Warning, this article has grown up themes and language.
I recently was invited to a Networking event for a company we work with. They offer a 12 week program for young (and not so young) people looking to start a career in the outdoors. We help deliver some river safety training and teach them how to paddle.
As I walked down into town, a note pad in my pocket as ever, I started to think about what advice I might offer these people. My careers started such a long time ago that the world and workplace is completely different now. I’m a dinosaur. There was no pathway to becoming…. whatever it is that I’ve ended up being over the years. Expedition Leader? Sponsored expedition river runner? Professional adventurer? Career river guide? Swiftwater rescue instructor? Film and event safety? I dunno how to describe it, I never have! I used to dread the “So what do you do?” question when meeting new people!
Now there are well respected Polytech courses in NZ and numerous other avenues into this career. There was no career advisor at my school sat in front of this dyslexic kid with weapons grade ADHD telling me to look into this line of work. Frankly they were pretty pleased to get me to stop chewing on the crayons.
I jotted down some random scribbles as i walked and this stream of consciousness quickly filled up a couple of pages of notes. I wanted to think of the sort of thing that nobody is going to tell you at college or Polytech. The shit that typically comes from (18) years on the frontline. I mean, I might be a dinosaur now so maybe it’s true that my experience isn’t all that relevant anymore… but I typically get about 8-10 applicants for ever hire I make and chances are dinosaurs like me might just be the people hiring aspiring guides. I’m pretty unapologetically elitist when I hire. So for better or worse and for what it’s worth, here’s some random thoughts of career longevity and success as a professional in this space….
In no particular order…
NEVER WORK FOR ANYONE YOU CAN’T HAVE A BEER WITH
This was one of the best bits of advise I ever got when i started freelancing back in 2009. It works 2 fold, either you can’t have a beer with them because you think they’re a massive pr**k in which case, don’t work with them, OR you can’t have a beer with the person you’re working for…because they’re a huge corporate and you can’t physically a beer with anyone . Both a huge red flags. I’ve ignored this advice twice in my career and still kick myself for ignoring this advice. Your work is value you are creating for someone. Don’t willingly give your value to pr**ks. They haven’t earned it and don’t deserve it and if we all stuck to this principle they would be forced to treat people better.
GET QUALIFIED EARLY IN YOUR CAREER
There is no time in your life when things get easier. There is no magical time when you’ll have more disposable time or money or you are free from excuses so just crack on. In fact as you get older, it can become harder to make the sacrifices that can be necessary to train for your qualifications. Never pass up an opportunity to upskill. There are some people/employers who don’t value your qualifications, but that’s a pretty good indicator that you won’t want to work for them either. Whenever I’ve worked within structures that require certain levels of qualifications (river guiding in NZ or expedition leading for British companies for example) the level of instructor/guides/leaders those systems have produced have been outstanding. By contrast, other areas of any industry where qualifications are “nice, but not necessary” the level is toilet (not gunna name sectors here but message me and Ill be more candid!). Having no quals suppresses standards and ultimately only serves to make it easier to hire low skilled, poorly paid and most likely exploited workers in our industry. Keeping standards high means clients have better and safer experiences and workers get to demand a living wage. Upskill, be excellent and help improve the longevity of your career (and others) by putting positive pressure on your earning potential.
GET INSPIRED AND STAY INSPIRED
It’s easy to be inspired at the beginning of your career. Everyone goes in full of passion, absolutely inhaling every last bit of the outdoor scene… but STAYING inspired is a different story and few people take responsibility for their own stoke. Seek out new heroes and read their books, listen to their podcasts and watch their films. Set big hairy ambitions and drive towards them. Equally, recognise when you’re getting tired or burnt out and make a change or take a rest. It’s nobody else responsibility but yours to manage the relationship you have with this world and work. Treat it like a long term relationship and put in the work. Nobody else gives a fuck if you’re not as excited as you used to be, that’s on you. Own it and nurture it. This marks a huge difference between a pro and an enthusiastic hobbyist. Somebody on a film set I was working on once said it’s more important how you finish a job than how you start it… and i guess that’s kinda the same thing too. If it’s only the excitement of a new start that gets you up for it… that ain’t gunna last.
