Why I Do What I Do
When I was home in New York recently my Dad relayed a story to me. He said that about a month ago he was at a local bar and another father in our town drunkenly confronted him—
What’s Jesse doing these days?
He’s out in Wyoming. He works for NOLS.
The National Outdoor Leadership School.
Why the hell’s he doing that? What a waste of life...I thought he was supposed to be in medical school?
My father advocated for my choices as best he could but the conversation ultimately ended up with the two chest to chest yelling at each in a quiet suburban bar.
Horrible, yes, but this interaction begs the question, why NOLS? Perhaps my father doesn’t even really know...So, here’s five reasons as I best understand them:
I teach people to engage. First, with oneself—I am a White heterosexual able-bodied college-educated American male from a financially stable middle-class household. I have some insecurities about my size and intelligence. That is real. How do I do well in the world with the immense privilege I hold? Second, with one another—through feedback, communication, sympathy and empathy. And finally, with the rest of life—to appreciate food and water, to keep the needs of other species in mind when acting, to sometimes leave no trace and other times leave a streak of goodness. I do what I do to teach people to be here, now.
Its tough to be out here. For me, most nights of my childhood I went to sleep in a safe home, well fed, and hydrated. Out here sometimes that is not the case. Sometimes there’s an impending thunderstorm or we’re cold or wet. Sometimes we run out of food. Sometimes out here we go to bed dizzy dry and we feel that. Let me say that again, we feel that. In most schools we acquire bits of knowledge; here we train patterns of emotion. This is about emotional learning. This is about art, not science. Why I do what I do is so that when my students go home and pass someone on the street who says I’m hungry, can I have a buck? they’ve at least felt that. And maybe before their prejudice about the homeless creeps in, their body’s wisdom will intervene.
It reminds me that everyone, everywhere has a story. On courses like these there are long periods of boredom. Walking all day can be tedious, and sometimes we choose to cure that tedium with conversation. We exchange stories with others on our course and often come to realize that they are much different than we assumed. Sometimes, remarkably, others are so much cooler than we thought. I will always be in my own skin, but through story I can momentarily be with someone else in their’s. I do what I do because on every course I’m reminded that I love sharing my life with others. When I get out of the field that memory is always more accessible than it was before.
I come here to date Nature. How do we fall in love? We get to know someone. We date and perhaps after a while we fall in love. In a letter Wendell Berry once said, Maybe the answer is to always fight for what you particularly love, not for abstractions or against anything. Let’s be be real: we’ve divorced ourselves from Nature and its fucking up our planet. I do what I do to remember how to love Nature and thus love myself.
Here I am an optimist and courageous realist. Gandhi once said classically, be the change you want to see in the world. Easier said than done, right? But here, out in this wild place with these wild people for a moment embodying that quote is for me a bit easier. These things we call NOLS courses are momentary studios, temporary games, transient laboratories to experiment in. I do what I do to have access to this beautiful creative social space we call a NOLS course and to show others what is possible.
In the insidious first edition of Why I Do What I Do by Morgan Hite he writes romantically about life on a NOLS course being the “real” world, where “real powers” exist, and where we can be “real souls”. Its true, life is very real on a NOLS course, but what is also very real is everything else happening outside of this course: poverty and wealth, oppression and privilege, and of course, drunk bond salesmen berating others for their children’s life choices. And perhaps it is the bond salesman that really put the pieces together for me regarding why I think this work is important.
When my father told me the story from the bar my initial reaction was visceral, angry, but then quickly my mind slipped toward something else: Why? Why is this guy drinking so much? Why is he hurting? And then do I have any responsibility at all toward him?
It would have been exceedingly easy to write him off and continue on with my life, but that isn’t what happened. I wrote him a letter explaining what I do and why I do it. Explaining the insecurities that led to certain decisions, the courage to say fuck it to med school, how I’m happy, how I hope he’s okay. I did this because I do have an obligation to him, and if I’ve the time privilege to open up and lend a hand I should.
He wrote back, the exchange is below. None of this would have happened without my time at NOLS. I’ve learned to value the wellbeing of others. Beauty follows.
When I was home recently my Dad told me that sometime over the past while y’all had some sort of bizarre altercation wherein you seemed not to understand what I was doing with my life and, perhaps more importantly, why. Hearing about this I was in some ways flattered that you cared so much about the choices I’ve made for my life. But it was also a bit disappointing to hear that you were rather disgusted with those same choices. And so I’d like to simply explain why I am where I am. If at this point you’re looking down and this just looks to long to read and you’re thinking that you just don’t care I’d ask you to just fucking read it.
After three years of studying Neuroscience at BU, taking many lab sciences every semester, grinding toward medical school I found myself in an extremely unhealthy state. I would wake up in the morning and drink a few coffees and sometimes take some Adderall and study for hours. After dinner I’d start drinking and then eventually smoke some weed late at night so that I could sleep. Then I’d wake up the next day pulled in various directions from the complex set of hangovers I was experiencing and then hit the repeat button. I got straight A’s.
