Outward Bound Instructors create space for students to experience growth beyond their personal comfort zones through physical challenge and backcountry lessons.
Part Two of a Three-Part Series on Outdoor Education within the Growth Zone.
Last summer, I supervised two groups of students as they headed into the Oregon Cascades for two weeks in early June. If you don’t know, this is a recipe for some challenging conditions. The snow is still on the ground, the mosquitoes have come out of their winter hibernation, temperatures at night are below freezing and it will probably be raining most days. When I dropped them off at the trailhead, snow was falling from the sky. I’m not sure if the students knew what they were in for, but the Instructors knew they had everything they needed to stay safe and facilitate a life-changing experience.
A week later, when I met the crew at their resupply location, the weather was even worse. Underneath a big tarp to keep us out of the downpour, I listened to stories of navigating through thick and overgrown vegetation, climbing over mountain passes covered with snow and huddling together in the cold to share a pot of mac and cheese. It might surprise you that the students were in better spirits than groups who had perfect weather and less challenge on their courses. I would guess that the reason for this was that challenge and adversity bring people together and pushes them to be the best version of themselves.
Conditions for Personal Growth
As discussed previously, on a typical Outward Bound expedition, very little time is spent in the comfort zone and the Instructors facilitate an experience that keeps people out of the fear zone for as much time as possible. Students will generally move between the learning and growth zones fluidly and at their own pace.
In the above story, the next time I saw that group of students was at the end of their mountain section. It had been two weeks of rough conditions and character building. They persisted. They were pretty dirty and a little scraped up but had the biggest smiles I’ve ever seen. The crew had purpose and were living their dreams. The following week of rafting, I saw the group thriving in new ways. They were efficient, talkative and eager for more. A three-week summer program had completely changed them.
A Backcountry Model for Moving Beyond Your Comfort Zone
In the backcountry, I like to teach the Growth Zone Model by making a few concentric circles on the ground. The whole crew dances together in the first circle, then the second, the third and the fourth. In the beginning, they are dancing close together and nobody sees their silly dance moves. As they go into bigger circles, it starts to get intimidating. When they reach the learning zone, they have the space to try a new dance move, but they might still bump into somebody. By the time they reach the circle for the growth zone, they’ve learned a few dance moves, but can finally try something new and not worry about being held back by anyone but themselves.
It takes a certain level of open-mindedness to dance in the middle of the wilderness with the closest person 10-15 feet away and your goofy, older Instructor singing a Taylor Swift song off-key. Nonetheless, thinking about growth zones in the context of something simple like dancing makes it possible for us to conceptualize how we might reach the growth zone with backpacking, climbing or paddling.
Some of the Best Advice I Ever Received: Say Yes
I finished my Outward Bound season last August and have been home since then. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned at Outward Bound is to intentionally find the time and space to enter my growth zone. I know that when I’m not in the field, I will stay comfortable for as long as possible. Some of the best advice I’ve ever received is to simply “Say Yes.” Saying “yes” means you’re committing to things that you might not normally do.
“If we live our lives pushing that growth zone circle further and further, we realize that we are capable of anything.”
Maybe it’s trying new food or meeting new people. For me, it usually means skiing, hiking or biking in a place I have never been before. By having these new experiences, we get one step closer to realizing what we are truly capable of. And if we live our lives pushing that growth zone circle further and further, we realize that we are capable of anything.
Inspiring Bold Futures
About the Author
Nick McEachern is an outdoor educator based in Salt Lake City, UT who has worked for the Northwest Outward Bound School since 2017. His passion is looking at the edges of the map for adventurous ways to travel across landscapes with his friends. He enjoys skiing powder, drinking coffee in his sleeping bag and paddling into a headwind.