9 Key Insights Into Business I Got From Going Underground!
This story is from my dim, dark past, with “dark” being the key word... read on, it’ll make more sense. It gives context to a number of personal insights into the challenges faced by business owners everywhere, together with some thoughts on how to resolve them.
While the story is important, if you’re one of those people who needs to cut to the chase, either due to a lack of time or lack of attention, then head to the section titled The Insights I Gained, otherwise I hope you enjoy!
My Story Begins…
It’s the late 1970’s and I’m working for one of the big banks in Australia. As part of the fast-track management development program I’m on, I’m offered the chance to attend an Outward Bound course taking place in the outback of New South Wales.
It’s Summer, it’s oppressively hot, and we’re subject to a total fire ban… so, no hot food for 30 days!
In simple terms, Outward Bound is Adventure Learning. And, like most things, the adventure comes first followed by the learning, in some cases several years later, as you get to apply the lessons to different aspects of your life.
However, before we venture underground, a bit more back story.
The initial batch of young people disgorged from the buses that have brought them from all corners of Australia to the Outward Bound basecamp, is quickly divided into smaller groups of eight. My group is decidedly geekish when compared to the jocks that make up some of the other groups. But, as we’ll discover, working together as a team has significant advantages over individuals simply intent on displaying their prowess whenever possible.
Our comfort zones are immediately tested, learning skills like rock climbing, abseiling, white water rafting and orienteering. Ironically, the biggest challenge is not physical but mental – being deposited in the bush for three days… not to find our way out, but simply to sit and think. To contemplate whatever we want!
While the feeling of isolation is immense, we are, in fact, in close proximity to others, but the dense bush makes it impossible to see or hear very far. So, three days (and two nights) to think, with a piece of plastic for cover, some cold food, toilet paper and a shovel!
Not everyone makes it to the end. I wonder now how young people would fare without access to their “smart” phones, disconnected from the world save for their own thoughts.
There are many stories I could tell about our adventure learning but, for now, let’s go underground!
Our training to this point has developed both a new skillset and a heightened sense of the world around us. We have become keen observers of our environment, and how each of us interacts with it differently.
The Real Adventure Begins
So, when we’re mustered and told we’re going caving, we’re mindful that going caving is not going to be as simple or as easy as “just going caving”.
We’re instructed to bring only our torches. On arriving at the entry to the caves we’re issued with hard hats and given some brief instructions. Next, we file in behind our instructor.
The entry is narrow, literally a slit in the side of the rock face. Immediately on entering, the path does a quick zigzag, so all daylight disappears as quickly as if someone has flicked the light switch. The atmosphere immediately becomes cold and damp, with our torches throwing spooky shadows on the smooth, vertical walls.
One bright spark asks if we’re in the middle of a sequel to Picnic at Hanging Rock!
In single file we pick our way along the uneven stone corridor, our guide pointing out various rock formations. We then enter a small, circular ‘room’ in the middle of which is a large opening in the floor. We can see the exit on the other side but to get there we have to traverse the ledge which surrounds our black hole. In places it’s only 18” wide. Several of us throw small rocks into the hole which, alarmingly, take forever to find the bottom.
Safely past this feature, we continue on our way passing several smaller passages that quickly disappear off to both sides. We finally enter a huge cavern, the likes of which I have only ever imagined from reading books like Lord of the Rings (the movies are still many years away!).
Breathtaking in its vastness, our torches are unable to pick out the walls to our left or right. In the middle stands a small cairn, a mound of rocks no doubt placed there by previous students. By following the leader, we track across this immense space and disappear into the wall on the other side.
There are a number of other features that mark our journey but, in the interests of getting to the point, let me jump to the end. This comes as the path we’re following gets narrower and the roof gets lower until, literally, we can go no further.
Not very exciting I hear you say. What’s going to happen next? Don’t tell me, you all turn around and walk back.
