Business Lessons from the AT (Appalachian Trail): Part 2

Recently, I began a series of business articles focused around hiking on the Appalachian Trail, the “AT,” a 2200-mile walking trail in the United States spanning from the states of Georgia in the south to Maine in the north. Retelling the adventures of my son and I as we hiked 250 miles of the trail during the spring of 2022, these articles aren’t simply about camping and nature.


Business Lessons from the AT (Appalachian Trail)

That’s our “stepping-off” point, providing a metaphor for discussing and exploring more important topics, in the form of questions. Questions about life, business, and human nature are seldom discussed or spoken aloud, and ones rarely answered. Join me once again as we explore differing aspects of our daily immersion on life’s, and business’s, long wondrous road, this time focusing on struggle, people, and making sense of a complexhuman,” and the natural world with grace and humor. I hope you’ll take this journey with me as we discover new questions, and maybe a few answers. My sincere hope is that at least one of the paths we go down in these articles leads you to greater insights, please share your thoughts if they do.

Struggling to put forth what we think of as meaningful effort, struggling with challenges, maintaining a sense of relevance, feeling safe and vanquishing fear, staying healthy, mustering courage, and interpreting accomplishments against a canvas of societally recognized success are just some of the things we struggle with.

But are all the struggles we face necessary? Are they real or fabricated? And do they have to be so hard and menacing?  On the AT, you won’t be on the trail long before the daily worries you normally face fall away like so many straw men, that’s curious to me.

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One would think, if we’re really doing it right, that life and the personal struggles we experience hiking on a mountain trail would be the same as the ones we face every day. But we know this isn’t the case. For most of us, the workaday world is harder, much harder. This discovery surprised me because, on the trail, I was immediately struck by the indifference of nature. Frankly put, mother nature doesn’t care if you live or die, and has little regard for your comfort. Walking the trail, while often pleasant, can at times be treacherous and harsh.  And while your chances for survival in those times come into question, the potential for harm is greater, and the toil and effort required to succeed more than any workday, at the end of the day it somehow feels easier, safer, and more gratifying.  So, if activities which at any moment could find you tumbling down a mountainside, wet or freezing, bitten, slashed, impaled, or worse, are less troubling than what you encounter during an average day at work what’s going on? That answer can only reside with us.

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There are people I flew with in my Air Force career that I would follow into a fire, with no hesitation, and no questions and I could surprisingly say I met one or two I felt similarly about during my brief time on the trail.

What is it about them, or the experience, which could build such strong emotional bonds in such a short amount of time? Is it authenticity? challenge? sharing of struggle or transparency?

I’m not sure. Maybe, it’s not them at all or the circumstances but instead how we process them. All of us have had at least one bonding experience from which to draw. You don’t have to put yourself in harm’s way, serve in the military or go through a crucible to have one, but it helps. They help because such experiences tend to strip away pretense, unify people, and simplify and clarify behavior, revealing humanity. More importantly, these experiences accentuate the contrast often hidden in a busy and distracted life. Humans find agency in contrast while also experiencing pause, it gives life greater meaning, makes it more worth living, and provides happiness. To explain it this way, “you’re more likely to feel the joy of a warm sunny day following a cold night.” 

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Deciphering people and persona

On the trail, Anthony and I made a friend from the UK named “Trimpy,” his trail name. Trimpy was named for the shelter where he stopped during his first AT thru-hike attempt. Of people, Trimpy said, “you learn quickly about others and how they will be on the trail.” He should know, a retired metropolitan Critical Incident Inspector in the West Sussex Police Department and now a courier-driver shuttling police cars between English municipalities he’s a good study of people’s character and behavior. Trimpy’s right, if you’re observant, people will show you something of who they are (their persona) from the moment you meet them, you observe it in their behavior.

There’s little time or purpose for pretense or politics in the woods, everyone is actively engaged in the common challenge of surviving on the trail.


Dr. Eric Zabiegalski
Dr. Eric Zabiegalski
Dr. Eric Zabiegalski is a graduate of George Washington University in Human and Organizational Learning and has been researching and studying leadership, learning, and change for over 20 years. Eric has been on all sides of the leadership fence from leader and manager to employee and servant and has practiced leadership and served leaders in some of the most coveted and challenging places in the world. With an early professional history as a technical expert, Eric has gone from being a technical SME (subject matter expert) to being a people SME and considers the human mind, human behavior, and consciousness to be the next great frontier for discovery. It is in this realm where he combines his technical subject matter expertise with his human sociological and organizational expertise for the betterment of individuals, organizations, their processes, and humanity. With additional interests in emotional intelligence or "EQ", servant leadership and followership, neuroscience, complexity science, creativity and ambidextrous organizations, Eric has been driven to finding the right balance of qualities, efforts and behaviors in order to not only build better high performing and learning teams but also create a better world in which to live, love, and grow. Eric lives on the Western shore of the Chesapeake Bay close to Washington DC with his wife, daughter, and Chow dog Wamu. Eric is the author of The Rise of the Ambidextrous Organization and Leading Ambidextrous Organizations, Part 1,2,3 (E-Books).

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  1. Charlotte thanks for the thoughtful and kind feedback and questions. I like the idea it could be because an honest relationship is started from the beginning with no pretense or deception, messed up hair and all! 😊

  2. Oh, a great read making me look forward to next installment, Eric.

    Yes, what is it that makes for fast friendships? Is part of it that we spend time with people we don’t feel we have to impress because we’d probably never see them again? Or that we don’t have a ready script for how to impress on the AT? (The dark side of me imagines that there is such a thing as a competitive hiker.)