Someone once demonstrated life after Outward Bound to me this way: join hands in a circle of four or five people, and begin to move clockwise. Now choose one person and instruct them to try to move counter-clockwise as the rest continue as they were before.
Our Outward Bound course changes us. We return home as new people, with a new collection of experiences, skills, goals and even with new interests and new friends. Change happens on a concentrated timeline on an Outward Bound course, and often, the life we return to feels unchanged. We’re the one trying to make the circle move in the opposite direction.
Outward Bound courses can be hard to put into words for those back home. Questions like, How was your camping trip? can feel minimizing to the skill-building, self-reflection and personal challenge a course can contain. Even when others genuinely want to learn about your experience, it can be hard to explain the difficulty and the satisfaction in pushing yourself to carry a canoe to the end of the portage trail, and the feeling when you flip the canoe gracefully down into the water. Often, the unpleasant things, like putting on wet hiking boots or swatting mosquitoes in the evening, are simpler to explain than the amazing moments on Solo or when the team came together to navigate through a difficult section of terrain. Pictures don’t capture how big the waves actually were or how delicious the spaghetti tasted over the campfire.
The difficulty in sharing about your course, combined with returning home to a very familiar setting, can make your Outward Bound course immediately feel distant. You may wonder if it even really happened until new muscles in your arms or calluses on your hands remind you that it did. As your course feels farther and farther in the past, it will take work again to keep your goals alive and to hang on to the energy to move in a different direction.
The good news is that you’re already an expert in what needs to be done. You know how to set goals and the importance of taking time for self-reflection. You know that your teammates are there to support you when you need it, whether your teammates are your family, friends, or your actual Outward Bound crew that you’ve stayed in touch with. You know that being active can feel good, and the natural world can be a source of energy. Metaphorical learning is what began on your course, and now it continues on your own time. Getting through a difficult assignment at school is the same as getting through a particularly muddy section of trail. Starting a new job is the same as stepping off of the edge of the cliff on rappel. Dealing with roommates is the same as dealing with tent-mates. The more you can draw parallels between your life and what happened on your expedition, the more relevant your accomplishments on Outward Bound become.
Life after your course is harder than your course. You may have thought you were preparing for your course by lifting weights and going for hikes, but your course was preparing you for your life. While the beginning of a new year is a common time for self-reflection and goal-setting, build in time to evaluate your goals more frequently than once a year. Your crew and Instructors may have held you accountable to your goals on your course, and now it’s up to you to make time to check in with yourself and see how you’re doing.
Consider 2020 as a time to bring some of the practices that helped you feel successful during your course to your regular life. Maybe that looks like making a habit of journaling, joining a sports team or sharing appreciation with your family each evening. Maybe that looks like getting up earlier, trying something that seems scary or volunteering for a leadership role. Enlist the help of several of the others in your circle to help you move in a new direction, after all, Outward Bound doesn’t happen alone. Continue to talk about your course and try out ways of explaining what it meant to you, and keep in touch with your crew. Plant some physical reminders in your space that help you remember your accomplishments and inspiring moments from your course—a quote book, a stone from your Solo site or a map. Outward Bound courses are built around core values that don’t require difficult terrain or specialized equipment; they can be practiced anywhere. Offer to help others when you have the chance, accept help from others when you need it, and make 2020 a year to move the circle in a better direction.
About the Author
Renee Igo was an Outward Bound student at age 15, and has been instructing wilderness expeditions for the Voyageur Outward Bound School for the past eight years. When not instructing, she holds a variety of other teaching positions and raises sheep in Maine.
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