In the darkness high above the Arctic some years ago, on a redeye flight somewhere between California and Scotland, I realized something important.
It wasn’t an epiphany. At the time, I was wrestling cramps in my legs and neck, halfway through a 13-hour flight in economy, and thinking about what I would do if the plane dropped the two miles or so to the ice below, and I had to survive.
What I realized was this: for some reason, I was fantasizing about surviving a plane crash in the frozen Arctic in the dead of winter wearing my business shoes.
And then my second thought was: after years of round-the-clock stress, running into and out of airports, conference rooms and investor pitches, I had not been hiking, out in nature, in a very, very long time. It had once been something I loved. But I no longer had time for it.
It took me a while, but I made a commitment to spend time in the ‘green gym’, and slowly opened a space for it in my overworkload. I found the discipline to put some miles under my boots, and visit places I’ve never seen before, and once in a while even sleep under stars in a tent by myself.
I wish I’d done it a lot, lot sooner. The things I learned there — sweat covered, laboring and alone -turned out to be some of the most critical business lessons I’d ever discovered.
Here’s a few I gathered in the wild that might help you on the front lines.
- We Need Far Fewer Things to Succeed than We Think We Do
There is something primally satisfying about having a small and utterly simple collection of implements — a compact portable kit -to meet all of your basic needs way out in the woods. Just the right few hand picked tools and selected gear, and nothing more. The bare bones simplicity of it creates surprising fulfillment, just by itself. Everything I need. Not a thing more.
That wasn’t how I started out. I had a wild great time picking up new equipment, modern accessories, all the wonderful tech goodies available for the outdoors today — and there’s a ton.
It took pain to undo. I learned the hard way that the most important thing about gear wasn’t its features. It was about what I could feasibly carry from A to B, and back. Clarity catches up with you when your legs are burning and spent on a long climb with camp at the end of it, and there’s no guarantee they will get you there. Every step they ask, ‘what can we jettison?’ What could I afford to lose that would buy me a little more distance?
The essential list got pretty short, then shorter. Entertainment? No. Comfort? Barely. What I carry now are the things that really make me happy, the items I’m glad to have because they fill an essential purpose.
Every day, going about life, we all carry things with us, in one form or another, whether we notice them or not.
And a lot of what we’re lugging around are things we don’t really need, and will cost us dearly. That are burning through resources, holding us back, slowing us down. Making forward progress just that much harder, reaching our true goals just a little more unlikely.
In a small enterprise with a finite amount of time and capital, it’s crucial to pare everything down to what tools you need, and leave aside what you don’t. It’s counter-intuitive, but it’s worth asking: what should we unpack, to get where we really want to go?
2. The Essentials Are More Important Than We Think
Nothing grabs your full, laser-focused attention more than returning to camp and discovering a bear has punctured and emptied your water supply, dragged your food off into the mountains somewhere, and shredded your tent. Without even leaving a note, nothing.
In the wild, a handful of things are red-line: they are make or break important. Fire, shelter, food, water. Losing them is a life-threatening event. That seems obvious, and intellectually, we get it. But until you’ve actually crossed that line and faced the consequences, trust me, it’s not really, viscerally understood.
It’s too easy to take essential things for granted. (Like, always respect the persistence of bears — hang your gear!) And water. It’s easy to ignore how important, and heavy, water really is (every gallon weighs 8 pounds) until you have to lug every drop you’ll be needing for miles uphill.
As a result, deciding a simple thing, like how much water to carry, takes planning. I consider the weather, the cost of moving that weight, how much I’ll likely need to drink to manage thirst. And I think about how much more I’d need if I broke a leg and had to wait for someone to come find me.
Planning to enter the outdoors is a process of finding a balance of the absolute essentials.
I still see folks starting out on trails carrying no water, at all.
In a startup, determining what you need to survive is crucial. Team building and teamwork are like shelter, and capital and cash flow are like water. Getting somewhere is about taking deliberate, advised action: always test assumptions first. Remember the bears. And, without a clearly marked plan, you’re just going to be at the mercy of whatever happens around you.
