Translating Passion for Growth into Camp Leadership Skills

Aaron Selkow
November 2017
staff/camper swinging

For 24 years, I have been a camp professional. Most of that time, I have led nonprofit camps that serve the Jewish community. For less than three years in between two camp directing positions, my job shifted to a more global role with the North American Jewish community, but I kept my hands in the camp world. I have in some way — whether directly or indirectly — impacted the experiences of more than 300,000 campers and staff members during the 24 summers that I have been a camp or camping movement leader. I’ve learned from legends and innovators, have been exposed to exceptional training and professional development, and consider myself to be fortunate for the assistance and investment others have made in my career. As I look back at this first stretch of my life as a camp person and assess the skills that I have seen grow and become refined, here are what I think qualify as my strengths that may be at an objectively expert level:

  • I can make excellent forms.
  • I can talk for a very long time.
  • I can get people to do things they don’t want to do and make them believe that they did want to do them.
  • I can spin a basketball on my finger.

Camp directors tend to think their profession is unique. We’re not like traditional educators because we run immersive and extremely intensive programs. We’re not like typical business owners because we act in loco parentis and hold the lives of children in our hands. We’re not like cruise ship captains because . . . well, maybe we are like cruise ship captains. While our peers may do other interesting things, we tend to feel that camp is a specialized field that requires distinct expertise and that others may not understand what it takes to succeed. It might be true that the nuances need a bit of explaining at cocktail parties, but I believe the essence of how we thrive in our field may not be as dissimilar as it appears, if we look through the lens of skill acquisition. In a way, we are just like anyone else working day after day in a position that tests their ability to learn and develop skills. Skills are the tools that we use to do our jobs.

And camp leadership does test and expand your skill set. I have learned how to clean the inside of a 100,000-gallon underground reservoir, how to replace a large-amp breaker, how to snake a wastewater line, how to repair a pitched roof, how to stop water from flooding a building (and how to clean up after you’ve failed), how to pour concrete, and how to pull a submersible well pump that’s 300 feet below ground. I have learned enough Hebrew to order rugelach at the shuk (open air market in Israel), enough about architecture to help design a building, enough chords to play guitar in front of indiscriminating crowds, enough HTML to build (and occasionally crash) a website, enough about how to operate deep fryers, convection ovens, and commercial dishwashers to work the line, enough about medicine to know the difference between Coxsackie and Hand-Foot-and-Mouth (same thing, actually), and enough about copier machines to solve almost every jam I’ve caused.

Ask me to set up an auto attendant in your phone system, an auto reply in your email, a burial or marriage ceremony, a system for tracking attendance and retention, a table for a promotional event, or a process for determining and distributing scholarship funds, and you will get results. But are these skills? Are these legitimate talents that I possess, or simply a result of the panoply of experiences that a camp director may have while trying to navigate the unpredictable and varied crises they face over their career? These abilities may exemplify the master-of-none mystique that camp directing emits; a job where you might need to wear a suit and tie on the same day as a pair of flip-flops and consider that a normal routine.

Reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers began my quest to better understand how I might turn these tidbits of knowledge into real skills. I completed the book still considering which proficiencies I should prioritize to become an expert in. Gladwell’s 10,000 Hours Rule, which states that this many hours of “deliberate practice” are needed to become world-class in any field, felt overwhelming (Gladwell, 2008).

When Princeton University released its own study in 2014 that debunked the deliberate practice quotient put forth by Gladwell, I was momentarily excited. Surely, they had realized that exceptional skill could be reached in far less time. But instead, the researchers presented data to show that 10,000 hours of practice was not nearly enough. Their meta-analysis of 88 studies related to deliberate practice showed that in some domains, the time and effort put into practice might account for only a 12-percent difference in performance (Macnamara, Hambrick, & Oswald, 2014). In less stable fields — and camping would have to be considered one due to the changes in rules, context, and audience — mastery relies less on what one can predictably prepare for and more so on other variables. Hopelessness gave way to hope when I started to think about the difference between virtuoso (which Gladwell uses as a standard of excellence) and winner. I can accept that I may not appear in the annals of camping history as an all-time great, but is the reputation as a successful professional a reasonable goal?

My career in camp has had a natural separation between my first 14 years at Pinemere Camp and my last seven at URJ Camp Harlam, with the few years in between spent at JCC Association of North America. In the first stage, I was pretty sure I knew what I was doing but I did not. In my latter camp stint, I knew that I didn’t know enough and was determined to try to figure it out. It’s a typical developmental arc, but with advantages that some in our field may not have had. As a 24-year-old, I was hired with almost no credible experience to be the second full-time management professional in the camp’s history, working for a veteran who would eventually retire after 42 years of leadership. I was very lucky. Luck might need to be added to my list of expert-level skills. I have had a lot of it, more than my share.

Being my own boss at the ripe old age of 29 was a generous gift for someone who participated in more soccer and basketball games in college than classes. I answered to a board of directors who tolerated my impudence and overconfidence while teaching me how to tear up resignation letters. They stuck with me more than I may have deserved at first, but I stabilized and had the chance to benefit from overseeing something with a lot of moving parts. I started to tinker with skills like communication, strategic planning, assessment, supervision, Jewish education, brand development, risk management, and even a little bit of fund-raising. Tinkering meant more trying than succeeding, but with exceptional colleagues and role models willing to share their talents and ideas with me, I reached a point where the axis of my lack of skills intersected with the axis of my desire to enhance them. I contacted my board’s president and told him I was going to leave in nine months. I had settled into a groove, and I had no other job prospects. This was a risky move, but I left to see if I could grow away from the protective canopy that had provided me shelter for a long time.

