This past weekend I went backpacking in the Eastern Sierras with my wife and a few friends. The trip was intended to be our Mini-moon – a brief romantic jaunt following our third (and final) wedding celebration (one civil, one Catholic/Spanish, one Jewish/American). But, unless you find body odor, mosquito bites, and extreme fatigue sexually stimulating, you won’t find much romance on a trip like this. What you will find, however, are a few good reminders about how to live, lead, and love.
Wants, Needs, and Thneeds
Whenever I’m forced to bear the physical weight of all my gizmos and gadgets, I’m reminded that they mostly result in more pain than pleasure. Even when I pack my bag knowing I’ll have to carry it on my back, I always find myself unpacking it realizing there is much I could have done without. Did I need three fleeces? Must I have brought fuel and a stove for a hot meal? Was that hardcover book for nighttime entertainment necessary?
After college, I attended a month-long backpacking expedition with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). Toward the end of our trip, our lead instructor read aloud to us The Lorax by Dr. Seuss. In this book, the Once-lers, ignoring the Lorax’s warnings, build an industrial empire by chopping down Truffala trees to produce Thneeds – an ill-defined array of consumer goods that people think they need. Eventually, unbridled capitalism (“biggering and BIGGERING and BIGGERING and BIGGERING”) leads to its own demise and the moral of the story becomes clear: Thneeds are costly.
Political commentary aside, Thneeds are particularly pernicious because they bring into question our own viability – after all, if we don’t have what we need, how can we be okay?
When we confuse what we want for what we need (the product being a Thneed), we often undertake a course of action contrary to our own best interest. In the mountains, a pack full of Thneeds can make us sore, slow, or unnecessarily sweaty. In the city, we can suffer similar fates – Thneeds can make it harder to change jobs, rewrite business plans, pursue passions, or dedicate time to family.
There are times when we must bear large burdens (needs) and there are times when we may choose to (wants), but most of the disservice I’ve done myself – backcountry or front – derived from confusing one for the other.
The Weight of Expectations
For as heavy as my Thneed-filled pack may have been, it paled in comparison to what my wife was lugging uphill – but, you wouldn’t have known this simply by looking. The bulk of her load resided in her head in the form of expectations. Every climb she expected to end sooner, every descent she expected to last longer, each route she expected to complete faster. The more certain she was that a summit was near, the more dejected she was to encounter a false flat. Under the weight of expectations, reality moved against us -- the hard parts were harder, the long stretches took longer.
On NOLS, I remember leading a hike that I expected to complete in six hours. As my psychological deadline neared and I was still hours away from our destination, I became angry, depressed, hostile, and accusatory toward myself and my team. I started telling stories – we’re late because Sarah took too long to eat, because Joe had to pee too often, and because I can’t read a goddamn map properly. It was miserable.
Upon arrival, one of our instructors asked me what was wrong. I told him, “We took three hours longer than I expected.”
“So what?” he said.
Letting go of expectations does not mean flying blind. Setting goals – aiming for a desired result – is critical to success, but having expectations – believing you should achieve something – is not. Even when we perform our best, there are too many variables outside of our control to assure a positive outcome. When we fail to meet our expectations, we become demotivated, depressed, and anxious (imagine being in my tent that night), causing our reality to end up further away from the goal we expected to achieve. At the time when we should be absorbing new information, learning from our misfire, adopting new strategies, and realigning goals with reality, we instead obsess with wishing things had gone differently and allocating blame for why they didn’t.
The goal for our next trip will be to have no expectations.
Easy is Hard
The first day of our trip was eleven miles straight uphill. The last day of our trip was the opposite. On the first day, any passerby could see my pain. Grimace across my face, sweat dripping from my forehead, hands gripped tightly to my backpack straps – the spitting image of hard work. On the last day, no grimace, no sweat, no clenched fists – I was flying downhill.
The morning after, however, my legs were on fire and I could barely walk.
When pain is obvious, we care for ourselves – we take smaller steps, we break more frequently, we hydrate appropriately. But, when we’re sailing smoothly, we don’t. The aesthetic or experience of ease obscures from us danger that may lurk underneath.
On NOLS, we called this “Type II Fun” – fun now, not fun later. Interrupting our current elation to scan for negative repercussions ahead requires a discipline that the most cautious and skeptical among us sometimes lack.
In our personal and professional lives, we pay attention most when we’re confronting challenges – a business misstep, a relationship quarrel, or a health risk. However, when we’re nailing our milestones, feeling deeply in love, or stronger than we’ve ever been, we neglect to invest the care and consideration, in ourselves and in others, fundamental to long-term success.
Failing to search for flaws and faults in our behaviors – physically, emotionally, and psychologically – in the absence of obvious pain will make whatever fun we are having today, far less fun tomorrow.
Nothing I’ve written here is unique or sage, which, ironically, is why I had to write it all down. Though living simply, going with the flow, and caring for ourselves are lessons so commonplace they’re hardly worth repeating, I’m always amazed at how quickly I forget them amidst the tumult of day-to-day life. The remotest, quietest corners of nature often speak to me the loudest. I suggest you go take a listen.