At a virtual American Camp Association event in 2022, Tracey Gaslin, executive director of the Alliance for Camp Health, asked a simple but consequently profound question when she said, “How much fun would life be if everything was easy?”
Indeed, we should consider adversity not as something to be avoided, but as something worth experiencing and overcoming, building valuable life skills in the process.
If you visit any library or bookstore, you can find hundreds of historical accounts of expeditions to every corner of the earth that hold great lessons for camps. Some of these adventures went off the rails almost from the very start. Others managed to overcome serious obstacles along the way. Only a precious few actually succeeded in their quest. But try as you might, you are unlikely to come across any expedition that didn’t experience some level of hardship and adversity along the way:
- Weather conditions
- Navigational errors
- Shortages of critical resources
- Crew rebellions
- Equipment failures
- Hostile environments
- Accidents and injuries
Even something as simple as the loss of a horse could and did have a dramatic effect on the outcome of an expedition. Just ask Truman Everts from the first expedition to Yellowstone, who wrote, “No food, no fire, no means to procure either, alone in an unexplored wilderness, one hundred and fifty miles from the nearest human abode, surrounded by wild beasts and famishing with hunger. This was no time for despondency” (Everts, 2021).
What all expeditions have in common is that eventually they experience adverse conditions that impact the successful completion of their quest. Arctic explorer John Franklin and his crew were severely compromised by poorly canned food supplies (Parry, 2002). Seafarer Ernest Shackleton’s ship the Endurance was crushed by shifting ice in the Antarctic. In Montana’s Mann Gulch, Wagner Dodge’s crew of smokejumpers suffered a stream of small, innocuous setbacks that by themselves seemed harmless but soon became a tragic chain of events.
I share these events not to suggest that all expeditions are flawed, but rather to suggest that the ability to confront adversity and to persevere despite adversity are worthy characteristics of any member of an expedition’s crew or summer camp team. Author Michael Smith suggested as much when he wrote about Tom Crean, a member of both Shackleton’s and Robert Scott’s Antarctic expeditions and the unsung hero of both because of his tenacity, perseverance, and positive attitude despite seemingly insurmountable hardships (Smith, 2011).
In the book Adversity Quotient: Turning Obstacles into Opportunities, author Paul Stoltz, PhD, suggests that the ability to turn obstacles into opportunities is the hallmark of the kind of people you want on any expedition (1999) — and at every camp. In many ways, the challenges and adversities experienced on such a journey make it memorable and unique. And what are the qualities deemed most valuable for these experiences?
When Shackleton advertised for crew members for his Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, he received more than five thousand applications, which he sorted into three drawers in his desk, labeled “Mad,” “Hopeless,” and “Possible.” From the drawer of possibilities, Shackleton carefully selected a unique collection of expedition members. According to the books written about him, and there have been many, Shackleton appreciated qualities in his expedition members including:
- Ability to learn from mistakes
- Ability to lead by example
- Ability to focus not on the present situation, but on the future yet to come
It was these qualities and perhaps many more that enabled Shackleton and his crew to endure what many consider one of the most difficult expeditions of all time.
Author Martin Dugard said, “When individuals are forced to work together in difficult scenarios, their best as well as their worst qualities come shining through” (2014). In his book The Explorers, Dugard suggests that there are seven unique traits common to explorers far and wide. These include, in ascending order:
Dugard goes on to suggest that successful explorers often possess physical and mental attributes that unsuccessful explorers lack.
Laurence Gonzales, author of Deep Survival — Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why, appears to agree, writing, “In reading about cases in which people survived seemingly impossible circumstances, I found an eerie uniformity. I distilled those observations down to a collection of behaviors and thought processes that survivors employ when in mortal danger” (2017).
