by Katy Sherman

Director of Software Engineering, Premier Inc.

Have you ever wondered about your CEO’s hobby? Ask him or her next time you meet. Don’t be shy and ask executives in your organization what they like to do in their free time. Don’t be surprised if you hear about sailing, dog sledding, mountaineering and rock climbing, marathon running, hiking and paddling. Seems weird, doesn’t it? We probably imagine CEOs always in meetings or at their desks, studying reports, thinking about strategy and making difficult decisions. How do extreme sports and outdoors activities fit into this picture?

I pondered this question until last year I joined a local hiking and backpacking group. A year of hiking, hundreds of miles in the woods and about 40 nights under the stars taught me the most important lesson of all: to find a solution to a problem you need to disconnect from the problem. And the best way to relax your mind, reflect and meditate is through physical activity, preferably far from the civilization, traffic and cell reception.

Here’s the list of seven things about being outdoors that changed my life.

  1. Motion and outdoors unlock creativity and innovation. My first backpacking trip took me to the high ridges of the Smoky mountains along the border of Tennessee and North Carolina. One day I was hiking alone on a long stretch of the Appalachian Trail, thinking about two things that bothered me for months. I was alone on the trail, high on the ridge, with a 30 pound pack on my back. Usually thinking about the two problems had felt like circling the drain or having a black hole in my chest, so I tried to get them out of my mind and simply put one foot in front of the other, breathe in and out, be a part of a beautiful fall day. Then suddenly it hit me. In one moment, I knew the answer to both of my issues, it just came to me out of the blue… Later I had more moments like this, always in the woods, hiking alone, not really thinking about anything in particular. A few ideas that I had on the trail changed my life, pivoted my career and gave me a new purpose. Nothing like that ever happened at my desk, in front of the computer or a TV screen.
  2. Trying new things. Being outdoors teaches you not to be afraid of the unknown. You kind of get addicted to unknown – new places, new trails, new gear, new activities. It’s hard to count all things that I did this year for the first time in my life: camped on a beach, built a fire, paddled in a kayak on a river in high water, used a pit toilet. I went to several national parks and countless state parks and nature preserves, and witnessed beauty that made my heart melt. During the same period of time I also initiated ambitious projects, got a new job and started learning Spanish.
  3. Taking risks. There’s blind fear of the unknown and there’s risk analysis. The first time I had to climb a boulder I was terrified. I didn’t trust my body to push itself up the slick surface, didn’t know how to stick my foot in a crevice or pull myself up with my hands and arms. What if I fall? How dangerous is the drop?… The woods are full of terrors. Bears, snakes, yellow jackets. Slippery rocks, rushing rivers, cold rain and harsh sun, water sources contaminated with bacteria, screeching sounds in the dark. Eventually you learn to curb your fears, understand the risks and prepare for emergencies. Hikers say: there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad gear. So you have the right gear, you learn about your local flora and fauna, you watch out for snakes and bears, and then when you see them, it is something you brag about to your hiking friends. Being in the woods taught me to be careful but also enjoy the adrenaline rush. At work I ask myself “what is the worst that can happen to this project?”, and then do whatever it takes to prevent the worst case scenario from happening, while still pushing forward to a goal.
  4. Achieving goals. Reaching the top, finishing that 12 mile loop in the dark in cold rain, bushwhacking to that waterfall, doing something you would never imagine you could do. The experience of accomplishing something that seemed impossible, is priceless. It makes you confident, helps to believe in yourself and trust your instincts.
  5. Solitude. Outdoors can be a place to be quiet and alone, thinking your thoughts or not thinking at all. Sometimes I get into a zone similar to meditation in which I allow my mind to wander while still staying in the moment and being alert to sounds, smells and views. “Hike your own hike” is a motto of the utmost freedom and independence. Being on your own, even for a couple of hours during the day, allows to get back to who you really are and know what you really want, find out what your own “hike” looks like.
  6. Meeting new people. But outdoors is also where you can meet all sorts of people. Friends and passerby, hikers and tourists. You share stories, food and camp fire warmth. You tell your life story and learn about others. You let people help you, teach you and be your mentors, and then in turn, you do it to others. Hiking taught me humility, infinite respect to other people, their lives, their challenges and their strengths, as well as patience and acceptance of their weaknesses and flaws. I am inspired by people I met on the trail, especially some badass women who became my mentors and my personal heroes.
  7. Putting things in perspective. The world is huge. Being on the trail and moving with the walking speed of 2 miles per hour brings us closer to our real place in the world. We are much smaller then some things like trees or mountains, but also bigger and stronger then most of the living creatures. Seeing the immense infinite beauty from up close puts our problems, emotions, struggles, ambitions, dreams and plans into the right perspective too. They don’t disappear or become insignificant, but you get a more accurate sense of their importance by comparing to other people or other problems.

I am not a CEO, but being outside has empowered me, helped me focus, make important decisions and come up with creative ideas. I am stronger, and I have much fewer fears. I am confident in myself and know that I can do anything, and anything is possible.

So I think now I understand why a CEO would get into sailing. It’s not about spending a ton of money on expensive fancy sailboats. It’s about risk and adrenaline, challenge and achievement, planning and learning. It’s about strength and empowerment, tranquility and relaxation, beauty, and wonder, and awe.