NOLS graduate, parent, and life coach Shelli Johnson talks with us about growth and lessons learned from her Brooks Range Backpacking - Prime course.
When did you first learn about NOLS?
I was raised in Lander, Wyoming, where NOLS is headquartered. Growing up, my friends and I, who were more into volleyball, basketball and track than outdoor adventure, used to joke about the “granolas” who would visit Lander in their wool socks and hiking boots and smell of 30-day-old sweat.
I recall that my dad asked me one time if I’d ever be interested in taking a NOLS course. I said “Thanks, but no thanks.” In hindsight, I really appreciate that he offered me the opportunity, even if I did turn it down. Not long after leaving Lander for college in Missoula, Montana, I fell in love with the outdoors, which have been a big part of my life for the last 25 years.
Fortunately, I did come to my senses and in 2011, I embarked on a NOLS course in the Brooks Range of Alaska.
Why did you choose to take a NOLS course, particularly as a busy working adult and parent?
In 2008, my husband and I sold the company that we started in 1994, and I had an opportunity to reinvent myself. I had only one regret, and that was that I had never taken a NOLS course. I often meet NOLS graduates when I travel for work, and they are always leaders in their lives and work. I don’t think this is an accident. So I wanted to get rid of my regret, and I wanted to see for myself what all the fuss about NOLS was.
While identifying a NOLS course as a goal, committing to it was an entirely different matter. As a mother of three young sons, and an entrepreneur starting a new business, it took some self reflection, and encouragement from others, for me to enroll.
What surprised you during your course?
One of the biggest, most pleasant surprises was how close I became with my coursemates.
I actually wonder, if we all lived in my small town of Lander, if our paths would even cross. Yet by the time we climbed our last mountain together, and had lived together in the wilderness for 14 days, they had all made it into my inner circle. That’s saying a lot. (Recently, I was asked to be the officiant for a coursemate’s wedding.) When I returned from my NOLS course, I was a better person, and my coursemates are largely responsible for that.
This surprise helped me remember that in life and work, we don’t always get to choose our colleagues or bosses. Most of the employees and leaders I work with, present to or train, didn’t pick each other, and in some cases they might not even like each other that much. During my course, I learned to have compassion for one another – and that nothing transforms a group of people into a team as well as embarking on a difficult challenge together.
Did you make any conscious changes when you returned home based on what you learned from your course?
For starters, the concept of expedition behavior. Our family of five is like a well-oiled machine in the mornings. It’s very much due to an EB mentality. We all chip in to get the things done in order to get out the door on time.
Active followership is something I got a lot out of on my NOLS course, and I take on that leadership role more often than I did before my NOLS course. I like to lead, and yet now, if I lack competence or confidence, I’m more willing to not lead.
For example, I was right at home leading and choosing routes over the mountain passes in Alaska, but when it came to hiking in and through the rivers, I was a better leader by being an active follower. I find myself choosing to lead via followership in various roles at home and in my work, and that has been liberating.
I also love that on a NOLS course, as soon as something significant happens, we debrief it, while it’s still fresh in our minds. I find myself promoting debriefs often with my family and friends, and with my clients, as a way to confer, and brainstorm and problem solve in real-time, when the opportunity for learning is so ripe.
What was the hardest part about the taking the course?
Being away from my husband and three young sons, without any communication with them. As I contemplated enrolling on the course, I kept asking myself, “What if they need me and I’m not there?”
This question ultimately provided a good reason for me to go. I told myself, and I came to believe it, that the boys would grow more independent if they had to solve problems on their own, and that I might grow, too, as a result.
As I lay awake in my tent while my coursemates slept, I felt very, very far away from Jerry and the boys. So that was hard, and it made me feel tender in ways I hadn’t experienced before. To this day, as a mother in particular, that experience feels instructive in some way. Ultimately, though, I returned inspired and with more self awareness, which I’m pretty sure translated into being a better wife and mother.
Interestingly, one of my main programs is called Epic Women, and the women I recruit for this program often struggle with the same challenge that I had to confront when considering taking my NOLS course. A woman who is a mother and a wife might feel like it is selfish to sign up for an expedition. I appreciate that feeling because I know it. But I also know how it has benefitted me to sign up for things that challenge and grow me. I mean, it’s not like I was signing up for a beach vacation, and certainly what I’m selling at Epic Life is anything but a vacation.
So the answer is, yes, it is hard to be away from loved ones, AND I highly recommend it once in a while. I learned a few tricks in the Brooks Range that I often share with mothers who sign up for my programs. I wrote out some cards before leaving for Alaska and tucked things in them, like ice cream gift certificates and pizza gift cards, and had a neighbor put one in the mail each day so the boys would hear from me even when I was far away and “off the radar.” During the trip, I captured photos with an “I love you” note in them to give to them later. In my experience, these things do help, and they’re meaningful.