Gonzales cites 12 attributes of survivors, including that they (2017):
- Perceive and believe
- Stay calm
- Think, analyze, and plan
- Take correct, decisive action
- Celebrate small successes along the way
- Demonstrate gratitude
- Maintain a playful spirit and use their minds in positive ways
- See beauty around them
- Believe they will succeed
- Do whatever is necessary
- Never give up
These same skills are invaluable for summer camp attendees and staff — and they continue to serve participants long after their experiences have ended. For these reasons and many more, it is appropriate, and perhaps even necessary, to set challenges before a group that will help them to develop resiliency, tenacity, fortitude, and perseverance. Such experiences make teams better, stronger, and provide them with a richer experience than those in which every task is easily conquered without struggle or effort.
Consider the following description of an expedition that experienced no adversity whatsoever: Bob and his crew went on an expedition. They were successful. The end.
Without some level of adversity on an expedition (or in a camp experience), there isn’t much to tell. To paraphrase the words of American abolitionist Frederick Douglass, if there is no struggle, there is no progress. Like expeditions, camp programs that fail to challenge participants are little more than pleasant experiences in the woods. Even psychologist Bruce Tuckman, during his creation of the stages of team development, realized that struggle (in the storming stage) is a natural and essential part of the group development process (Wikipedia, 2023).
Taking the calculated risks inherent in overcoming challenges in the safety of the summer camp environment can help your campers avoid greater risks down the line. So, don’t worry that your camp program may contain challenges and elements of adversity. It is precisely because of these things that your campers and staff will grow and learn one of the most valuable skills in life — perseverance.
Learning from Failure
“Character consists of what you do on the third and fourth tries.” — James A. Michener
It’s been said that it’s what you do after you fail that really counts. And until we fail, we truly don’t know the limits of our abilities.
By their nature, many camp activities are designed to challenge, inspire, and encourage groups to explore their ability to work and play together. Occasionally this means that some individuals and groups may meet the upper limits of their abilities. They may experience failure, but learning how to recover from failure is as important as learning how to deal with success. The ability to try multiple times and to keep trying is a valuable life skill. Had inventor Thomas Edison stopped the first time his incandescent light bulb concept failed, he (and we) might have remained in darkness.
It is common for a camp counselor or activity director to want their groups to succeed, but it can be even more valuable for them to help their group gain all they can from an experience when they fail.
Don’t be afraid of adversity. It is both inevitable and necessary. But do prepare for such possibilities. Teach your staff and campers how to successfully navigate and overcome adversity, and you will teach them how to survive in life.
Words of Wisdom about Adversity
- Nelson Mandela said, “Our deepest fear is not that we are weak. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.”
- Martin Dugard wrote, “As (many) explorers have learned (some the hard way), it is only by getting lost in the wilderness that we find out who we truly are.”
- T.S. Eliot wrote, “Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go.”
- Thomas A. Edison said, “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”
- Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “What lies before you and what lies behind you pales in comparison to what lies within you.”
- Benjamin Disraeli said, “There is no education like adversity.”
Note: This article is adapted from the author’s book, The Adventure Trail, cowritten by Shawn Moriarty and available from the American Camp Association bookstore (ACABookstore.org).
Teambuilding guru Jim Cain, PhD, is the author of 29 books filled with team and community building activities from around the world. For more information, visit teamworkandteamplay.com.
Dugard, M. (2014, June 3). The explorers: A story of fearless outcasts, blundering geniuses, and impossible success. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
Everts, T. C. (2021, November 11). Thirty-seven days of peril. Bristol, England: Read & Co.
Gonzales, L. (2017, January 10). Deep survival: Who lives, who dies, and why. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.
Parry, R. (2002, January 29). Trial by ice: The true story of murder and survival on the 1871 Polaris expedition. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.
Smith, M. (2011, April 8). Tom Crean: An illustrated life. Cork, Ireland: The Collins Press
Stoltz, P. G. (1999, May 25). Adversity quotient: Turning obstacles into opportunities. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Wikipedia. (2023). Frederick Douglass. wikipedia.org/wiki/Frederick_Douglass