lot.
Both require the ability to solve complicated stuff, under duress, for extended periods of time, while working with people we don’t necessarily understand or even like. Kinda like getting married before we’ve even had a chance to date.
And for both groups, success depends upon becoming a family.
I first learned this wisdom from Gardner Defoe, a renowned outdoor expedition guide who taught hundreds of teenagers like me to canoe the St. John and Allagash Wilderness Waterways at his Birch Island Wilderness Camp.
For three summers, and five weeks, I was thrown together with fellow teenagers to work and solve problems with daily, and demanding, goals. The experience has left a lasting imprint on nearly every aspect of my life.
Last summer, my husband and I returned to the remote lake where the trip began. This time, though, we weren’t roughing it. We had a cabin with a bed and hot water, and a toilet that flushed – lots of luxury. However, as it turns out, this was the only thing that changed.
The entire region was pristinely preserved, with the mountains rising to the north, the Canadian Railroad arching languidly westward, and the loons— gliding and sliding their calls between this world and the next. It was stunning and exhilarating to return.
I was also quietly bracing myself for the grief I expected to find. For two of my summers on the trip my mother was dying; she was gone in the third. During those years, I thought the only light I would see in the tunnel was a train coming in the opposite direction. I adored my mother.
And yet surprisingly, sadness was not the memory I found. As my husband and I paddled the achingly long lake in a brewing storm, I remembered my skinny teenage shoulders paddling through really scary squalls.
And as we walked the two-mile portage path from Holeb Pond to Attean Lake, I could almost feel the crushing weight of the eighteen-foot canoe on my shoulders, and the rush of youthful adrenaline knowing there were miles upon miles of river and adventure ahead.
No, I didn’t find a grieving girl at all. Instead, I rediscovered my younger self who claimed her resilience and hardiness on these trips, and who learned beyond a doubt that leadership is a communal practice — because success is a communal accomplishment.
Gardner offered us so many gifts. At 81-years old, LL Bean and O’Maine studios filmed his trip with 20 past-campers down the Allagash Wilderness Waterway. The film Defoe’s Way was made in honor of the significant impact he had on his campers. View the Trailer Here.
As I recall, he laughed—and yelled—a lot. The yelling was a necessity. He had to be heard from the shore above the roar of the white water, to correct our canoe alignment. He also had to penetrate our (my) panicked, inexperienced, teenage recklessness and provide the guidance to navigate us successfully through fast and dangerous water.
I was more than a little intimidated by him. He was a straightforward, just-do-it kinda guy. And while you might think these trips were about the thrill of an adventure, Gardner’s intention was to teach leadership.
And as a former educator, he was quite clear these skills weren’t something readily learned in the classroom. In an interview with the Daily Bulldog in February 2017, he talked about his approach to campers, saying: “You have to become a family.”
Not like a family, but actually becominga family. Because the thing is, with family—and in the wilderness, and in business—you are who you are and everyone knows it. You discover your strengths and weaknesses in startling clarity, because you simply don’t have the energy to keep up appearances.
“My modus operandi was to utilize the woods as an opportunity to impart information to young people. It really works. Even 40 or 50 years after it’s happened, you can see that it worked. When you take a young person and put them in a situation that requires as much of them as possible, where you have 10 or 15 miles to do every day and they have to do it, it actually works.”
In business, we can find ourselves thrown together as a dysfunctional family. We just scrape by and survive. We navigate the fast and furious waters and become increasingly drained with every bend in the river. Frustration is high and trust is low. Eventually we lose our motivation.
Sometimes, however, we have an experience where everything just clicks.
We discover that we’re so much greater than any one person on the team. It’s hard work, but the outcome is exhilarating and we gain greater clarity, commitment and confidence with each new challenge.
Since Birch Island Wildness Camp, that’s all I’ve ever wanted from my work-world experience.
It’s Defoe’s Way and now it’s my way: Working interpersonally with people, to engage in a better-together environment, to experience more fun, more creativity and reward in adventure.
I wanted to write Gardner a letter – to tell him all this and let him know his impact on me. Given his vigorous health, I assumed I had a lot of time.
But I didn’t. This past winter, Gardner Defoe died suddenly. And I was left with the emptiness and regret of words unspoken.
So now I write to you, in his memory. I’m carrying his vision forward. In my professional work, I’m helping teams become families, creating the structure for safety, trust and exhilarating accomplishments – hollering out guidance from the shore when the water gets choppy.
And it works! Give people the interpersonal tools and structure, and the great adventure begins.
Thank you, Gardner Defoe.
I’m signing off and paying it forward.
Interpersonal Adventure Guide