Business Lessons from the AT (Appalachian Trail)

It’s called the Appalachian Trail (the AT) and it’s a 2200-mile-long hiking trail in the United States going from Springer Mountain GA to Mount Katahdin Maine. Passing through fourteen states it’s the longest “hiking only” trail in the world. First proposed in 1921, the AT is one of three major hiking trails in North America along with the CDT (Continental Divide Trail), and the PCT (Pacific Coast Trail), completing all three is known as the Triple Crown.

At 480 million years old, the Appalachians are thought to be one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world, existing during Pangaea and created by mountain-building plate collisions which culminated in the construction of one supercontinent.

Remnants of the mountain range are present in Greenland, Africa, Scotland, Newfoundland, and South America. Once reaching elevations rivaling the Swiss Alps and the Canadian Rockies, the ancient mountain range has since eroded with its highest peak being Clingmans Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains at 6,643 feet, between the states of North Carolina and Tennessee.

Scheduling a bucket list event like hiking the AT with my son was no easy feat. A 31-year-old Strategy and Operations Program Management Professional, Anthony is busier than I am as a Program Manager and Analyst in the high-tech industry. After some back-and-forth with time off work negotiations and trying to figure out how to bracket such a trip in a meaningful way. We decided to dub it the “birthday hike,” stepping onto the trail on my 60th birthday and stepping off on my son’s 31st, while on the trail, he was thirty and I was sixty. Starting at the Pigeon River in North Carolina (outside Asheville), and hiking to Damascus VA, known as trail town, and for holding the largest AT festival in the country (Trail Days) every May. When it was done, we had hiked 250 miles in all and plan to go back every year until we finish the whole trail.

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What follows are lessons picked up while on the AT, metaphors for work and for personal life, presented in the context of a wilderness hike. You wouldn’t normally associate something like walking in the woods with work and business, but I assure you, and as you will agree when these series of articles are over, the two are connected, whether we try to separate and segment the various aspects of our lives or not the lines will always blur.

As a researcher, practitioner, business philosopher, and analyst I have spent over 20 years observing, experiencing, writing about, and speaking on the subjects of creativity, innovation, culture, productivity, and happiness leading to groundbreaking research in organizational ambidexterity, a powerful kind of learning organization.  My preliminary conclusions about working and living your best life? Tune in monthly to find out and enjoy.”


My conclusions about the nature of life and business are twofold; first, there is a silent struggle going on in humanity regarding the way in which we see (and process) the world around us, and it has to do with the two hemispheres of the brain and the diverse ways in which they see the world. These halves paint two vastly different pictures of the world and therefore seek different outcomes.  Secondly, and related to the first, we (humanity) are on the cusp of a major shift in awareness and consciousness regarding this. It’s happening now, and when it is complete our world won’t be the same, I believe this as surely as I believe that night will follow day.

What’s the struggle? It’s centered between man’s understandable desire and need for power and control (preoccupations of the left brain), a need to manipulate and grasp a known world, and a feeling to want to simplify life into static models and snapshots, focusing on “mechanistic” details; and it’s a desire (and need) to sustain a broad open vigilant attention to a living world constantly unfolding around us, maintaining a non-committal and non-judgmental attentiveness to the possibilities of what might be, this is the world of the right brain.

You won’t hear anyone talking about things like this, certainly not at your work. In part, because no one has hired me as their CPO (Chief Philosophy Officer) yet, I don’t believe such a position even currently exists. In all seriousness, however, I assure you these struggles are real and if you’re observant you will see workplaces going through these disruptive gyrations and they deplete precious resources, damage and sterilizes cultures, and cost organizations millions in unaccounted-for dollars. With that said there are a few brilliant scholars (and organizations) taking up the mantle and talking about this silent battle like Iain McGilchrist and at the Center for Science and Non-Duality (SAND). These oracles not only accurately see the current struggle but also see over the horizon to what could be, not for every company but certainly for the ones who listen and take steps toward change. But everywhere, and for everyone else, it’s going to remain business as usual with most companies’ versions of their “pet elephant” in the breakrooms, board rooms, and on shop floors which they will continue to feed but not talk about. I heard someone say recently “the meaning of life was to make meaning out of life.” What meaning are you making of life, what do you want to make of it, and of work as part of it?

Rules, and the trail

There are a lot of rules in life and work, breaking some of them may get you hurt, arrested, talked about, or even killed, while others may get applauded and celebrated, why should the Appalachian trail be different? On the trail, to use an expression from my time in aviation and emergency procedures, “some rules are written in blood.” What that means is that someone got killed or seriously injured, prompting a rule.

The trick in life is to know which rules are written in blood and which ones were meant to be revised or broken, maybe by you, in my opinion, the world needs less rules.

There’s a variation on another saying that “that in life which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, except for bears, bears will kill you!”  At work, if there’s no Grizzly bear charging you at the water cooler you may not have to exactly follow the usual checklist, what would you do differently on the trail at work if you could and why?

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The trail, and rules

She introduced herself to Anthony and me as “Titanium, knees, and hips.” At 78 years old, and together with her rescue dog Buddy, she was attempting to become the oldest female hiker to complete the AT. The day we met Titanium she was picking herself up off the trail. A stray dog had followed her and Buddy out of camp causing her to lose her balance and fall. We didn’t judge or question Titanium when we met her, instead, we grabbed her hiking poles and gloves, helped her get steady, shooed the stray dog, and walked with her into the next shelter. There was rumor surrounding Titanium and whether she was skirting the rules by picking up an Uber into town or if she was qualified to be on the trail at all. But while we heard conjecture and opinions about how to properly complete the AT we didn’t see or read any rules.


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. Thanks, young man.
    I greatly appreciate your moving from the technical to the human.
    “The real problem of humanity is the following: We have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions and godlike technology. And it is terrifically dangerous, and it is now approaching a point of crisis overall.”says E.O.Wilson.
    We are such works in progress, as most of our story on earth – maybe 99% – has been developing a program to survive in a hostile world rather than enliven a loving one. It takes but a moment’s fear to fall back into looking around for a weapon.
    Would love a chance to talk, and I would like to invite you to record an episode on the back2ifferent podcast. It’ll be a hoot-and-a-half.
    Be well.

    • Mac. What wise words and succinct thoughts, you nailed it! I would love to be a guest on your podcast, what do we do next? EZ