Toward the end of my Junior year I had a pretty serious panic attack re: my sources of motivation in school. I realized that much of my motivation was from a pretty serious insecurity I had about my own intelligence. I didn’t work that hard high school and because of it ended up at a University I saw as pretty middle of the road while all my friends shipped off to the Ivy League. As you probably read, intellectual capital was a high commodity in my household growing up, especially from my mother’s side, and so without realizing it during college I was essentially working to prove my worth to my family and to my friends. My relationship to my own intelligence felt extremely toxic and subsequently, as illustrated above, led to a very, literally, toxic lifestyle.
After that intense emotional breakdown I spent a semester working at the United Nations and left because the UN is an extremely inefficient institution. Great intentions, but generally pretty horrible execution. I moved back to Boston, finished my degree, worked at Partners in Health and a coffee shop for a while, studied for the MCAT, took it, did exceptionally well. Around the same time I’d taken the MCAT a mentor at Partners in Health had told me that he thought that before I launched into any major career path that it would be extremely important to take some time for myself—time to reflect, to enjoy, to grow outside of the constraints of the world I’d been grown in. The manager at the coffee shop I was working at had just finished a course with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) and talked about it in very high regard. I went to the website and then a few weeks later was on a plane to rural Wyoming.
What I found at NOLS was the most legitimate institution I’d yet encountered. The instructors I encountered owned their words, gave excellent feedback, and communicated with pinpoint precision. The community blew me away. I felt comfortable and open to engaging with some of the deeper insecurities I feel like my relationship with intelligence, and for the past three years I’ve been working on myself in the vacuum of Wyoming and also mentoring hundreds of folks from all walks of life—young and old, rich and poor, black and white—toward being in the world as their best self.
To speak further on NOLS behalf in non-hippy-liberal terms, in terms perhaps you and others, my parents included, would find more legitimizing we’ve trained every NASA astronaut since the Challenger mishap, a large chunk of Wharton, Harvard, Sloan, Columbia, and Cornell MBA candidates, the majority of Naval Academy students from the past decade, Google and Facebook employees, and nearly every wildland firefighter in the West in the dark arts of leadership. We are not just the leader in Wilderness education, but probably the leading force in leadership education today. Although it would be preferable to not have to legitimize the institution I work for in terms of other institutions, it seems like that’s been the most successful strategy in convincing Boomers that I’m not just an escapist dirtbag.
Beyond NOLS, over the past three years I’ve worked in Reservation emergency rooms, climbed some of the biggest rock walls in the world, taught courses for the Teton Science Schools, talked a heroin addict down from suicide, see friends arms ripped off in an avalanche, solved the puzzle of living out of Subaru, almost died in an earthquake, climbed the Grand Teton alone, been asked to speak at a number of leadership summits, published writing in magazines, and recently been accepted to Yale for graduate school. I have a girlfriend for the first time in a long time and it feels really good because intimacy, like dealing with intelligence, has been a really hard thing for me forever.
I feel really happy these days for the first time in my life. So when I hear that some random Delmar Dad who has never really been a figure in my life has opinions about the decisions I’ve made and “where I’m at” I don’t really take it personally at all, but I feel bad for that Dad. I’ll be the first to admit that there are certain forms of capital that I have sacrificed for the happiness I’ve been privileged enough to find. I have very very little money these days. I don’t really have much material capital either—I don’t own much. But in most other capital spaces I feel exceedingly rich.
And I want to be clear, the sadness I felt when my Dad told me the story of y’all getting in a little tussle is not from a higher plane looking down. I don’t intend on telling you at all how to live your life, ____. But I do intend of speaking in defense of myself and others who have chosen a path that may seem atypical to you and other Boomers. I’ll never throw the first punch, but I’ll certainly fight if I have to.
The other day when you were drunk and talking loudly at the couple at the table next to me, pretending to ignore my presence by actually just taking random hits at me and hoping I was listening, I was, and one thing you said was that you are willing to listen to alternative narratives, you just don’t want people on the liberal left to force-feed them to you and then wonder why you don’t understand. I thought that was a very insightful perspective and I see the social force-feeding from the liberal left happening constantly these days. And so in writing this I didn’t want to force-feed anything. I hope it didn’t feel like that. I also don’t want this to feel like some white American male complaining about how hard his life was and running away or some bullshit. Its just my story, and I tried to be as clear as I can. And something more I would like to say is that if you assume that I am the blindly left-leaning liberal intellectual elitist that my Mom tends toward, you just don’t really know me and maybe next time when you’re bopping around Swifty’s stirring up politically charged scuffles with random patrons, hit me up.
Anyway, I just wanted you to know that over the past while I’ve been trying to heal some deep insecurities I’ve had about intelligence, intimacy, and a few others that are less important. I’ve been spending time trying to become a more self-aware, caring, and present person in this world. I’ve been trying to drink less, but, admittedly I still drink all the time. I like beer, and these days it feels like a healthy romance. I’m really happy and am pretty ready to start interacting again more directly with the mainstream American world of money, consumption, and capitalism.
Again, I appreciate the fact that you seem, for whatever reason, invested in my life. If you’ve made it this far and now are thinking that this is some soft liberal bullshit you can go fuck yourself and die alone. The world’s not black and white. You now know a little more about who and why I am, but you don’t really know much. I’m quite gray. If you watch too much mainstream media you may not even know people like me exist.
My father knows that I’ve sent this to you. It’d be pretty cool if you apologized for what happened a few months back.
I hope you’re doing well,