Lessons from Desert Survival School

One night last week, I was going through some old files in my basement, and stumbled across a box simply marked “Desert, Spring 2002.” I knew immediately what it was… in May 2002, right around the time I was launching The Latimer Group, I took some time to clear my head and enrolled in an eight-day desert survival course in Boulder, Utah.

The program I participated in was minimalist in every sense of the word…. no sleeping bags, very limited clothing, no flashlights, almost no food supplies. We were taught to live off the land, warm ourselves through near freezing temperatures at night, and make decisions in the moment based entirely on survival. The course ended with a 36 hour “solo” where our guides dropped us off and forced us to apply what we had learned, on our own. I will never forget that awful and amazing experience.

As I was going through the box, I found tons of pictures, brochures, enrollment paperwork… and my daily journal from the experience. I sat in my basement for almost two hours the other night going back in time, totally enthralled and mentally back in the high-altitude desert of southern Utah.

At the end of the journal, my final entry in fact, I wrote down three things that I learned from the experience. If memory serves me well, this last journal entry happened once our entire group had gathered back at our base camp, and our lead guide told us to capture our lessons learned.

So without, further ado, here is what I wrote (with a little bit of 2020 explanation for each):

Lesson #1: Never give up your altitude unless you have no choice. Surviving in the mountains requires a lot of things, including being really careful about conserving your own energy. If you have worked really hard to gain altitude, don’t give it away easily or without good reason. In other words, you must have a great reason to hike down after working really hard to hike up.

Lesson #2: If you are hiking in a canyon, count the turns so you don’t get lost. Maps are super valuable, obviously. But if you are hiking in a canyon, and you can’t see above and outside of the canyon, then most of the topographical information on the map is irrelevant to you. You can’t see it. Which means the only really valuable aspect of the map is the shape of the canyon itself. And the best way to keep track of your progress is to count the number of turns you are making, and notice how many left turns and how many right turns you are taking.

Lesson #3: If you arrive at a good and safe place to spend the night, stay there, no matter what time it is. If we set out in the morning, and the plan was to hike “all day,” that did not necessarily mean to hike until sun down. Because if you base your hike solely on time, you might not be in a good place to stop when the day ends, which could be a matter of life or death. If you find a good place to stay for the night, where you can be warm and safe and that has some water, then stop… right… there. Even if it is only early afternoon. If you get greedy and keep going, you don’t know if you will find another safe place before the day ends.

What does all this mean? Actually, it means a lot, given our current circumstances in 2020. Let me translate for you:

Lesson #1: Conserve and protect the things you have worked hard to build or gain. Don’t give them up without a really good reason.

Lesson #2: When your visibility is limited, pay close attention to anything immediately around you. And realize which information is most valuable to you, and which is irrelevant.

Lesson #3: If you are in a good place, and the environment is highly variable, unpredictable and dangerous, then don’t get greedy and keep moving just the sake of moving. Even if you only made a little bit of progress that day, be satisfied with it, and with the fact that you are safe for the night.

I am just back from my vacation, where I spent the last two weeks reflecting, really and deeply reflecting, on the last several months. And this box of memories from my desert survival tour was unbelievably well timed. I went on that trip to southern Utah in 2002 to clear my head as I was getting ready to launch my company. And I stumbled across that box of memories last week during my first vacation since the health crisis tore everything apart in March, April and May. Another “head clearing” was appropriate, and well timed . 

As I have written many times before… the simplest lessons are usually the most valuable, at least in my experience. So as we head into fall, I am grasping onto anything that will help keep me grounded. I advise you to do the same, because our environment will continue to be highly unpredictable for quite some time.

For the foreseeable future, I will focus on keeping what I have worked hard to build, paying close attention to the limited visual cues around me, and not moving for the sake of feeling busy. This reminds me of the great quote from basketball coach John Wooden… Never confuse activity for achievement.

Good advice, for all of us.

Have a great, safe and productive day.

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Dean Brenner

A book about change

The Latimer Group’s CEO Dean Brenner is a noted keynote speaker and author on the subject of persuasive communication. He has written three books, including Persuaded, in which he details how communication can transform organizations into highly effective, creative, transparent environments that succeed at every level.