Gravity pulled me down the narrow ski trail as I navigated a series of sharp turns with trees on either side. My relief in making it to the bottom without a tumble turned into a sense of pride and accomplishment. I’d been skiing for over an hour and was headed back to my car. Tired but exhilarated, I’d had a fun time and also gotten in better shape to ski the Korteloppet—a 30K cross-country ski race in northern Wisconsin.
My “training high” quickly evaporated when the trail spilled onto an unfamiliar trail and I realized, “I don’t know where I am!” I dug around for my trail map … pockets were empty. I looked right and left. I could see an intersection of trails and a signpost, so I went right, hoping to get my bearings. The sign displayed a map of the summer trail system, which did not sync up with the winter trails and landscape. An overcast sky obscured the sun so it was not possible to establish compass points. Staring at the sign map, I had no idea which way to go.
Another skier approached the map; I asked her we were. She said, “I have no clue, these maps are really confusing.” I probed, “Do you know how to get to the north parking lot?” She pointed, “The parking lot is that way,” then sprinted off. I followed her advice. Soon, the groomed trail ended, so I bushwhacked my way through a heavy snow pack. Half an hour later, I paused in exhaustion. Looking at the frozen prairie around me, I sensed that I was no closer to my car.
It was getting dark. Snow was starting to fall. I was completely disoriented, tired, soaked in sweat, and starting to panic. I wished I had a compass and some snacks. Where the heck was my trail map! I trekked a bit further and saw some houses … contemplated knocking on their doors. The sight of civilization contained my panic. My rational thinking kicked into gear. Using my mental map, I reasoned that the neighborhood was on the northeast side of the park and I needed to get to the northwest. I turned around and worked my way back to the groomed trails and eventually found my way to my car.
My trail map was lying on the ground beside my car.
How the Scary Becomes the Familiar
Since that surreal day a decade ago, I’ve traversed those trails over a hundred times. After my brush with disaster, I equipped myself with emergency gear—compass, snacks, water, hand warmers—and double checked for my trail map before every departure. Eventually, the entire trail system has become imprinted in my brain—I know every twist, turn, bypass, loop, and short cut. However, the memories of that day flashback every time I pass the landmarks of that disoriented trek through the woods and prairies of Elm Creek Park. These places no longer evoke demons and devils, but rather they feel like old friends beckoning me on my journey. While I vividly remember my fear, I wonder why I was ever afraid of that place?
The juxtaposition of our past and present perspectives on the same situation illuminates our growth. The first day of a new job feels really different than the last one. Parenting a first child is a lot more intimidating than the second or third. Starting a new project or assignment might trigger fears and insecurities that fade as the challenges come into focus and solutions emerge. Time and experience shift our perspectives on people, places, roles, and responsibilities. How might my story of getting lost and found, help us face opportunities and challenges?
- The Boy Scout Motto—Even though I never was a Boy Scout, I grew up camping and frolicking in the woods and great outdoors. My dad taught us to be prepared and demonstrated some basic survival skills should we encounter adversity in nature. Innovation, like adventures, involve an element of risk. While we can’t prepare for every unforeseen disaster, basic tools and planning can help when a project takes a wrong turn.
- Real Versus Perceived Danger—Lost and alone in a wilderness area in the middle of winter, with daylight fading, was scary. My imagination ran wild, turning my fears into vivid images of disaster, especially as I grew more disoriented and fatigued. But I was skiing in a city park. I had a charged cell phone (pre-GPS version). I wasn’t hurt. My family knew I was skiing at Elm Creek. While I faced some risks, it was not a life-threatening situation. So often, our fear of the unknown undermines our self-confidence and amplifies our doubts. Strong leaders de-escalate fears and focus their teams on the real threats at hand.
- Forge Ahead—I considered hitting the panic button and calling for the park patrol to fetch me, or knocking on a stranger’s door and asking someone to drive me to my car. But I chose to keep striding along on my skis, knowing those options were available if I couldn’t get out on my own. Even though I was tired, my body could endure more exercise.
- Keep Your Bearings—This scenario spun out of control when I lost my bearings. Every time, I pass the signpost with the summer trail map, I shake my head in bewilderment of how I got so twisted around. It all seems so clear now. Goals, scope of responsibility, project boundaries, company processes, and mentors can help us keep our bearings when navigating new territories.
The silver lining in my wanderings is that I ended up skiing 25K that day, which gave me confidence that I could finish the Korteloppet (I did it a few weeks later)!