The Object of the Exercise
Like a magician, our instructor produces a sack from his jacket and tells us to turn off our torches and place them inside. One by one we comply, albeit with questioning looks. With his lone torch the only illumination, he gives us one final instruction. “I’m leaving”, he says. “I want you to wait here for five minutes then make your way out. I’ll meet you at the entrance”.
With that, he turns and leaves; his torchlight quickly extinguished.
Now, you know how, when you close your eyes really tight, it seems totally dark. The darkness that immediately engulfs us is TEN TIMES BLACKER!
While we can’t see the expressions on each other’s faces, it doesn’t take a genius to work out we’re all thinking the same thing… SHIT, what do we do now!
As I mentioned upfront, a couple of us had been suspicious that this was always intended as another learning exercise, so we have remained acutely aware of what’s been happening around us.
The first action is to agree on a strategy for meeting the objective we’ve been set – to get back to the entrance. However, there’s immediate opposition to this. Two of the group say this is crazy. There are so many tunnels and pathways we’re bound to get separated and lost.
But, what’s the alternative? It’s suggested that if we wait long enough the organisers will have no choice but to come back and lead us out. For the other six of us, this is totally unacceptable. Neither are we prepared to leave anyone behind. We’ve trained as a group and each of us has a part to play in the team’s welfare.
So, two immediate issues to resolve, agree the path we need to take, and find a way not to get separated.
For the next 10 minutes we take turns recalling the route we’d followed in, referencing the various features like number of openings and the turns we’d taken. From our collective memories we agree a map for our return journey.
Apart from the army fatigues and hardhats we all wear, we also have a length of narrow canvas webbing that had been part of our abseiling kits. These are being used as makeshift belts. So, the solution to not getting separated is simple. Starting at the front, we use these to tie ourselves together. However, before doing this we make some changes to the order.
The two who had initially been against our plan, and who are still reluctant “passengers”, are placed in the middle of the line-up. In this way they’ll feel more secure and confident in moving with the group as opposed to pulling at the edges. The other change is to place the biggest and strongest of us (the token jock in our group) strategically at the back. We reason if someone up front is going to disappear down some bottomless pit, he’s our best chance of holding the line. Optimistic thinking maybe, but we’re ready to go!
We count off, one to eight, and make a start.
It’s slow going as we edge our way along the corridor. As new features appear through our heightened sense of touch, like a uniquely shaped outcrop, or disappear, like an opening to our left or right, we compare these to our recollected roadmap. Discrepancies are discussed and resolved, and we move on.
While the journey so far has been cautious, our first big test comes when, given the rush of air and the disappearance of all walls, we realise we’ve re-entered the cavern that had so impressed me on the way in.
From memory, we guess it’s about 25 to 30 metres to the cairn that we’d passed before, and a similar distance from there to the exit on the other side. Given we each have a reach from fingertip to fingertip of about 1.5 metres and our makeshift belts are around 2 metres long, we can bridge the gap if we make some strategic changes.
We untie ourselves without losing touch and, grasping the end of a belt in each hand, start to stretch out. In this way we feed ourselves out into the chamber on a mission to find the cairn, while the last member of our team remains at the hole in the wall, a fixed point we can return to should we be unable to locate the mound of rocks in the darkness.
It takes several minutes before the shout rings out from the front… “I’ve found it!”. We then reel each other in until we all stand, connected, around the cairn.
Then, off to the left, a small light appears, piercing the roof. It’s feint and doesn’t illuminate any of the floor that lays between us, but it’s definitely there. We stand silently, still smothered in darkness, listening intently for a shout or some indication the light is coming from outside… but nothing.
So, new questions to consider. Do we abandon the course we’ve set and make for the light source? Or, do we split up, some heading to the light while the rest continue on? Vigorous discussion follows.
