What’s Everest Base Camp got to do with work…?

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Simon Bird

simon bird

(Originally published on LinkedIn – June 2017)

I couldn’t see the immediate connection either.  Let me set the scene – I’ve just arrived back at work after a 3 month sabbatical. I say ‘sabbatical’ – but it’s been pointed out to me that in fact I just went on a long holiday. Which is true. On my own. And for the last 3 weeks of this incredible 3 months, I joined a trek in Kathmandu to Everest Base Camp.  I’m pretty fit, but the terrain around Shepherd’s Bush in London doesn’t exactly lend itself to training for altitude and the Himalayas but I figured that as I was joining an organised group, it was in their interests to keep me alive and so long as I did what they told me to do, it would probably be OK.

And so it was. I met 12 complete strangers at Kathmandu airport. We were obviously sizing each other up. I realised very quickly I was at the amateur end of the group…for one, I didn’t have nearly enough North Face clothing, anti-bacterial gel – or Haribo sweets. As the days went on, my head torch provided the group entertainment for the day due to its paltry power, and my reindeer Christmas bobble hat drew some looks as well.  But we all seemed to get on pretty well – and I was fortunate to end up sharing a room each night with the other guy joining me at the ‘enthusiastic amateur’ end of the spectrum.

As the days passed, and we ate every combination of potato and fried rice it was possible to concoct, I realised I was taking part in my own social psychology experiment. Those things I talk to my clients and colleagues about were playing out right here, and I was in the middle of it.

First of all – the importance of a team having shared purpose. Fundamentally we liked each other, we really did. But there was no doubt, that after reaching Base Camp, and the five days of return walking beckoned, our shared goal had gone. We still liked each other, but people could sense the finish line in Kathmandu. Without the shared goal, minor fractures emerged, irritability surfaced and alliances formed.

Secondly – what was happening to me? I’d always thought of myself as an extrovert – in Myers Briggs terms.  Someone who gets their energy from other people and the environment. Turns out, it’s not quite that straightforward. I realised I really wanted to be away from people quite a bit at different times – and this surprised me. I still enjoyed being with them, but I realised when I was with them, it was quite expensive in terms of energy which I then topped up on my own later.

And finally – group dynamics and the use of power are totally fascinating. How groups form, the strategies and personas that people adopt both consciously and unconsciously have always intrigued me, and now here I was in the middle of my own Big Brother situation.

So Everest Base Camp turned out to have had quite a lot to do with work for me.  I’ve never really believed you can separate ‘work’ from ‘life’ into neat boxes, and this really was a case in point. I’ve often worked with people who are successful in some areas of their life, but fail to transfer their same skills and understanding to another because of the way they frame the world – because that’s ‘home’ and that’s ‘work’.    My position now is that by understanding what was happening around me and within me – gained through my ‘work’, I was able to develop some perspective and insights into myself which have surprised me on occasion and enabled me to get even more out of my ‘life’.

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