Business Lessons from the AT (Appalachian Trail): Part 3

–nature, humans, and bringing your best to the trail .

“It’s just walking” –that was the exclamation of Earl Shaffer, the first man to hike the entire Appalachian Trail (AT) in a single season.


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

The AT is the longest “walking only” trail in North America stretching over 2200 miles from the state of Georgia to Maine in the United States, but for some on the trail, it’s more than walking. My son Anthony and I heard stories of people who were out to set records on the trail, beyond mere hiking. Fast “thru” hikes (under 6 months), multiple hikes in a specified time (hiking a “triple crown”, the AT, CDT, and PCT), and we heard of and occasionally witnessed their behaviors. Mostly, these hikers stepped onto the trail before sunup and hiked into camp after nightfall, if you saw them at all they usually had little time (or interest) for conversation.

Around the campfire, in the evenings we occasionally discussed the marvelous feats they were accomplishing but also felt a little indifference toward them, annoyance, and even sadness. We were all doing this difficult thing together. Sure, it was difficult in different ways for each of us, but we shared those unique difficulties and our perspectives about the struggles with others. But not these lone hikers, they may have been learning from us, but they weren’t sharing anything about themselves or what they were learning with anyone else.

Nature and humans

In my last article, I said I was surprised by nature’s indifference to man, and I think it has a leveling effect on the human social playing field of life. People put aside their petty differences and cruelties toward one another when they are thrust into a challenging environment beyond the one made by man, or outside of themselves, why is that?  After having this hiking experience with my son along 250 miles of the AT in the spring of 2022, I’m now struck by a different thought, mankind’s indifference toward each other when removed from the challenges of the natural world and placed in a manufactured (manmade) one.  Without a common challenge and struggle, a common adversary, in this case nature, do we then turn to, and on, one another for conflict? do we crave conflict?  It’s true that life is “lived” and experienced through contrast and it’s often abrupt and shocking changes, the more punctuated and abrupt the better.

Continuing along this thread, if we don’t find contrast, challenge, struggle, emotion, or peril in nature, or with each other, will we then turn on ourselves? fighting between the hemispheres of our own mind (the rational, logical decontextualized left side of our brain and the creative, divergent, embodied right) to satisfy a need for this conflict and contrast? are we just animals? adrenaline craving drama junkies looking for our next “fix”, our next “hit”?  Part of me hopes not but if it is true, another part of me says that’s great too, even better. Because then we will finally understand our nature and be able to act in less destructive ways which will keep us satisfied, interested, productive, fulfilled, and more humane. There’s a Bedouin saying:

I against my brother. My brother and I against our cousin. My brother, cousin, and I against our neighbors. All of us against the world.

Maybe life is that simple.

This month we continue our journey about people, nature, perception, and being your best. My hope? To weave these experiences back into everyday life in novel ways, with new perceptions, and to burn those calories on these intentions: that we pay those experiences forward in better judgement, sharper awareness, increased empathy, more courageous questioning, and communion, and that we support the people were doing the job with before ourselves, or even the job itself. Enjoy, your thoughts welcome.

Humans and Judgement

Judgement. It’s the harbinger of our day, foreshadowing future events, heralding what kind of day were likely to have, and, in some instances, even creating it. We use tools like judgement to get, process, shape, and fortify information, decisions, and ultimately reality. You’re bound to hear and think a lot of things before encountering them, that’s human nature. We imagine, “image-in” the creation of pictures in our minds and run scenarios that play out like movie clips before experiencing them firsthand, that’s what happened before we met Cool-Whip.   His trail name was Cool-Whip, given him because of the lid from an iconic brand of whipped topping which was visible through the webbing of his backpack, and for several weeks he was our boogeyman, presented as a data point on the trail gossip blotter we received verbally from fellow hikers.

From the moment you step onto the trail, you hear stories, about other hikers, the trail, towns, shelters, and hostels. Trail gossip is vital. Its news, information, and relevant updates are often about the human side of the trail. Some good, and some not so good, Cool Whips news was of the “not so good” kind and turned out to be untrue. Done right, we take in trail gossip and suspend judgement about it until more data comes in. Until we have a holistic view, we should keep the aperture of perception open until we gain firsthand experience, because preconceptions can be way off. In Cool Whips’ case, the trail news told a story of cooking gear stolen and resold, and now we were at a hostel, and he was staying in an adjacent room! That afternoon we inventoried our gear, hid valuables, and boobytrapped the room so we could tell if anyone entered in our absence. And then we laid low and played it cool for the evening, waiting for the inevitable. Nothing happened.

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We saw Cool Whip frequently in the days following our stay at the hostel and he seemed pleasant and trustworthy. For several days we passed each other on the trail as he hiked ahead of us and we overtook him, we even found his hat one day and returned it to him in the next town. During dinner one evening we shared a meal with Cool Whip and a few other hikers, and he volunteered a story unprompted.  He told of camping gear offered to him by one of two young hikers who wanted to unload weight.  Hikers frequently “shake-down” their packs trying to lighten their load, particularly if they have duplicate gear. He took a cook-stove set offered him by one of the hikers and resold it down the trail, only to have the other hiker ask for it later (it was his gear, and he hadn’t consented to its gifting) and subsequently circulated a story of its theft. We were satisfied. A retired married welder and machinist who looked to be in his 40s, Cool Whip was easy-going, slow-talking, thoughtful, and a gifted guitar player, and didn’t fit the profile of a thief.  What’s the takeaway?  Beyond suspending judgement about what you hear until more information comes in, it’s that it’s important to guard your character. I suspect Cool Whip made a poor decision based on dubious information, putting his good name in a compromising position.

Gossip gets a bad rap in the workplace, it’s feared by organizations for a variety of reasons.  And it’s dealt with harshly in draconian ways, you’ve no doubt heard something like “Bob has left the company, the circumstances of his departure are private and confidential, if you have questions or concerns, please direct them to HR.” Followed by “anyone caught talking about Bob could suffer disciplinary action.”  This is grown-up code for “keep your mouth shut.” Like Cool Whip, gossip isn’t the boogeyman we make it out to be and should never be forcibly repressed, people need and deserve an outlet for comfortable communication and inquiry. Gossip is an important (informal) communication avenue and a rich source of information. Furthermore, it cannot really be silenced as it doesn’t go away. Instead, it goes silent, underground, and you will no longer be privy to it. We create more of a mess than there should be in trying to snuff-out and control gossip and doing so can create more long-term or permanent damage than the original “shop talk” itself. In trying to do so you may silence or vilify some of your most passionate and caring people, and you could make adversaries or “unwell wishers” of them.

Worse still, you may create an alternate (spinoff) subculture of which you know little about and are not invited to. Down the road, you’ll dismiss these troublesome employees never realizing you took part in their transformation as well as their demise. In addition to trying to control the uncontrollable, we often go wrong by acting on gossip alone. About gossip, instead of trying to control it, try to help to moderate it, and use it to help the organization understand and get through the challenge that’s happening, gaining a richer perspective. Gossip is a grassroots form of informal communication and a vital piece of the culture puzzle, but it’s not the whole picture. leverage, never vilify or suppress it.

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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. An excellent read, Eric, with lessons about how we write stories in our heads or from what we hear in the grapevine – and checking them/ being curious whether there is more than what we have picked up allows for less anxiety and better relationships.

    I find your question of human behavior under pressure very interesting. I think you are right that pressure from nature has a different element than pressure stemming from human made circumstances. And I am wondering the “this could just as well have happened to me” wish to be helpful vs the “we are all in deep guacamole here and who will get out alive?” scenario. It is very hard to anticipate who will surprise us and how.