When Messing Up Is The Best Thing You Can Do

Saturday did not go as planned.

Paul, Alex and I were two days into a three-day backpacking trip in the Adirondack mountains of New York State.  Hiking north on the Northville-Lake Placid Trail, we were fourteen miles away from civilization.  Paul, one of my best friends from college and an experienced hiker, had planned out our route.

We’d gotten a late start on the trail.  By the time we broke camp that morning, it was nearly 10:30 am.

Now, I glanced down at my watch.  It was already 2:30 pm.Paul checked the GPS. We’d traveled four miles in four hours.

This was not good.  We had eight more miles to go to reach our evening shelter.If we kept at this rate, we wouldn’t arrive until after 10 pm: well past dark.

I felt a wave of concern wash over me.  Our safety was at risk.  I felt acutely responsible. Alex, the third member of our hiking trio, was my twelve year old son.

On Friday, we’d done ten miles and averaged a walking speed of over two miles an hour. Today, we’d slipped to about one mile an hour.  The elevation changes on the trail were similar to Friday, yet here we were, trudging along.Why were we walking so much more slowly? It was the trail conditions.

Though it hadn’t rained in days, Saturday’s particular section of trail was wet and extremely muddy.

On the muddy terrain, rocks and roots popped up from the ground.  Each rock and root offered respite of dryness from the mud below.  In these first hours of the day, we’d spent a lot of energy trying to avoid the mud.  We would dance our way through every muddy patch, trying to find the perfect route, hopping from rock to rock to root to dry patch of earth.

The way we were hiking, you might have thought we were playing the game of hot lava, where any misstep would have sent us hurtling into a volcano.This quest for “mud-free” perfection was slowing us down. However, even at our snail’s pace, and with our best attempts of trail dancing, we’d each occasionally miss and sink into the mud.

On each mess, we’d get mud on our boots.  Sometimes the mud would come up half an inch.  Sometimes we’d sink ankle deep.  Luckily, we were all wearing hiking boots that were taller than ankle-high.  From a mud/sock/foot point of view, no real damage was done.

However, in our attempts at efficiency (no muddy boots) we’d completely lost sight of effectiveness (getting to our destination on time).

So at that 2 pm break, we regrouped. We realized that what had got us here in these first four miles definitely was not going to get us through the last eight miles.  We simply couldn’t afford to attempt perfection.  We were running out of time.

We had to change our strategy. We had to stop overthinking every step of the journey and just splash on through.  We had to get okay with getting messy.That shift in mindset made a huge difference.  We picked up our pace.  With each muddy section, we didn’t second guess ourselves.  We just kept moving forward.When we’d hit a patch of mud, we’d laugh about it.

We arrived at our lean-to (eight miles away) at 7:20 pm, with thirty minutes of daylight left.

As I watched the last beams of sun reflect on the lake, we ate our re-hydrated dinner of macaroni and cheese.  It had been quite an adventure.  It could have turned out a lot worse.  However, our willingness to get messy had saved the day.

How often do leaders have to be willing to let go of perfection and get messy to achieve an outcome?  Join the conversation by leaving a comment below. 

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