Young Professionals: Balancing the Personal and Professional

by Gretchen Vaughn

If I'm such a young professional, why am I so tired? The twenty-something director at a neighboring camp is rumored to cook a killer lasagna. Last spring, I asked him when we could get together so I could sample his famous recipe. In his e-mail reply, he said, "Maybe in October. I need to spend September getting some sleep." Then the winter came with us both busy with staff recruitment fairs and building projects. I'm still waiting for him to show off his cooking skills.

Being a young camp professional can be extremely rewarding—and exhausting. What better cause to dedicate your life to than "Enriching Lives, Building Tomorrows"? Since the work is so "enjoyable" (who wouldn't want to be outside running a challenge course?), demanding hours are de rigueur. Nonprofit agencies, in particular, seem to have no "off-season." Young professionals at a youth resident camp can expect to work upwards of seventy-five to ninety plus hours a week in the summer—and be on call 24/7. This rigorous schedule often results in young pros leaving the field for a "real" job with "real" hours.

Is outdoor recreation and youth development solely a young person's field? If that were true, then the Pioneers of Camping Breakfast at the ACA National Conference would be one table in the hotel restaurant, rather than a banquet room. So how does the young professional find balance between the personal and professional, and make camping a sustainable career? When you live on site and are on call twenty-four hours a day, responsible for 5 a.m. airport runs, or you're the one responsible to wait for the last day camper to get picked up on a Friday, it might seem impossible to apply the advice of a time management guru with a newsletter titled, "Leave the Office Earlier."

Time management pros, however, do have much to offer even those with an outdoor office and unusual work schedules. With an eye to producing more time for a personal life, most time management systems can be applied to camp professionals (even resident camp folks) by following these four strategies: Prioritization, Delegation, Recreation, and Negotiation.


For camp professionals, saying "no" becomes more difficult when your professional mission is so much in line with your personal mission. While many of us might do our jobs for free if food, shelter, and health care were not an issue, there still is a need to have a balance between personal pursuits (extraneous hobbies such as sleep, for instance) and the noble pursuit of a better future for all.

Once you have decided that family, friends, and your health should have at least equal weight with a career at camp, it's time to figure out how to make them a priority. Stephen Covey discusses throughout The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People the importance in investing in your "production capacity" as well as merely producing. If you don't tend to the golden gooses, then soon there will be no more golden eggs. Investing time in relationships, exercise, and your own sanity will increase your productivity in other areas (see Strategy 4, "Recreation").

Once you have taken care of personal priorities and do get down to work, you'll need to figure out what the most important tasks are. Prioritizing is especially important if you are feeling overwhelmed and can't tell where to start. Write down everything you think you need to do. Then determine what needs to be done now or in the next few days.

Once you've determined the most important tasks, do them first. Follow Julie Morgenstern's advice by avoiding e-mail and phone calls for the first hour of the day. E-mail and phone calls may seem urgent (it's hard to resist a ringing phone), but rarely are true emergencies. Create a space where you won't be disturbed, and choose your main task (if you could only accomplish one thing today, what would it be?). Once completed, this important task won't be hanging over your head, distracting you from focusing completely on what is in front of you. You'll also have the feeling of knowing that you accomplished something significant each day.

If a camp or conference is in session, you may find that you need to be available most of the time to respond to staff, participants, or parents. One solution is to scope out your time for the main tasks—and then leave yourself open for the rest of the day for any "crisis" management that may occur, while tackling the short tasks (e-mails, phone calls, short conversations, etc.) when you have the opportunity.


While you're arranging your list of tasks, make a to-do list for others as well. If you're a person with the ability to manage a staffing budget (or to negotiate with the person who does—see Strategy 3, "Negotiation"), you can determine what parts of your job you would most like to give to someone else. If you're valued for turning new counselors into childcare experts in under a week or for your brilliance at implementing all-camp festivals, is reconciling the credit card statements the best use of your talents? Or can you hire an office manager that actually likes paperwork?

Camp professionals often have a hard time learning to delegate. The nature of the industry requires a high degree of self- sufficiency, especially when the nearest neighbor is forty-five minutes away and EMS takes over an hour. In a camp community, we often "don't think hierarchically about work . . . no job is beneath us" (Morgenstern 2004). Often the camp director might be the one who knows best how to muck stalls and plunge toilets, not to mention being the quickest with the vomit clean-up kit. Although the young pro may want to role model a willingness to do whatever it takes to get the job done, there are still only so many hours in a day.

Once you decide to delegate a responsibility, choose the right person for the job. Does the delegatee have the skills, training, resources (don't forget to give him keys and passwords) to accomplish the task? Although he may not have the same level of expertise that you do, determine if the task needs to be done perfectly by an expert, or just competently.

One of the reasons delegation may fail is if you "dump-and-run" (Morgenstern 2004). Keep in mind Covey's concept that you can be efficient with tasks, but you need to be effective with people. Delegation may take some effort and time up front. If something needs to be done in a specific way, you may want to make a list of guidelines or a flow chart. Let the delegatee know what decisions she can make and when you need to be consulted. You may also view this as a coaching opportunity to help develop skills in a supervisee.

If you're responsible for a large project or program that runs around the clock, (e.g., 360 acres, 200 people, 40 horses, 2 llamas, and a donkey), handing over the reins may seem like an impossible task. What if there's an emergency with one of those 243 heartbeats? A vibrating cell phone may allow you to feel comfortable leaving site and taking in an occasional movie. Handheld radios also facilitate time where you can be momentarily interrupted if absolutely necessary.

