What have I gotten from my stint as an Outward Bound Instructor?

Downpour in the middle of the night in a foreign land. The companions I had kept me warm.

During a conversation today, I was asked this question:

What have I gotten away from my stint as an Outward Bound Instructor?

It might seem like being an Outward Bound Instructor has nothing much to do with anything else on the surface. If we have to draw a parallel, perhaps it has some relevance to coaching, training and education. Or perhaps sports-related work. However, what I have mentioned during the conversation isn’t any of the above. In fact, during a conversation with a colleague lately, we both agreed that our job had shaped us in this particular way.

So what is it?

I came across the term “VUCA” recently in a workshop I attended. It stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. If there is anything that being an Outward Bound Instructor has taught me, it is to be comfortable with “VUCA” – a quality that I think makes Outward Bound Instructors invaluable wherever they go.

So why “VUCA”? Being in the outdoors in itself is volatile. You can be preparing to set off for an expedition, and a thunderstorm comes in. You can be preparing to rest for the night only to hear that a participant got bitten by an unknown insect.

Every week, we have no idea who are the participants we are going to meet. For the longest time, I have butterflies in my stomach before the course starts. Sometimes, we receive participants with medical conditions that we must take note of. Sometimes, it is a disciplinary problem. It can also be a high performing group, which challenges you differently. We face uncertainty in every course we conduct.

Dealing with so many variables also make it complex. There is no formula on which you can rely to run a good course. In fact, during our training, we are explicitly told not to “copy and paste” but to understand and internalize why and how we should do certain things, simply because it is complicated. For one situation, adopting a particular stance may be beneficial to the situation. But at other times, it may not be so.

Last but not least, ambiguity. How do you tell whether you can trust participants when they ask you to leave it to them? How do you decide which participant you allocate to which role? How do you make a sound ground judgment to proceed or not proceed in bad weather? It is often up to the instructor to determine what is a good judgement call and answer for it.

I remember sleeping on the floor in ICU while my daughter recovers from her surgery, thinking of how this job has helped me prepared for this. We are living in an increasingly “VUCA” world, with many industries disrupted by technology. On top of that, we have accelerated climate change, and more recently, an unprecedented challenge brought by COVID-19, hastening digital transformation and work culture change in many parts of the world. No one knows what the future brings.

Perhaps some may argue that it has always been so, the rate of change remains the same. But I beg to differ. One – we are more connected than ever. Information, execution, command and control take effect at a much faster pace. Geography is becoming less of an inhibitor. Two – We are fast reaching a tipping point in climate change. Many studies indicate we are already there.

So while being an Outward Bound Instructor wasn’t part of the plan, I am glad to have become one. At least I know I have a better chance of survival when the ice caps melt—just kidding.

Categorized as Thoughts

By ben@sgben.com

Hi, I am Benjamin. I am a Singaporean son, born and bred. I came from a modest background, just like most Singaporeans and went to mainstream schools like most middle-class Singaporeans. What makes me different is my unconventional choices and journey in life, giving me more profound insights. Entering a secondary school infested with secret societies in the earlier days exposed me to a different side of Singapore. I graduated well despite having a volatile phase. I chose one of the youngest polytechnics despite having a score good enough for JC, even as others tell me it is not recognised, and I would not make it into university through that path. During my National Service, I also went through a difficult phase of rediscovering the purpose of serving. My university was another defining chapter, spanning over nine years, involving many adventures and endeavours. As you can see, I seldom bother myself with dogmas. I strongly believe in Steve Job's speech at Stanford University. I hope to lead others by example, inspire them to do the same and empower the decisions they have to make in their lives. Reach me at sgBen.com.

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