Lessons from the Trail, Minus Phones

The long game

For four years now, I’ve volunteered with Explore Austin. It’s a really cool organization; teachers nominate high potential students from low income communities as mentees the summer before their seventh grade year, and then we meet one Saturday every month until they graduate high school. 

We use the outdoors (rock climbing, mountaineering, canoeing, etc) as a way to emphasize character and leadership development, with the ultimate goal of transforming their lives for the better. Every summer, all the young men & their mentors go for a weeklong outdoor adventure. It gets them out of their comfort zone; it gets all of us away from our phones and routines; it’s a bonding experience like no other. 

It’s also a big commitment. When I made it, I was a recent business school graduate, renting an apartment. I had just gotten married; we didn’t have kids yet. My only dependent was a cat named George.

Today, I have significantly more responsibility here at Far West Capital. I have two young daughters, with a third child due in just a month. George now resides with my single little brother, 150 miles away.

So yeah, the time investment feels heavier now – and impacts more than just me. My wife, bless her, loves these kids too – and we hire them to do yard work, have them over for meals, et cetera. But it’s safe to say that I went into the weeklong trip a little distracted, and not entirely ready to leave my family, my phone, and my work behind. 

(I’m lucky that I have an amazing wife in Kate, and great coworkers who picked up my slack without even a blink. Cole, Don, Lee, Karol, Kat, Kara and Allie all did incredible work while I was on a bike in Colorado. The impact on these young men is Kate’s and theirs too, as much as mine.)

The trip

We left early on a Sunday morning in late June. The trip would be 6 days – with 4 days of biking 65 miles in total, at altitude – and we were all a bit nervous, for our own reasons. Whether it was the upcoming physical challenge, or the time away from family, or the slowly disappearing cell service, there were lots of things weighing on us. 

I’m supposed to be the mentor; but every year, I learn as much or more on this trip. This year, the lessons came fast and furious as we set off on our high-altitude bike ride.

You can only give your best – and that’s worth respect

Sure, it’s cliché – but always doing your best (one of the four agreements) each day is a big deal. One of my Explorers struggled out of the gate. He wasn’t adjusted to the altitude, wasn’t as physically gifted as some of the other kids. I think he puked five times on day 1’s 10 mile ride. But this kid was stubborn. He puked, he got back up on the bike, he stuck with it. The rest of us couldn’t complain – not in the face of that kind of determination. 

We went old-school, using disposable film cameras instead of our phones to capture the incredible scene around us. 

Make time to reflect

On the afternoon of day 5, after mile 65, we arrived at the foot of Collegiate Peaks, outside of Buena Vista, CO – and the celebration began. A dance party broke out as we made camp in a beautiful spot. We all chilled out a bit, kicked back, and then we had everyone spend 2 hours in focused, reflective time. 

We gave the dudes specific questions to think about. What do they want the next year to look like? What new stresses are they experiencing now as high schoolers – family, money, sex, drugs? 

After 2 hours of quiet thinking there at the base of the mountain, we huddled up around the fire and talked about dreams, stresses, backup plans. For one kid, his dream was to work for NASA as an engineer. For another, the NFL – but his backup plan was to be a residential architect. 

All of these young men would be the first in their family to go to college. Some of their parents hadn’t finished high school. I won’t lie, I got a little choked up, watching these young men lay plans for big dreams, dreams they may not have even considered five years ago. It was powerful. 

I was also reflecting on my own year, my own stresses, my own goals. I don’t think we do that enough in the adult professional world. Business culture can be filled with adrenaline, the next deal, the next success, the next issue – and sometimes we don’t take the time to reflect. 

Every 8-10 months, I write my daughters a letter, reflecting on their development, their strengths, and my hopes and dreams for them. I’ll give them these letters when they turn 18; it’s a ritual I love doing every year, and I wrote some of that letter on this trip. But watching these young men confess their dreams gave me an extra push to pay attention to my own. I’ve dreamed big. But could I dream even bigger – for myself, for my daughters?

Think hard, play harder

I’m a father of two, almost three, and I push myself really hard at work – never mind home. And I’m guilty of letting work intrude on those precious home hours. It was an odd but relieving feeling to truly relax. We’d bike 18 miles, pushing ourselves hard in the altitude – and then jump in the cold river, an incredible feeling. Then we’d just… chill out from the late afternoon onward. I even read a book! We’d play card games; there were silly competitions for Skittles (two dudes consumed an entire jar of pickles in 2 minutes, winning a party-sized bag of Skittles!) 

Since the trip, I’ve made a concerted effort to leave work at work, and be fully present at home. If you’re like me, that boundary is constantly eroding, and it takes a reminder – like this trip – to remember the benefits of taking that personal time and allowing yourself to be fully in the moment. 

Unplug, already

Cole’s talked about it here before, but the importance of getting away from the daily calls & emails cannot be understated. I was prepared; auto-replies were set, backups identified. But I went one step further and intentionally disconnected from my email for 9 straight days. For three days, I had no cell service at all – and it was the highlight of the trip. 

It was a phenomenal gift to be offline. I journaled every morning. I worked on that letter for my daughters. And I spent a lot of time with my thoughts. I might have streamed an episode of Big Little Lies in my tent on our last night, but otherwise, I stayed away from my phone’s various entertainments.

Who are you at your best? 

I considered this a lot as we talked around the fire, that night in Buena Vista. We were talking about reputation, which became a theme. Who are you, at your best? What do you want to be known for? The young man who wants to be a NASA engineer liked being known as quiet – and reliable. Another young man was the glue – the connective tissue that kept a group together. 

I like the reputation I’ve developed in the past few years. Clients like working with me; colleagues respect my hustle. But reputation is more than the now. Reputation is also what you leave behind, your legacy. That’s what I’m still figuring out – and these young men helped inspire me to think long-term. 

David Philips is Far West Capital’s Senior Vice President in the Central Texas region. Know a great company in need of capital to grow and unleash its potential? Shoot us a note here, or give David a call. 


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