You will need to retain those tasks for which you were specifically hired or that require your background level. Consider your reasoning for not delegating—and ensure that your decision is intentional rather than motivated by laziness or fear. You do, however, want to treat yourself on occasion by leading those activities (songs, trail rides, etc.) that made you fall in love with camp in the first place.


If you're a star performer, you may have taken on or been assigned more and more projects. After a while, scope creep sets in and you may be to the point where your job performance and/or personal life begin to suffer in order to keep up with your job responsibilities. While it's a tremendous compliment to be chosen for those assignments, you may need to delegate those responsibilities or negotiate to release them altogether.

In addition to negotiating with yourself (see Strategy 1, "Prioritization") and with those with whom you can share work (see Strategy 2, "Delegation"), you may need to negotiate with your organization, board, and/or supervisor. In order to make your job more manageable, you may need to ask for one or more of the following:

  • Fewer responsibilities
  • More staff
  • More time off
  • More money in order to hire more staff or to hire consultants or contractors

Negotiation may be as simple as asking your supervisor to prioritize the tasks you already have on your plate—and what it is she wants not to get done. If you're relatively new to your position and hired with the goal of updating a program, ask what needs to be revamped now and what can wait until next year.

A summer camp director I met on an American Camp Association visit, also ran a residential school program for the same organization. He had only taken a total of 20 days off in the previous 365. When he announced he was going to take a position as an assistant principal at a local school, the organization realized his value and offered him two months off in the summer to be with his family and work on his house. Your organization may also realize your value if you just ask for what you really need. Anyone who has tried to hire good camp staff should be aware of the difficulty of finding good personnel and the significant investment it takes to train new hires. Additional time off may be viewed as a minor concession to retain a valued employee.


As a middle manager, I find myself pleading and cajoling (and sometimes ordering) my camp supervisory staff to take breaks for themselves—that is when I'm not asking my own boss (a very wise thirty-five-year veteran of the camp profession) for advice on how do a quality job in less than sixty to ninety hours a week. How do we get ourselves to take a break when there's always more to be done in pursuit of positive youth development?

Business management guru Jim Collins discusses the power of catalytic mechanisms in several of his written works. These are decisions or systems that ensure that an action will happen (Collins 1999). Signing up for a race, buying concert tickets, booking a nonrefundable spa appointment, inviting extended family to a barbeque, joining a community orchestra—are all catalytic mechanisms. When you have to be out the door to a previous engagement (and properly scheduled time off), it'll help make apparent what really has to be done right now and what can wait for another day.

Getting proper exercise is vital to your health—and productivity. A recent study from the Center for Creative Leadership found that "those who exercised scored higher on evaluations of their leadership skills, vision, trustworthiness, energy, and ability to work with others, even though they worked fewer hours than nonexercisers" (Women's Health, 2006). If your position tends to take you into the office too much, do something active with the campers such as a hike or a sail. Individual meetings with other staff, especially those of the "checking in" variety, can be done as a walk and talk. You'll get some exercise, as well as being on the move and away from prying ears.

If you do get sick, by all means—go rest and be sick. The pilot results of the Healthy Camp Initiative confirmed what most already know: While we do a stellar job of keeping our campers healthy and safe, staff have a high rate of illness and injury. Camp leadership staff tend to keep plowing forward, thinking they're indispensable. With this standard of "when the going gets tough, the tough get going," it's difficult for your overall camp staff to exercise self-care. A "common" cold can easily turn into chronic bronchitis or pneumonia if it's not attended to when it's a small matter.

One way to ward off illness, is to get enough rest in the first place. The children and your coworkers will thank you. With proper sleep, exercise, and downtime, you'll be able to maintain an even-keel in stressful situations, better control your temper, and have more concentration to really listen when others need you. Maintaining an even-keel is vital in a profession that relies on everyone to be a constantly, scrutinized professional role model. Recreation is a necessary part of keeping the golden goose golden and producing those golden eggs.

Young professionals are a dedicated bunch, willing to work long hours, and put forth heart and soul into their jobs. The lack of balance between the personal and the professional takes its toll, however. A recent search of the OCLC (Online Computer Library Catalog) revealed a number of thesis topics on camp staff burnout that rivaled the number on burnout and turnover in the Emergency Medical Services field. In looking to the future, it's important for young professionals to establish good habits of Prioritization, Delegation, Negotiation, and Recreation to ensure a long career in camping.

While waiting to get together for lasagna, that neighboring camp director and I have made a few improvements in balancing the personal and the professional. He registered for a Las Vegas marathon, which made sure he trained on a regular basis and completed 26.2 miles with a personal best. I took up the string bass and have no problem taking time for myself during a hectic resident camp day. An upcoming orchestra audition helped me keep on track with taking time for the personal, as well as the professional.

J. Collins (1999), Turning Goals into Results: The Power of Catalytic Mechanisms, Harvard Business Review, July/August.
S. Covey (1989). The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Simon and Schuster, NY, NY.
J. Morgenstern (2004). Making Work Work: New Strategies for Surviving and Thriving at the Office.
Fitness Report: Sweat for Success, Women's Health, June 2006.

Gretchen "Banana" Vaughn, an active member of the American Camp Association's Young Professionals, is the resident camp director of Flying 'G' Ranch for Girl Scouts—Mile Hi Council. She has worked at resident camps, day camps, and outdoor education centers for the past twelve years.

Originally published in the 2006 September/October issue of Camping Magazine.