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What Graduate Students Can Learn from Adventure Athletes
April 10, 2014 - 9:14pm

Photo of underwater scubadivingNatascha Chtena is a PhD student in Education and Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. You can follow her on Twitter @nataschachtena.

You may think there is nothing to learn from people who jump off cliffs or race down dangerous whitewater rivers. I know I did, and for a long time. But my own involvement in deep diving along with a research project examining the relationship between adventure sports and experiential learning, got me thinking about the life wisdom that can be found in the daily pursuits of adventure athletes. While a lot has been written about the lessons extreme sport athletes (and athletes in general) can teach business managers, entrepreneurs, and CEOs, no attention has been paid to the lessons that we graduate students can extract from the lives of those dedicated to adventure and, many would say, extremity.

Risk taking, ingenuity ,and even creativity, however important, are not the point here. In fact, our fixation with those aspects of adventure sports has traditionally overshadowed the deeply meditative character of adventure and the unbelievable amount of planning and preparation that goes into activities like wirewalking. Below are some of the key lessons adventure taught me and that can benefit you:

1. Compete against yourself - not others. Grad school can often feel like an endless competition. Competition for the better advisor, the larger funding package, the more prestigious fellowship, and the fancier resume. By nature, when the word competition is heard we see others and tend to look outward to win. But being so focused on having to be better than others can be exhausting, not to mention that it constantly leaves us coming up short. In order to climb up glaciers or descend to 300 feet underwater with no fins, on the other hand, you have to let go of the outside completely. For a chance to succeed you have to accept that it really doesn’t matter what anyone else is doing with their “block of stone.” And that your gain does not have to come from someone else’s loss.

2. Stop to smell the roses. Adventure sports are all about living life in the moment and to the fullest. Most grad students I know live completely divorced from the “now.” Encouraged by faculty, colleagues, and grad school friends, they invest all their energies into the day they will file their thesis or land that tenure track job. Beyond that, there's always a deadline looming, an exam, a conference submission, or a grant proposal that’s keeping them obsessed. I can’t blame them; a lot of the time I’m one of them. But if adventure taught me one thing, it’s that “stop to smell the roses” is a cliché for a reasonYou stop and are reminded instantly that a smell this delectable is possible. As a mountaineer once told me: “You haven’t really climbed Everest, if you haven’t paused to gaze at that Milky Way.”

3. Remember to practice gratitude. Every time I dive, I’m overcome with gratitude. Gratitude for my parents that initiated me to “the life on water”; for the time I get to spend around marine life; for my job that enables me to take trips out to the sea; and for living in a place (SoCal) where access to the water is so easy. Outdoor adventure sports expose you to the wonders of nature in ways that repeatedly leave you humbled and in awe. But once you leave this world behind, it’s easy to get dragged down by the tedious and stressful everyday. Rejections and criticism are as essential to the PhD experience as is yeast to bread baking, and the constant uncertainty and anxiety make it hard to focus on the roses (see above) around. I really loved the person I was immediately after a dive and wanted to infuse my daily life with that humbleness and positive outlook. So now, every few days I take a few moments to list all the things in my graduate life and career I’m grateful for. And so far, it’s working.

4. Know when it’s time to walk away. In many adventure sports listening to your instincts can make the difference between life and death. No matter how many days you've been preparing and what effort it took to hike up there, if you don't feel comfortable about the angle of a cliff, you don't jump. During a dive, if you're experiencing difficulty breathing or ongoing lightheadedness, you end the dive even if you're staring at the most beautiful coral wall ever. But grad students - myself included - are terrible at walking away. We're too protective of the time invested in the hike and too excited about the coral wall to let go. And often, we're also too arrogant - or too guilty - to recognize that we’re about to crash. The detrimental effects of our unwillingness to take a break are well-documented; but while university culture is certainly at fault for swiping our breakdowns under the carpet, if we ourselves don't start taking our health seriously, nobody will.

Deep diving has left me a more balanced, self-aware, and grateful person. But it has also helped me tremendously to cope with the overwhelming pressures of grad school. Whether adventure sports are your things or not, there's valuable insights to be gained from a life "on the edge."

Are you involved in any kind of adventure sports? What have you learned that has helped you better cope with your PhD?

[Image by Flickr user Malcolm Browne used under creative commons licensing.]

 

 

 

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