Editor’s Note: I wrote this piece, taken from an interview with a NOLS alum, close to two years ago. The interview was done in the process of writing a NOLS leadership book. The book project was tabled (again) a couple years back and has yet to regain traction amidst a new president and significant changes brought about by the worldwide pandemic. Kevin Fleming conducted the interview; I was a member of the editorial committee for the book.
On a side note, as the pandemic continues to not be tamed, as we humans continue to wrestle with all that is being served up, the understanding and practice of NOLS’ Leadership Skills is as paramount as ever. In the ensuing essay on competence, much like Ann draws parallels between her NOLS course and dental school, pulling out parallels and learnings about our current pandemic is not a stretch.
“As a second year dental student, comfortably ensconced in a sterile, dry, well-lit, heated patient clinic, I would not have guessed I’d be using any of the skills I learned while sea kayaking and sailing in the not sterile, not dry, not well-lit, not heated Pacific Northwest,” recalls Ann Danello, a SKS (sea kayak and sail course) participant in 2011. Yet as I stood in the operating room, preparing to place a real filling, in a real live tooth, in a real live patient for the very first time, I felt grossly unprepared. Thrust into a situation that answered every question with ten new ones, I found myself reflecting on the feeling I had as I wet exited a sea kayak and prepared to face 30 days of living and surviving in the wilderness for the first time: grossly unprepared. Yet I made it through.”
NOLS students walk away from their courses with experiences, plans, learnings, and dreams. Not all are concrete, not all have coalesced. The debriefs, whether of the day’s events while in the field, the section, or the course are all merely waypoints to help BEGIN to make sense of what they are experiencing, what is happening to them, what it means, why they are like they are, and on and on. It is the rare debrief that brings closure after a thirty day course. It is the rare graduation that ties a knot and bow around a course. Instructors and debriefers often reference learnings and transferability in a last ditch effort to help sow the seed of learnings far bigger than packing a panier, reading a map, or rolling a kayak. Our alum recount numerous stories of “I didn’t know what my NOLS experience meant until I had to…” Years, months, or weeks down the road, former NOLS students are put into a new experience and their time strapping on snowshoes and postholing for the first time resurfaces and there is a recognition of having been there before. And having succeeded.
Competence, in all its forms, is one of the things students take from NOLS courses. Success in its development builds strength. It builds resilience, capacity, and self-awareness as well. NOLS has built its reputation on competence. Fifty plus years of churning out students who are able live, lead, and thrive in the wilderness is no laughing matter. The rolling of a kayak though, for most of our graduates, isn’t a useful competence. Through debriefing and facilitation NOLS strives to build a bridge between the rolling of that kayak and skills as yet unknown. Making efforts to achieve a goal of meta-learning around competence, transferring the success of one thing to potential success in another skillset pushes a growth mindset that once established can have few boundaries.
Ann reflects positively on her feelings of inadequacy she faced starting her NOLS course and the way she has transferred it to her study of dentistry: “I was out of my element from the very beginning, when I flipped my kayak ten feet from the shore and found myself trapped underwater. Time slowed for a while – the icy water crushed the air from my lungs, my contacts floated back and forth across my field of vision, my hands yanked helplessly on the spray skirt grab loop, my brain froze with panic – but then, somehow, survival instinct took over, and I managed to kick my way out and up to the surface. I found a way.” At the start of her procedure in the dental clinic, the same feelings were there; it was then she was able draw on NOLS to move forward: “…and I found a way in the dental clinic too. I knew what I was doing. I’d practiced the procedure many times. I was out of my element, in a brand new experience, but I knew that I’d been out of my element before and had found a way to thrive.”
Competence builds capacity. Not unlike having to have money to make money or success breeding success, having competence in one area increases one’s ability to develop competency in another area. Building competency takes practice, not just in the skillset, but also in the mindset. Some competencies are easy to build because they are related; they are natural progressions/next steps: bull riding to bronc riding, being a slam poet to being a public speaker, writing short stories to writing novels, a doctor in one specialty to a doctor in another specialty, or a rock climber to an ice climber. It takes competence to build competence, some would argue that it is the backbone or most essential of our leadership skills. The transfer of building competence in one area to having the confidence to begin to do so in another area is what NOLS requires and nurtures in our students. Setting up a tent or starting a camp stove are new to many students. We draw on that base level learning of skills to establish a growth mindset to develop competencies in all the other skills sets our wilderness travel courses require. The same goes for the interpersonal skills that we teach and foster on courses. Confidence and competence are linked in many ways. The confidence to undertake a new endeavor, be it embarking on a NOLS course as a novice backcountry traveler or starting medical school is not always a given. Developing confidence in our ability to learn is part of a growth mindset. Ultimately, while sometimes the end results matter greatly, just as important, maybe more, is that students recognize and understand their process of learning, growing, and mastering a skill. And that they have done it before, can do it again, and can step forward with confidence (and maybe just a little trepidation.)
Development of competence in any one area also builds capacity in another way; the more competence I have in a skillset, the more I can handle in both that skillset and various other subjects, simultaneously. A person can go from focusing solely on the process of rolling a kayak or paddling a canoe to being able to give attention to other variables such as peers, objective hazards, or what to cook for supper. A person can go from focusing solely on the process of rolling a kayak or paddling a canoe to being able to give attention to other variables such as peers, objective hazards, or what to cook for supper. It happens all the time on NOLS courses: when students feel comfortable with the basic skills they have more attention to give to each other, the group dynamic, more advanced skills, etc. These are natural progressions that people experience in growth and learning on an ongoing basis; NOLS courses only serve to amplify them, because often our students are starting at ground zero with all basic needs: dressing, feeding and sheltering themselves, commuting, etc. It is this component that allows someone to be good at their job; they can experience less stress, mentor others, and have room for other, personally fulfilling activities.
Competency matters. But it matters more in some places than in others. It is not uncommon for NOLS students or professionals to get hyper-focused on becoming the best in something e.g. rock climbing, map reading, dentistry, deal making, etc. The usefulness of those competencies only go as far as one’s ability to communicate, work on a team, or tolerate adversity. Leadership is not about being the most competent in a technical skillset, it is frequently about who is the most competent in making others feel valued, in creating vision, in organizing and empowering others, and other human centered skills. Even if those are not our strong suits, we can still lead through using our technical competencies for the betterment of our community.
“By the end of my thirty days in Canada,” Ann observed in retrospect, “I was flipping my kayak for fun in splash wars, plus navigating, pitching tents, and grilling fresh caught salmon on the shores of Vancouver Island. I’d proved to myself [over and over] that I was capable of growing and adapting more than I thought possible.” It is with this mindset that she rolled into dentistry school. “Kayaking, dentistry” she said, “– what’s next? Once you break through the surface of the water, the sky’s the limit.”
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