We don’t know the terrain that lays out in the darkness, but we do know our makeshift human chain isn’t long enough to help us. We immediately ditch the idea of splitting up as we each have a vital role to play in the journey that still lies ahead. While it might be easier to change directions, there aren’t enough other reasons to deviate from our existing course. Even the two sceptics amongst us feel we should continue as planned.
So, ignoring the light that bounces off in the distance, we repeat the exercise of feeding our human chain out in the direction of the exit we know is located somewhere on the other wall.
We find it and, once safely across, we reattach ourselves with our belts, and make ready to face our last major challenge, the “bottomless pit”!
The Final Hurdle
Luckily, because this smaller chamber and its huge hole in the floor had made such an impression on all of us, we’re able to recall many more details. For instance, the ledge on one side is wider than the other, obviously our preferred route. There are several handholds which we hadn’t needed when we could see where we were going but now, given the darkness, could provide key anchor points.
There’s no question that inching our way around the wall is both nerve racking and incredibly exhilarating, all at the same time… a true Indiana Jones experience!
Some of our group hesitates, but constant words of encouragement and knowing we’re all tied together see us, one by one, exit the chamber safely on the other side.
Ironically, having survived to this point without so much as a scratch, it’s the final dash to the finish line that sees several people stumble, bang their elbows on walls and, in my case, crack my head on a low archway! We put it down to a mixture of excitement and complacency.
Happily, however, it isn’t long before, rounding another turn in the tunnel, we feel the rush of fresh air from outside and start to see each other’s outline as the darkness begins to thin. Then, one final turn and there, before us, is the entrance.
As we spill out into the daylight and our eyes adjust, we’re greeted by our instructor and the course manager. Greeted is probably the wrong word as they don’t say much, instead fixing us with stares of apparent amazement.
They then go on to explain that, in the entire history of the course, no one, and they mean NO ONE, has ever come back out the same way they went in. Why? Because they had been the source of the light we’d seen in the central chamber, waving their torches off in the distance.
All previous groups had, without too much hesitation, ditched any plans they had and made for the light. The chamber floor was, in fact, perfectly safe to cross, and the light marked an easy exit from the cave darkness. But, like us, they couldn’t have known this at the time. Some had simply decided to take a leap of faith, while others had bolted, through a mixture of fear and desperation.
We celebrated, and were celebrated, that night for breaking the mold, but one question that did come to mind was whether, in the circumstances, we had been right (and possibly foolhardy) in pressing on to achieve the objective we’d been set?
I would ponder this and similar questions regularly over the next 40 years as I soon left the security of paid employment and set out on a path of not only building my own businesses but helping others to do the same.
The Insights I Gained
It took some time to fully appreciate what had happened that day, but here are nine insights (which roughly follow the order of my story) I can trace back to what was a truly transformative experience:
Insight #1: People
People you meet, people who work for you, people you do business with, they come in all shapes, sizes and dispositions. Don’t be too quick to judge and be prepared to dig a little deeper as you’ll often be surprised what’s just under the surface. A business needs diversity in this, it’s most valuable asset.
Insight #2: Keep Learning New Skills
Always be open to learning new skills and trying new things, especially those that take you well outside your comfort zone and may, at the time, seem unrelated to where you’re headed. The simple process of learning should be lifelong, while the skills you acquire may prove useful in totally different areas of your life.
For instance, abseiling teaches you to have confidence in stepping away from the security of terra firma, while placing trust in others to support you. White water rafting teaches you how to pick the currents, how to move to the middle when speed is needed, and to navigate to slower waters so you can plan and prepare before attacking the rapids ahead.
Every successful business owner understands the value of these lessons.
Insight #3: Allocate Time To Think
One of the most valuable lessons I took away was the art of doing nothing. The ability to sit quietly and contemplate the world going on around me. To bypass the initial boredom and find that place where so many things become crystal clear! Some call it meditation, others identify it simply as chilling out.
The insight it gives you into where you really are, and what you can truly achieve is priceless.
