A big experiment in my workscape

The COVID-19 pandemic created conditions in which experimentation was a useful way to figure out how I might do things differently in my workscape. It is said that ‘Necessity is the mother of invention’.

In Jan 2021, I found myself contemplating a year ahead without clarity of what steps to take. In 2020 I had tried a lot of things within running my own business, with little success. I was tired. I wasn’t enjoying work. I wanted a break – but not a holiday – from what I ‘should’ be doing (if I followed the path set for my business in early 2020). With a strong desire to consider something – anything else – my work radar picked up an unusual opportunity. With very little consideration, I decided to leap into this, and treat it like an Experiment. A whopping big workscape experiment!

Thinking of this as an ‘experiment’ – rather than a career choice – gave me lots of leeway to learn, explore and not worry about ‘success’ or ‘achieving something’.

The Experiment

The question guiding my experiment was: What could I do workwise when I’m not sure what I want to do workwise? What if …? Yep – not a very specific question, but one very suited to my frame of mind and what I needed right now.

I decided to become an Activity Instructor on Children’s Adventure Camps for a few months (as an Employee). This is quite far removed from my normal work of running my own business; being a consultant/advisor to other organisations; making and delivering products including courses and cards; and participating in sharing knowledge through blogs and social media.

Why do this? I had some intentions – and specifically they were intentions, not goals. I’d hold onto these lightly, aware that they may or may not happen. They gave me a starting place to determine my own motivations, and turns out as equally importantly – an explanation for others who were perplexed by my choice.

My intentions were a combination of things that I might get from the experiment; as well as things about how I wanted to be/act during the experiment.

  • Restore myself by doing something very different. I love to learn and challenge myself, so doing it in a new setting could be the tonic I needed.
  • Discover what I didn’t know about a different sector and type of work. There’s at least potential to develop empathy for people-at-work whom I have been ignorant about.
  • Connect to a team of people and strengthen my team-mate sensibilities. I was tired of working alone and having to keep finding myself ‘playmates’ for different bits of work. It would be nice to be part of a crew that someone else had assembled.
  • I was going to make choices within this gig that were based on present desire, not future gain; and follow things that would bring joy. This meant I could put my ‘Strategic’ strength on hold, and be playful with this experience – just because!
  • I would give space for things to present themselves where hopefully I could contribute my strengths and experience. I would stop my natural inclination to make offers, which I did plenty of in 2020. For now, I’d do things differently.

The variables in my experiment, that were a big point of difference to my normal working life – were also opportunities for new knowledge and insights to be revealed. There were six main variables and it was this large number of variables that made this a really big experiment.

  • Industry/Context: Outdoor Education; School-camp culture; under Hospitality Award conditions
  • Value Exchange: Casual low wage; Stories to tell; New experiences
  • Task/Activity: Run children’s outdoor adventure activities in 90-min sessions; 4 x in a day
  • Tools: Outdoor Education equipment like Archery; Harnesses; Climbing/Belaying Equipment; Canoes; Hanging Ropes; Challenge Courses
  • Place: Rural location; Outdoor activity; No computers or office!
  • People: Peers who are young adults; Customers who are kids and parents/teachers on short-term camps

A serious consideration about doing this experiment was about whether I was a good fit for this work. The typical Activity Instructor is in their early 20s; single; and doing this as short-term overseas holiday work or as a stepping stone for future Outdoor Education work. They do this work with a supple physique; youthful energy; and limited work and life experience. They don’t expect to earn a lot in in this work, and typically haven’t experienced much earning power to date. In contrast to this, I am a mature woman in her early 50s; married; with lots of work and life experience; substantive earning power; and a less malleable physique. I am not who the Adventure Camps business expects to have, nor are generally setup to support and deploy. And that’s okay – I anticipated this going in, and this also contributed to the uncertain nature of the experiment.

 

As I write this (March 2021), the experiment is still underway. I’ve been through training, and have been doing the work with the organisation’s customers.

 

Learnings from the experiment

Even mid-experiment, there are some interesting learnings and reflections I can share.

