Changing the Definition of “Success”

Success is an abstract concept that humans continually try to quantify. With a quantifiable metric, success becomes something we can grade ourselves against, see how far we fall short, and something hopefully we can achieve. Throughout my life, I have worked in institutions that define themselves by what made the organization successful. For example, I began working for Outward Bound at a wilderness base in Oregon. Outward Bound’s tagline is “Learning through Challenge and Adventure,” and at that wilderness base, courses were deemed successful when their students learned about themselves in tangible ways, changed their behaviors, and lived as an independent, autonomous group for a few days. When I moved to Voyageur Outward Bound School’s Twin Cities Center (TCC), my definition of success changed, becoming differently institutionalized.

Transitioning from a wilderness base to an urban center took many courses. The TCC’s student population not only was more diverse in age, ethnicity, and experience outdoors; I also worked with students for shorter time periods. I quickly learned to adjust my expectations of what instructors could teach on course (no curing arachnophobia, for instance). I learned to place more emphasis on what makes folk safe outside (e.g. sleeping warm) and to be as transparent as possible about what is going to happen. I have since worked over three seasons with the TCC, yet at nearly every course planning session I have to remember to appear in front of students with a blank slate of expectations.

Delving into past courses for an example, I remembered one of my most successful courses at the TCC. In late May 2016, I backpacked at the back of a line of young women from an environmentally focused high school. The young women, unused to the weight of their packs or the Northwoods through which we hiked, hadn’t stopped complaining since we arrived two days previously. Our course included hills triggering fears of heights, unusual food and sleeping situations, and half of the women’s friends had stayed home. Lessons on communication styles, Leave No Trace ethics, and forest ecology flopped. Our second day included hot sun, cold rain, and back to hot sun. Yet I found myself thinking, “This is a supremely successful course,” on our longest day, when we had to lengthen our hike by three miles to find an unoccupied campsite. I had realized that success is different for each course, and is defined through collaboration between students and instructors. (Herein is why I need a blank slate at the start of course.) Success depends on how well instructors identify where students are at and meet students’ needs, but also on how far the students are willing or able to adapt to instructors. On this late spring backpacking course, the group was successful in creating a situation where students stepped into leadership roles, supported each other, and most importantly, everyone was safe.

I now understand success to encompass not just the big ideas of financial solvency and personal fulfillment but also whether food is available at an appropriate time, laughter happens, and interactions are respectful. Success can include everyone making a destination by a preset time or someone afraid of heights stepping to the bottom of a cliff in a climbing harness. When a supervisor recently told me how they’d had fun that day, I went home on cloud nine, my perception of a dismal day flipped on its head as successful. Later, I realized how that interaction spoke of the truth behind a TCC mantra: “even the smallest moments of success are worth celebrating.” The TCC, like other OB bases, lives by the tagline of “Learning through Challenge and Adventure,” but the TCC doesn’t define success by that metric. We wait to define success until our students arrive.


About landje03

A passionate outdoor educator, I hold a degree in anthropology. While not a salaried academic, I pursue various thoughts stemming from my experiences and their intersections with others' experiences. I also love to start conversations, so comment if anything tickles your fancy.
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