I know for many today the idea of being separated from their devices sadly fills them with fear. Remember, not everything we need can be found on Google, Facebook or Instagram.
But, don’t expect it to happen by accident. You have to plan for the important things… and regularly set aside part of your life to do nothing.
Insight #4: Understand Your Operating Environment
It’s easy to become complacent and fail to see the little changes taking place around you. On our way in, we paid special attention to our immediate environment - key features in the rock formations, changes in the texture of the path we followed, the varying smells and direction of any movement in the air.
While the adventure we were on was exciting, it didn’t distract us from consciously absorbing our surroundings. In fact, our operating environment was a critical element of the adventure. So, even without the sense of sight on our return, we could still see where we were going.
In fact, our other senses were heightened to compensate.
Disruption in business is happening on an unparalleled scale, often because existing owners fail to recognise the markers so evident to others in their industry.
Insight #5: Thinking, Knowing and Doing
Businesses need goals and objectives to head towards, but all the planning in the world, all the skills you might acquire, count for nothing unless you also start doing.
Picture a three-legged stool… one leg is for thinking, getting your mind into gear and imagining the future. Another leg is designated for knowledge, developing the skills you and your team need; while the final, and arguably most important, leg exists to support the actual doing, making it happen.
Equilibrium is only maintained when all three legs are in place. If any one of them is shorter than the others, the stool becomes unstable. If it’s missing all together, you simply fall over!
Insight #6: Commitment Ties us Together
To successfully retrace our steps and not lose anyone along the way we were physically tied to each other. This reinforced our commitment, as a group, to trust in our thinking and individual abilities, and to achieve the goal we’d been set. We placed our initial dissenters well within the group so they could experience the passion, excitement and apprehension we all felt for the journey ahead.
Commitment to an idea, a project, a goal begins when you fully understand the outcome you’re striving for, and often becomes even more tangible once you’re underway. That momentum gives your commitment real meaning and value.
Insight #7: Be Resourceful and Creative
Stop thinking you always have to find a new product, a new process or a new member of staff to move you and your business to the next level. Consider what you already have at your disposal. Be creative in using and repurposing your existing resources.
The problems we faced affected us all so, collectively, we worked on the solutions. Even those not fully committed to the goal in the beginning had valuable contributions to make. The concerns they voiced highlighted flaws in our thinking that could be addressed before setting out. Their participation in our human chain was vital.
Although we had limited resources, we were able to turn makeshift belts into critical lifelines to keep us safe in the darkness.
Insight #8: Beware of Bright Shiny Objects
In a similar vein, when things get a little tough, it’s so easy to be distracted by options. Does this mean you don’t pivot to, say, another process, structure, operating system, or market niche etc.? Definitely not. Being flexible and responsive to change, when needed, is critical to survival in an ever-evolving business landscape.
In extreme situations, this may involve a leap of faith. But, in most cases it simply requires a review of the facts. What value does this alternative offer? Does it outweigh the risks involved in changing direction?
Deep underground, we saw the light… but nothing else. We had confidence in the path we were on, even knowing our biggest hurdle still lay ahead. The decision to continue was not difficult.
Insight #9: Always Look Beyond The Summit
You achieve a goal… and then what? For many, the feeling of elation can quickly turn to one of complacency. In our case, we did most damage to ourselves after jumping the highest hurdle, and then believing it was all plain sailing from there.
The key is to celebrate your wins (if you don’t, it’s unlikely others will), but then you must ask, “What’s Next?”. Better still, before reaching the summit, start planning for what lies beyond, and how you’ll turn all your Thinking and Knowing into more Doing.
Before writing it down, I’ve only told this story to a handful of people in small workshop groups and business gatherings. Interestingly, on each occasion I’ve been asked if it actually happened, or did I just make it up to give credence to the lessons I was trying to impart?
So, I did some digging through my old photographs (yes, real photographs) and offer into evidence the image at the top of this article… that’s me on the right - over 40 years ago!
First On the Beach