Camp the Key to Success in Life?

By October 26, 2016 BYM, Firecircle, General

Sarah Williamson (Annapolis)

While I volunteer my time with the Camping Program Committee, and in the recent past worked in the Catoctin kitchen, my paid gig is running a small business in a natural sciences field. One of my biggest challenges as a business owner is finding and keeping excellent employees. Recently I have been thinking a lot about the qualities that make a desirable and highly functioning employee. There is no doubt that education and past work experience are very important for developing the technical background and skills needed in my field. But with each new employee I have hired over the last 15 years, it has become clearer that those skills or experiences that lend themselves to listing on a resume are only half, or often even far less, of the equation in understanding who is most likely to become highly successful. Time and time again, it is an employee’s “soft skills” rather than their technical skills that dictate their success in the workplace. Often called “emotional intelligence”, these skills or qualities include, self-awareness; self-regulation; internal motivation towards improvement; empathy; and social skills in managing relationships.

What, you may ask, do the qualities of an excellent employee in the workplace have to do with the BYM camping program? In my opinion, quite a bit.
While emotional intelligence is widely recognized as a primary key to professional success, it is also the most difficult set of skills to teach in a professional setting. Even with careful mentoring, I am not always successful in building these skills in employees that did not enter adulthood with them. But looking back at my own experience as a BYM camper and then counselor and watching my own and other kids growing up in the program I have realized that these highly desirable and somewhat elusive life-skills are taught and internalized as part of daily life at BYM camps. I think I now understand what my father meant when a colleague of his spent some time with my brother and I and later asked him “how did you raise such conscientious and responsible children?” and he replied, “I sent them to camp”.

Living in the close quarters of a cabin with new people requires campers to become aware of their own behavior and their impact on others. Self-awareness is built inadvertently through interaction with peers, as well as more explicitly through loving feedback from counselors and staff when a camper’s behavior is positively or negatively affecting the community. It is also often easier for campers to see and accept their own and others’ strengths and weaknesses without judgement in the loving camp community. Campers learn that their cabin-mate, who struggles to complete the hike and frustratingly slows the group down, is also the one who composes the awesome hiking song that defines the trip or is the best at comforting a homesick friend. They learn that their differences are what builds a stronger team.

Camp builds self-regulation and impulse control. What camper hasn’t wanted to skip out on chores, or pick the M&M’s out of the gorp. But even the most diligent young chores-ditcher has usually learned by their last years at camp that rest period or evening activity will come quicker for everyone if they stay and pitch in. Some learn this easily, while for others it takes years of feedback from peers and censoring by counselors before they become conscientious members of the community. But few leave without learning these lessons.

One of the most compelling things I learned as a camper was that uncomfortable did not equal impossible, and that I was capable of far more than I thought if I was willing to keep going through the uncomfortable. Hiking trips at camp are some of my first memories of successful perseverance over adversity. Overcoming the physical challenges of hiking and rock climbing allowed me to believe I could push myself through other difficult challenges outside of camp like social upheaval or academic failures. Camp builds the internal motivation for improvement, resilience, and commitment to accomplishment by setting campers up to complete difficult but achievable tasks in a supportive community. One only needs to hear the stories around the campfire to witness campers internalizing this critical life lesson, and most incredibly, the greater the adversity the more their voices light up the night with the glow of their accomplishments.

Campers successfully building empathy and social skills is also on regular display at the post-trip campfires. Hero stories abound with grateful tales from campers whose empathetic unit-mate sang them up that difficult hill, or let them share a dry sleeping bag when theirs was wet. Stories of developing leaders volunteering to help get water when they arrive at the campsite despite being tired themselves, or campers practicing conflict resolution skills among their peers to diffuse arguments. The stories demonstrate how the trips give campers the opportunity to practice empathy, leadership, and interpersonal conflict management when they are out of their comfort zone, but also encourage these behaviors by retelling and celebrating them in front of the whole camp community.

For those of us who grew up at camp, we may not even realize many of the critical life skills we learned. Our campers may just know they “love camp”, and as parents we might only register how happy and fulfilled our child appears when they come home from camp. But as an employer I now recognize that every summer at camp is a crash course in the emotional intelligence skills that are so important to future success in so many aspects of life. BYM campers often leave the program with an inherent understanding of how to work as a team, how to take initiative, how to empathize with others, how to overcome adversity, how to guide and inspire others, and how to identify and appreciate the strengths and weaknesses of ourselves and others without judgement. And you thought camp was just about having fun!!