3. Stress is Our Friend, Stress is Our Enemy
One night in a dark redwood grove I was startled awake by a screeching bird. Somewhere close to my tent a raven went off in the silent canyon, screaaaw-screcaaaw-screaaawwing over and over like a shrill car alarm. I wasn’t amused. Then, unbelievably, another raven, and another — raven after raven- began to join in, until I realized I was camped under a giant invisible flock, surrounded by wild, near-deafening sound, like rakes scraping the inside of a huge iron bowl. Then, as mysteriously as it began, the screeching tapered away, and utter silence returned. After that, I couldn’t get back to sleep.
The next day at the trailhead, there was a warning posted: a mountain lion had been spotted in my canyon the day before, and out along the trail I was planning to take.
The eruption of noise around my tent the night before suddenly made sense. The cat had been there.
I hiked that trail that day on high pitch alert. Making my way back late in the evening— about the time lions come out to hunt — I hit a stretch where the canyon wall rose steeply to my left, and fell steeply to my right, and the hair on my neck stood up. Lions are ambush hunters, eight feet long from tail to nose, and if one came bounding down from the rocks and trees above, there’d be little room on this narrow ledge to maneuver, to fight it off. I pried the shadows above with my eyes, kept a lookout over my shoulder (they attack from behind), and to avoid surprising one around the many blind turns, began to growl, deep in my throat, as I walked.
It wasn’t until later, when I looked it up, that I learned mountain lions rarely, if ever, attack humans. How rare?
16 Americans are unlucky enough to be killed by falling trees every year.
But in 130 years, only 6 people have been killed by cougars in California.
I was never in any real danger. But, tell that to my adrenal gland.
Stress reactions have a life of their own. Stress can prep us to act when the danger is real. Unfortunately, stress can also wind us up and make us think there’s a threat, when there’s not. It’s normal to stress if you’re late to a Board meeting. But unrelenting stress, which seems to come with the startup playbook, can be destructive over the long haul.
Learning to manage stress, take breaks from it, investigate where the stress is coming from, and harnessing it when it’s appropriate, isn’t just healthy.
It can keep us from wasting time worrying about, and being distracted by, dangers that don’t exist, and things that really don’t matter.
4. Silence Is a Playground
It’s a hard thing to sit still in the mountains, because they tend to leave a vast quiet hole in the air that seems impossible to fill. After about a day, once my hearing adjusts to the void, my ears will start to pick up little things out of the silence that were otherwise passing unnoticed. The sound of a leaf dropping from a nearby tree. A hovering insect buzz. The stip-step stip-step of a deer.
One night I was staring at the stars and letting my mind wander when I thought I caught something just at the edge of my hearing — a very faint sound, among the forest high tops. It was like a gentle stirring rustle, spread over the slopes below. It didn’t rise and fall, like wind. And it was so wide it sounded unnatural. And, it was moving. I cast my hearing out as far as I could into the darkness, to try to sense it clearly, so I could decipher what it was.
Occasionally, if we’re still enough, the body’s senses and the brain’s thoughts will pass in the hallway without shaking hands, and you simply KNOW something, without having to figure it out intellectually. That night, I suddenly knew the whisper in my ears was the leading edge of unexpected rain. I tracked its slow approach in the darkness by sound alone, until it overran my camp, and then hushed away again across the forest. And my ears gave me a view of the vast place surrounding me that I could have had no other way.
It’s amazing what we fail to notice going on around us in the world, when we don’t listen. And what powers we have when we do.
It’s hard, virtually impossible, to find true silence in our daily lives — even if we wanted it, which, let’s face it, no one really does. Silence often seems like an empty swimming pool — without purpose unless it’s filled with something.
But that’s not the way we’re built. Silence was the default for humans up until a very short time ago. It was — and still is - a playground that stimulates imagination, invention, art, science, understanding and romance. If we are willing to spend time immersed in it.
There are few things I find nearly as satisfying as standing on a high ridge with a clean breeze and a million mile vista, surrounded by a living forest.
These days, I do my level best to bring the best of those experiences back with me, when it’s time to get to work.
This summer, take a little time to get out yourself, and experience things from nature’s perspective. Hopefully, you’ll find fresh ways to thrive too.