On the job

  • Outdoor Ed feels like a foreign culture compared to Business/Corporate sector. And like being in a foreign country, there’s a significant adjustment to new language, concepts, artefacts and practices. This can trigger moments of unexpected vulnerability to deal with something you think you should be able to deal with but feels so ‘off’, or for which you suddenly feel very incompentent. And this can trigger a variety of emotions to tangle with.
  • While I knew and accepted I was severely decreasing my earning power (6:1), I didn’t anticipate what emotional baggage this might surface about my perceived ‘worth’. Something for me to do further personal work on.
  • There has been surprise and a great sense of achievement that I can keep up with peers, 30 years younger than me in physical tasks; and picking up relatively easily on some skills I haven’t used since I was a teen. I’ve been celebrating this proudly with my friends, and making sure there is some photographic record.
  • I’ve enjoyed learning technical aspects of Outdoor Ed tech – which is both a mental and muscle adjustment. Until 6 weeks ago, I had never picked up a bow nor fired an arrow. Now I’ve sufficient skill not to embarrass myself in front on 12 year-olds.
  • My life experience, transferable skills and meta-learning skills contribute significantly to my ability to keep up and be relevant. I didn’t anticipate just how much. Turns out driving for 35 years, is very helpful for navigating around eight other canoes on a lake in a confined space.
  • Millennials can make great team mates. They look at the world with different lens to me – and so it should be. It’s nice to see/hear what they are thinking firsthand. Some have sought out and valued what wisdom and experience of mine they might tap into. I’ve not experienced any noticeable ageist treatment from my peers – even when they discovered they had misjudged just how old I was. (They were out by 12-15 years.)
  • I’ve realised that when doing an activity that is new and ‘foreign’, there’s value in not thinking too much about it. Just go with it and see what might be possible. There can be pleasant surprises in what happens, when there are no expectations. Like being on the lake paddling a canoe for the first time, and doing so for three hours in windy conditions. #SmashedIt with only one bruise and minimally sore muscles.
  • It feels good not to wear make-up/jewellery to work. I wear a uniform, runners and lots of sunscreen. It’s a fair simpler exercise to get ready in the morning. I’m wondering how I can continue this if/when I return to more corporate-like work.
  • I’ve had to cut my fingernails very short, after a few ripped nails in handling equipment. Not a big deal in the grand scheme of things – but another thing to think about that I used to take for granted.
  • I’m loving not being on a computer/screen/internet; nor having to interact on social media. I’m sure my eyes are grateful. I know my mind feels a bit freer to contemplate the natural world around me and how I move through it. I’m also wondering how I might have more of this in future work I do.

Outside the job

  • Friends and family think I’m changing to a new career. “This new career is so you.” They don’t recognise this as a temporary thing, nor something that I might do just to experience something different. So I’m crafting some words to say to explain this when it comes up in conversation.
  • It turns out I’ve become a role-model for brave change with my peers. “I always knew you would have been a hit as a Boy Scout. It’s amazing what twists and turns life can take just because you can accept a challenge. You wonderful brave woman.”
  • There’s a significant transition between my work-day experience and my personal home-experience, given the ages of the people I deal with during the day. I find myself craving mature adult company and conversation a lot more.
  • I’m valuing having a good circle of friends in which I can process the negative emotions that arise from frustrations. It’s normal to have negative emotions – it’s necessary to have good means to process them quickly so they are less intense and don’t hang around.

I don’t expect that my learnings/reflections will speak to you directly. I offer them as a flavour of the kinds of things it is possible to learn and experience. And maybe that gives you some confidence to give experimentation a go.

 

To do a big experiment like what I’ve done here, isn’t for everybody. Each person, contemplating an experiment, should consider how much uncertainty and risk they are up for, what resources they have around to support themselves (e.g. time, energy, people, money) and what level of emotional tension they’re willing to tolerate.

I’ll leave you with some sage words I got from my best friend when she heard about my adventurous experiment:
“I have been thinking a bit recently about “seizing the day” and how sometimes our plans can mean we may miss dynamic and/or joyful happenings because we are so focused on the urgency of the future that we don’t see the possibilities of the moment in front of us. We can become caught in the intensity of things and dismiss joyful opportunities as frivolous distractions. In our need to be significant and to do important things we can forget to accept the offers of peaceful, fun, playful projects/moments.”

 

Author
Helen Palmer, Founder of Self unLimited, has been intentional about experimenting in her workscape over past decades, with small and big experiments. She does such things to learn what she doesn’t know. From her actions she can better understand the experience of experimentation and create advice that might help others brave enough to learn by experimenting.

 

Learn more about doing your own personal experiements with Self unLimited’s micro eLearning program: Workscape Experimentation. Available now, at your own place, at your own pace!

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