Business Lessons from the AT (Appalachian Trail) Part 5

~Distinction, drive, learning, culture, and you


Famous anthropologist Clifford Geertz once said, “Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun” he’s right. There’s a culture around you that you’re immersed in that is in part perpetuated by you. Acculturation is a cool word, It’s the result of learning and sharing cultural traits and social patterns within a group. In other words, it’s being made part of a culture, being assimilated. Every culture has its own way of doing and saying things and its own sets of schematic diagrams explaining its unique parts and pieces. I used to think the military had cornered the market on acronyms and jargon, but now, after hiking on the AT, I realized all complex systems will have their own language and culture. Acronyms and jargon are incredibly attractive, they’re like a drug to the left hemisphere of the brain which loves simplified models. But don’t use them unless they’re understood, helpful to the work at hand, and make sense.

And the trail

On the Appalachian Trail, there are a lot of acronyms and jargon and unlike the civilized world we’re from, they all make sense and have utility. If you were a “thru-hiker” it meant you were hiking the entire trail from one end to the other, all 2200 miles, either Northbound, (NOBO), or Southbound, (SOBO). If you are doing what my son and I are doing, hiking a little bit of the trail at a time, then you are considered a “section hiker.” If they happen to be big sections or you couldn’t complete a thru-hike, you may be called a LASH’er (long-ass section hiker), the acronyms and jargon don’t stop there. There were “slack packers” who were hikers who would hike a section between hostels without their packs, either sending their heavier packs ahead to the next hostel by car or catching a hostel shuttle and hiking between two lodgings if they wanted to hike in an opposite direction, possibly because its downhill.  My son and I did this one day, and it was heaven. Shedding our 50 lb. packs for a day was so uplifting we practically ran all the way down the trail.

There’s also something called “trail magic” dispensed by “trail angels.” These are people who stage free food and provisions for hikers, and it truly is a magical experience if you’re longing for something other than dry trail bars. At one stage of our trip Anthony and I had hiked a difficult part of the trail after a week of tent camping and emerged from the woods after 12 miles to canopies, coolers, BBQ grills, and chairs (a luxury in the woods), and a greeting from a smiling spatula spinning chef asking if we wanted a hamburger or hot dog. “I’ll make you one of each,” he said after eyeing us up and down and instructing us to drop our packs, get a cold drink and sit down. It was pure trail magic from a true trail angel, thanks Journeyman! You won’t be forgotten.

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What’s the takeaway about acronyms, jargon, and culture? Just this, they are going to be there so don’t try to ignore, control, or change them. Rather, learn from them and leverage them. Every new world you encounter and become introduced to is going to have a culture and you will be acculturated. Rather than resist it, relax, embrace it, enjoy it, and have fun.

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Uphill every day. A culture of courage

The best cultures to become acculturated into are ones grounded in good things like trust, asking questions, honesty, curiosity, collaboration, and courage. Think of life as uphill every day, and get used to the idea, even look forward to it because it represents growth. Expect uphill climbs and try to make the best of, and even enjoy them when they happen. It appeared to me that there were two kinds of trails on the AT, uphill and downhill, but mostly uphill. Impossible to fathom, many mornings seemed to begin and end with uphill climbs, but I’m sure I just didn’t notice, and appreciate, the downhills enough. Work and our civilized world are no different, the day can start and end with the challenge of uphill, share that challenge and be grateful you were able to have the experience.

Wrapping it up, it’s complex not complicated

At the beginning of this article, I asked the question “what does nature have in common with business.” It turns out the answer is everything, and the reason is one of context, the context of nature. When we step out of our boardrooms, factories, and workplaces we step out of complicated worlds of our creation and into the complex world of nature. What’s the difference? A jet engine is complicated. Made of mechanical pieces, an engine can be disassembled, reassembled, stopped, and started, and it has definitive borders which make it what it is. But nature’s different, nature is complex. Weather is complex, biology, life, and the Universe are complex systems. Complex systems don’t have definitive borders, they change and are unpredictable, and cannot be taken apart, reassembled, and set back in motion, as in the example of a living thing, and nature is not created by us.  The next time we are in the manmade world of work we would do well to remember that we’re not simply one of man’s complicated creations but are also part of the complex context of nature, one which may never be completely understood, that is what we have in common with the wild.

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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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