In the last few years at my first camp job, my eyes were opened to many skills that I thought I could acquire with time and effort. And I started to connect the myriad and diverse moments that comprised an average day at camp to the skills that might be related to them. As I visited camps and their leaders to learn from and support them, I began to see that with effort and passion for growth one could improve and expand skills. I continued to test theories and practice; I continued reading and listening. I started to see correlations between camp professionals and other occupations. Relative similarities were clear between what camp leaders were doing and those running cities, those leading large and small businesses, those heading religious organizations, and those working as teachers, lawyers, farmers, engineers, janitors, nurses, detectives, and cult leaders. While nothing was the same, the skills that many others needed to succeed in their vocational areas were often valuable in our own.

Josh Kaufman, author of The Personal MBA, drew me in when he suggested and explicitly detailed the means of gaining skills required for earning one’s Master of Business Administration degree without ever matriculating. With an outline of 226 business concepts to learn, I realized that I didn’t want to spend $200,000 on an MBA, and I also didn’t want to memorize 226 ideas (Kaufman, 2010). But when his next book, The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything . . . Fast, came out, there was more resonance and applicability. Kaufman was not suggesting that 20 hours of intentional and thoughtful investment would lead one to become an expert, but instead, he provided a plan for acquiring a skill. Or at least the preliminary development of a skill. It took me some time to find the right skill to test, but I’m proud to share that my understanding and expertise around the National Council for Behavioral Health’s “Mental Health First Aid for Youth” curriculum and other issues related to our country’s mental health crisis have evolved significantly through this method. As Kaufman suggests, I defined my target performance level, deconstructed the skill, eliminated barriers to practice, and created fast feedback loops (Kaufman, 2013). I feel good about this, and I want more.

As a camp professional — especially in the years since I’ve landed back in the field — I can see how my openness to the advancement and acquisition of skills has contributed to my relative success and my feelings of professional self-worth. In her book, Mindset, Carol Dweck describes how in a growth mindset “people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work — brains and talent are just the starting point” (Dweck, 2007). In our work at camp, there’s no lack of opportunity for the accumulation of experience. Wake up in the morning, start to engage at camp, and the experiences will come to you. You will be faced with predictable and unpredictable moments, and your mindset and approach to these will be the determining factor between success and failure, and between episodic challenges and gradual growth. I wish I could go back in time and change my attitude in certain situations so that I might gain the few minutes or hours of deliberate practice while also using other methods to make the experience a skill-building one. Accumulating an assortment of non-sequitur experiences can become valuable to a camp director if their goal is to have great stories to tell. But if we’re looking to make a difference, reach our potential, affect change, and grow as professionals, we need to treat the assortment of serious and silly things we confront as opportunities to expand that tool belt.

I am a good T-shirt designer. I can create a decent Excel spreadsheet. I can break Color War. I can stand in front of a large group of people and speak passionately without a net. Need a document formatted and branded, call me. I can drive a 26-foot box truck, a golf cart, a nail in one shot, and a parent who is not getting the answer they want to the point of frustration. I’ve been certified to belay and rescue on a high challenge course, I have refereed seven sports, and I can hang a mounted camp photo on the wall without the need for a ruler or level. I’ve repaired a window screen and a meaningful relationship, and I do know how to properly stern a canoe. All of this was learned at camp, and these skills have value in our distinctive environment. And I can get better at all of them.

Except for the luck. I’m already the luckiest I can be.

More Information on Leadership

For more wisdom on leadership, check out these additional resources:

  • “The Business of Leadership: An Interview with Adam Bryant” (Camping Magazine, January 2017)
  • “Camp Leadership for the 21st Century,” by Bob Ditter (Camping Magazine, January 2016)
  • “Revolutionary Leadership,” by Sara Slevcove Kuljis (Camping Magazine, November 2016)
  • “Developing Excellence in Camp Leadership,” by Michael Shelton (Camping Magazine, March 2006)

References

Dweck, C.S. (2007). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Penguin Random House.

Gladwell, M. (2008). Outliers: The story of success. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.

Kaufman, J. (2013). The first 20 hours: How to learn anything . . . fast. New York, NY: Portfolio/Penguin.

Kaufman, J. (2010). The personal MBA: Master the art of business. New York, NY: Portfolio/Penguin.

Macnamara, B.N., Hambrick, D.Z., & Oswald, F.L. (2014). Deliberate practice and performance in music, games, sports, education, and professions: A meta-analysis. Princeton University. Retrieved from scottbarrykaufman.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/Macnamara-et-al.-2014.pdf


Aaron Selkow works for the Union for Reform Judaism as the executive director of Camp Harlam, and resides in Philadelphia with his family. His wife, Ann, has been the business manager for Pinemere Camp for 17 years, and his daughter, Lily, has spent all her summers at Pinemere (with two summers at both Pinemere and Harlam thrown in for good measure). Their unique experience as a hybrid camp family will be the subject of a future article.

Photo courtesy of Camp Arrowwood, Wears Valley, Tennessee.