On more than a few occasions, the phrase “Everything I learned in in graduate school, I learned at Outward Bound first” has flashed into my consciousness.
It first crossed my mind while I sat at a black lab table listening to my professor describe how to design a field ecology research project. As he explained the criteria required to create “SMART” goals, I thought of all the times I’d taught the same lesson among the pines and lakes of the Boundary Waters. Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely goals, it turns out, help scientists secure multimillion-dollar National Science Foundation grants just as much as they help teenagers discover their best selves.
Though earning a Master’s of Science in Natural Resources does not appear to overlap with Outward Bound, I cannot imagine going through my program without the skills I learned as a student and instructor. In school, I worked closely with a small team of fellow graduate students on projects that ranged from the manageable (identify every plant in a 20’ x 20’ plot of woods) to the overwhelming (assess a 300-acre property and develop a management plan to protect the landscape in perpetuity). We often put in 12-14 hour days in the field, classroom, and office. We were responsible both for our own learning and for teaching undergraduates in a variety of fields. My two years in graduate school were some of the most demanding of my life, a challenge I faced with the help of the following seven key strengths* I learned at Outward Bound:
- Grit and Perseverance. School–and life–gets hard. Readings pile into insurmountable mountains, research deadlines creep ever closer, lesson plans for tomorrow’s class need to be written. I’d learned on countless Outward Bound expeditions, however, that I could keep going no matter how far I needed to portage a canoe or how long I had to paddle into a headwind. The more I practiced finding my limits and pushing past them on expeditions, the more comfortable I became doing so in the rest of my life.
- Curiosity. I succeeded in my graduate program because I asked questions: “What is that tree?” “Why does that tree grow here and not there?” “Who in my class can teach me the most about all of these trees?” At Outward Bound, we also teach our students to ask questions and engage with the world around them. They might ask “What is that tree?” when learning to navigate or collect firewood, but they also learn to express genuine curiosity about the people with whom they live and work. Most importantly, however, our students learn to ask questions of themselves, including “Who am I,” “Who do I want to be,” and “How do I become that person?”
- Self-control. In some ways, school is a constant battle against distraction. How do you manage your own studies, your own research, a team of undergrad teaching assistants, and two hundred undergraduate students while still making time for friends and family? When I found all of the threads too distracting, I committed to a theme I’d often used on canoe courses: “responsibility and follow-through.” On an Outward Bound course, students take responsibility for setting up camp to withstand rain and wind, for preparing meals, and for encouraging their teammates to persevere through challenging situations. Even the smallest medical needs require daily follow-up to prevent more serious consequences. Adopting the same mentality in the frontcountry helped me divert my attention away from distractions and pursue my work with excellence.
- Social Intelligence. One of the most important aspects of my graduate experience was feeling like I mattered to those around me. Sure, I learned to identify scores of plants and spent months toiling over a research project that helped an organization protect a unique forest, but the moments I value the most occurred when I turned away from my keyboard to hug my friends when they were stressed. Outward Bound teaches and requires our students to care for each other in the tough moments, and I found that the same expressions of empathy were crucial to me feeling like that my community valued me.
- Zest. Call it zest, zeal, or moxie, I knew it when I looked into the eyes of my fellow graduate students and saw deep fires burning within them. We knew we loved the environment, and our passion drove us through thousands of pages of reading, countless group projects, and fighting with Microsoft Word formatting. Wilderness acts as a refining force: it strips you of distractions and shrinks your world so you can focus on what is truly meaningful. While on an Outward Bound course, students search themselves for what drives them and helps them understand how to connect that internal motivation to the larger life goals. The resulting fire radiates from their pores and straightens their posture, readying them to join the ranks of people striving forward.
- Optimism. No matter how far it is, the portage will end in water. No matter how long it rains, blue sky will break through, and sun will dry soaked rain gear. No matter how high the rock climb seems, the belay rope will hold you if you slip. Learning to be optimistic in the face of challenging circumstances while on expedition helped me push through even the lowest moments of self-doubt and being overwhelmed during graduate school. I knew that if I just kept going, things would just get better. They always did.
- Gratitude. Linking arms before food cooked on an open fire is a great time to appreciate the group’s hard work during the day. I often hear students say things like, “I appreciate my canoe partner for paddling hard even though she was tired–it helped us get to camp quicker” or “I appreciate you, Justin, for helping me lift the heavy pack out of the boat at every portage.” Armed with the habit of daily expressing gratitude for those around me, I entered grad school with the ability to remain thankful for my classmates, professors, and students even when they drove me up the wall. Expressing my honest appreciation for them also helped create a tighter community in which we better understood how we affected one another.
After completing my Master’s program in May 2012, I returned to VOBS to instruct wilderness courses. I knew that I had thrived in such a challenging environment as a direct result of my experience with Outward Bound, and I wanted to continue helping others learn to succeed in college, graduate school, or their careers as wilderness educators.
What did you learn during your Outward Bound experience that has helped you succeed in school, at home, or in life in general? Tell us in the comments below!
*The names of these seven strengths reference the character traits labeled as keys to success in Paul Tough’s book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. Though the labels may be Tough’s, the qualities are classic Outward Bound.