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James Bailey Ph.D.
James Bailey Ph.D.

How to Bring the Outdoor Expedition to Indoor Life?

How to transfer the transformation.

Coauthored by Lucy M. Gamble

Humans incessantly seek personal transformation. We’re obsessed with it, collectively spending $9.9 Billion annually in the US alone. We want to be more emotionally, physically, and professionally fit. We want to become leaders of our field, our community, and, especially, of our self. Yet we often forget that leadership is begotten by struggle, sacrifice, and strife as much as striving. We are not born leaders, rather we are made so by all that which undertakes our life, and all of that which we undertake. This transformation creates sustenance, substance, and sagacity. A sine qua non toward a new sense of self.

We seek metamorphosis, the best naturalist example of which is the physical process frogs endure as part of their lifecycle. Frogs start out as tiny gelatinous eggs before hatching into bulbous tadpoles that breathe through gills. It takes a full 12-16 weeks for a tadpole to transform to a froglet and finally materialize as an adult frog. They will gain distinction in their head and body, grow two strong pairs of legs, and develop lungs. It is unique in that the frog changes in both form and functionality, transforming from a creature that survives vulnerably in water to a creature that is adroitly fit for the challenges of both land and water. They become amphibious.

CCO Creative Commons
Source: CCO Creative Commons

Isn’t that what personal transformation is designed to do, to render us capable of surviving and thriving in multiple environments? To live comfortably in the circumplex of home and work, repose and industry, followership and leadership? Leading is the human equivalent of being amphibious. To be equally nimble in one space as another is the framework for the new paradigm of a leader.

Fortunately, unlike our friend the frog, we intentionally set upon our own metamorphosis. We are not at the whims of our genetics. Rather, we can proactively choose our desired end-state and our pathway. This essay explores one well known lane, the outdoor expedition. An outdoor expedition creates a context in which participants are stripped of daily comforts and familiar routines to assume the challenges of a novel, demanding environment. But transformation is one thing; transference is another. We must bring what we learned to our everyday life. Herein we address and define the transformation experience, then introduce ways that it can be solidly transferred.

Outdoor expeditions vary from personal trips to outdoor education to wilderness therapy. Outdoor Education broadly refers to programs with experiential learning in the wilderness. Hundreds of such programs exist, well known examples including Outward Bound, NOLS, and The Sierra Club. Programs run from two days to upwards of 8-12 weeks and include elements such as backpacking, ropes courses, rafting, rock climbing, and nature studies. Wilderness therapy is a type of treatment that uses outdoor expeditions as a means for addressing behavioral and emotional issues. There are many approaches to wilderness therapy and outdoor education, but the commonality is in the voyage. Participants of an outdoor expedition exist in the wilderness for extended periods of time, creating an opportunity for transformation. Outdoor expeditions provide a sense of accomplishment, a new community, and a chance to connect with nature. Participants are drawn to the tour to be part of something larger than them, to do the hard work of assembly, and to explore self-taught identity.

William James’ concept of the Twice Borns mirrors this transformation. Twice Borns endure something tragic at a young age and, hence, have to determine their future or allow it to deteriorate. To borrow from the Shawshank Redemption, they have to “Get busy living, or get busy dying.” Great leaders come from the ranks of Twice Borns because they have developed self-reliance, grit, and the supreme confidence of one who’s endured and risen.

An outdoor expedition reflects this hardship and provides an opportunity to be twice born. Just as the frog develops lungs, participants gain critical survival skills. We learn to self-rely, which leads to rewiring and rewriting the script of tomorrow. We can be twice born if we master this unfamiliar environment.

The core task is to survive, develop new skills, and re-emerge. However, the overlooked challenge is the return home. How can we bring this sense of self-reliance home? Are we truly Twice Born if we chose our rebirth? That seems naïve. How can we communicate changes to those who have not witnessed the transformation? How do we translate self-sufficiency gained from building a fire to heat at the flick of a switch? We need to bring those frog legs we’ve grown on land back into the water.

The people who were with you on the expedition will no longer be there. You need to witness, to bare that which has been learned, to stir and awaken yourself and those around you. If friends and family can see you in the rapid evolution, it will reinforce your transformation. A three-week sailing program provides a rich opportunity to show the family the yaw and tack of a wind-based boat capable of navigating the globe. Participants should demonstrate their skills and determination while integrating their expedition with the familiarity of home. The new witness provides accountability and aids the transference.

Piotr Halaczkie-wic2/CCASO3.0
Source: Piotr Halaczkie-wic2/CCASO3.0

Successful transference keeps the changes of the expedition vibrant and vibrating. Committing details and reflections to paper creates a record and an additional witness to give life to the memories. Every outdoor expedition is unique, and as the details fade, bringing the experience to the forefront reinforces change. You can reconnect through the written record, photos, and compatriots who were there. The only thing that separates an extraordinary leader from a mediocre one is the habit of reflecting. No transformation can occur overnight or in a single experience. When you practice and reflect on what you’ve experienced you can allow your changes to congeal, to set, to coagulate. In the frogs’ extended tadpole stage, it practices breathing into newly formed lungs and returning to water before it is ready to fully live both in land and water. Do the same.

This transformation is not fundamentally different from a corporate leadership program. The curriculum is structured to develop self-awareness and reflection. In both worlds, corporate and expedition, the question is bringing that experience back to everyday life. It is easy to have clear and compassionate communication when you’ve been practicing, but it becomes more difficult when you return to a flooded inbox of e-mails, constipated policy, and stubborn coworkers. The true mastery of dual environments comes when we can step into an unfamiliar environment, strip down our barriers, and build up those skills so that they stick not only in the setting we built them, but also in the transferred setting where we need them.

Our human transformation is surely different than our friend the frog. The frog did not sign up for a course or pack its bag to head into the wild. The frog had no choice; its transference is determined. The frog will always be able to shift between land and water because that is a part of its survival. Humans bring intentionality, we choose to set out to new land. We are conscious that the life we knew first in water is waiting comfortably for us should we choose to go back without growing our legs. The original environment remains the same, tempting you to give in to its comforts without doing the tough work of transference. A sense of community, individual reflection, and repetition increases our odds of success so that we can bring our legs to water and our gills to land.

Lucy M. Gamble is a freelance writer living in San Francisco who has been transformed by, and successfully transferred, her outdoor experiences.

About the Author
James Bailey Ph.D.

James R. Bailey, Ph.D., is a Professor of Leadership at the George Washington University School of Business.

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