Heather, my dog Cally, and I stood in the woods. We were 30 minutes into our first Orienteering event and still hadn’t found the first checkpoint. We made the faulty assumption that the trails would be well marked and that we could just follow the trail to the first checkpoint. Because of that assumption, we found ourselves staring at the event map, the compass, and a creek. It was obvious we were not on a trail – or anywhere near the checkpoint.
Apparently, the trails in this park had not been maintained. The stormy weather we had been having in the mid-Atlantic this summer resulted in significant tree-fall that had not been cleaned up. That, with the fall leaves, made it difficult to follow a trail. The woods were one endless swath of leaf cover, trees, logs, hills, and that creek.
Heather squinted at the map.
“I think we were supposed to be at this creek.” She pointed to a creek that was a bit further south from where we thought we were.
“If we are where I think we are, if we follow this creek, we should find checkpoint 2.”
The woods were easily navigated off-trail and it appeared that following the creek wouldn’t be that difficult. After another 23 minutes of tromping, we found Checkpoint 2.
Heather and I faced the following options:
1) Do we try to find Checkpoint 1 from where we were standing?
2) Do we go back to the start, find Checkpoint 1, then go to Checkpoint 2?
3) Do we ignore Checkpoint 1 and start at Checkpoint 2?
4) Do we ditch the endeavor altogether and go home?
We stood at the checkpoint and weighed the options.
Why are we doing this?
- Heather – To improve her navigation skills.
- Me – To spend time outside with friends and get some exercise.
- Cally – Just wanted to keep moving.
We had 2.5 more hours to finish the course.
We looked at the map.
“Let’s see how long it takes for us to get to Checkpoint 3. We can re-evaluate if it takes us another hour to find the next checkpoint.”
We both agreed that even if we were already disqualified – the expedition was a rousing success.
I was outside on a beautiful fall day with a good friend doing something the two of us had talked about doing since our Mt. Washington training 3 years prior.
Heather felt very good about how we navigated from being totally lost – and doing so without her needing to rely on her GPS.
Cally was happy to be outside in the woods sniffing all the things.
“Yeah – no matter what happens from here, this is a successful trip!” Heather punched Checkpoint 2.
We managed to complete the 10-Checkpoint course in 2 hours 13 minutes, with a missed punch.
We never did find Checkpoint 1.
Sometimes, change initiatives start on the wrong foot.
It’s easy to ditch the effort right out of the gate.
At times, abandoning the effort before you have spent too much time, energy, and resources on it is the best choice.
Most of the time, re-evaluating why you are doing something can help you get on the right trail and reduce the feeling of failure when things don’t go according to plan.
When failure occurs early in the process, it is particularly demotivating.
The change feels like a terrible idea. There has been no positive progress – because you ran into obstacles early in the process. You have little sunk cost – in time, energy, or resources.
Remembering WHY you are doing something allows you to make decisions – particularly when things go wrong at the beginning.
As Heather and I debriefed the experience, she exclaimed “Us not finding that Checkpoint actually worked BETTER for my purposes! For the first time, I found my way out of the woods without needing my GPS. I feel a lot more confident that I can find my way.”
Now, if either of us were competing, or had a “why” of “navigate the course in the least amount of time.” – ditching the effort early may have been a better decision. The person who came in 1st place did the entire course in less time than it took Heather and I to not find Checkpoint 1.
If the “Why” was – “evaluate the time it takes us to do the ENTIRE course” – going back to the start and trying again may be the best decision.
Since Heather’s “Why” was “get skilled at navigating through the woods” – getting off-track turned out to be the BEST thing to happen, even if we didn’t intend to get lost when we started.
Knowing that “Get skilled at navigating through the woods” is the intended outcome and why we are doing that, we can evaluate our experience and measure our progress through that lens.
Against that lens, we learned some things we can use the next time around:
1) Do not assume trails will be well marked – especially at orienteering events. Those events are about backwoods travel and getting skilled at topography, topography map reading, and compass use.
2) Instead of relying on marked trails for navigation, we need to prioritize the landscape. Creeks and hills provide important information when navigating an orienteering course. Trail markings, on the other hand, can lead you astray.
3) Waterproof shoes are your friend. There is a low probability of being near a bridge when navigating one of these events.
4) I need to train Cally to sniff out the checkpoint flags ?. During our search for Checkpoint 1, we ran into 3 other checkpoints not on our course. Still, it may be worth a shot.
By remembering the “why” – we were able to reframe our apparent “failure” into something extremely positive.
You’re not always going to be able to entirely reframe a failure into something positive.
You CAN, however, see what you learned from the experience.
What faulty assumption did I make when I set out? Now that I know that the assumption is wrong, how do I change my approach to accommodate this new information?
Did I miss something in my preparation for this change effort? How do I mitigate this risk the next time?
Is this the right way for me to achieve the results I am looking for? There may be another approach that works better for you.
This could also be an indicator to cut your losses and prevent yourself from repeatedly banging your head against a wall – or sinking further costs into something that will never provide the results you wish to obtain.
Evaluating where you are at that moment and why you started it to begin with is a good way to help you decide whether to try again, try something different or call it quits altogether.
Whichever option you decide, be mindful as to why you are making that decision.
For the next attempt – what is your intended outcome?
If you call it quits – what did you learn? How can you use what you learned in another context?
Early failure is a great test of the strength of your “why.” Is my “why” compelling enough to continue? You may need to do some soul searching. How important is this initiative to you – really? Is it worth the effort to you to try again?
This is where thinking long-term can help.
If I quit now – am I going to have to do this again later to get the results I wish to achieve?
Is there another path I can take to get to the same destination if this one isn’t working right now?
If I quit and don’t do anything else towards achieving my desired result, what is the short and long-term impact of that decision? What does that future look like?
Heather and I consciously decided to continue and laugh off the “failure” to find the checkpoint. We both got what we needed out of the experience, learned some things we can use later, and are able to continue walking that path towards eventual improvement of our orienteering skills.
Heather’s “why” is compelling enough for her continue. Cally and I are happy to go on that mastery ride with her. The two of us could use the outdoor time and exercise. Everyone wins, and we’ve all made one more step towards our individual goals.
Heather writes about her outdoor adventures at Portages.Life.
Wendy tags along for the ride when she can 🙂