BE WORLD CLASS AT THE SHIT THAT TAKES NO TALENT
I love this one. What i mean by this is that it’s easy to forgive a shortfall in talent, especially in the early stage of your development and your career. It’s ok to make the odd mistake because you didn’t have the expereince to anticipate what was coming next or to fail on some minor technical skill needed for your work (although, only if you are still actively working to improve. More on this later)… but a shortfall in things like time keeping, enthusiasm, attention to detail, can do attitude, discipline, initiative, problem solving, emotional intelligence, empathy, organisation or communication are far harder to forgive. And actually, going even further, if your target these areas and turn them into your strengths through work and attention, you’ll often be a better guide/instructor than most. I get that not everyone is naturally pre-disposed to be good at all these things (as a neurodivergent many things on that list don’t come naturally to me although some I will be better pre-disposed than neurotypical people) but deliberately trying to get better at these things is a choice you can make. It’s harder to make a choice to be more talented, but that’s why we train- to improve and work towards skill acquisition. Treat these other areas of your development with the same importance and dedication. They are more important than anyone will ever tell you. The most unforgivable is a lack in work ethic…. that’s a choice pure and simple and a deficit here isn’t conducive to a long and illustrious career.
BE A DIRT BAG…. BUT NOT TOO MUCH
In the same way as a strip of gaffer tape on your down jacket is often worn as a badge of honour, there is a level (dare i say) glamour, that can be attributed to going full dirt bag. Moving to a mountain town, making all the sacrifices of modern comforts to pursue excellence in your particular outdoor discipline is adirmable in a way. Living out of your car and surviving off OSM off-cuts and ramen in order to improve your paddling, climbing or biking is a demonstrable display of your passion and commitment to your craft. You’re all in. You’ve rejected the trappings of “normal” society and set out to walk to the beat of your own drum. Kudos man. I’m here for it. I legit think it’s a formative process to go through and is so intertwined with our industry, you kind of need to go through it in order to understand the culture….however, to quote Tropic Thunder, “Never go full retard”. As much as that funk of 3 day old sweat or a nest of unwashed hair might be a flag signalling your allegiance to your tribe… your clients are unlikely to be as impressed as your peers. Your clients are quite often well monied fully fledged “Normals” who will likely not appreciate you roughing it as much as you do. But it’s more than just your appearance or smell (although that does kinda matter too!), it’s more about being able to relate to these people. Dirt bag for sure…. but keep one foot in the “Normal” world so you can connect to your clients better. You’ll have healthier tips.
One thing is clear, especially when working with corporate types, “optics” mean a lot. So how you look and what you’re wearing matter to these people way more than it really should. They don’t care so much about your experience, your training, your dedication… but if you come dressed in a fancy new Rab Jacket or like your local outdoors store has vommited brands onto you… they’ll be way more impressed. It’s shallow AF…. but that’s what “Normals” sometimes value. They are not from your world and not understand the bohemian decadence of your op shop loving, bin diving dirt bagness. Make sure you can still relate to these folks.
PLAY AND TRAIN HARDER THAN YOU WORK
This is a pretty simple one. Your work shouldn’t be the hardest thing you do in your area of expertise. Make sure you go out and climb those harder grade in your own time (part of staying inspired right) when you have opportunities to train and upskill, aim to make it far harder than you need it to be for work. You should be bordering on bored at work, not pushing your grade. Don’t sit back on your laurels.
NEVER LOSE YOUR BEGINNERS MINDSET
Quite closely linked to the previous point, but this is a non-negotiable for me. Doug Amos write beautifully about this in his “Whitewater Philosophy” which I highly highly recommend reading. As a beginner, you’re constantly seeking improvements and approaching the river or the mountains or the trails with a sense of wonder and an open mind. Growing and improving is a huge part of satisfaction you gain from your time in the outdoors… and similarly with losing your stoke, this can fade over time. Sometimes this is related to ego. Ego is often a necessary ingredient in ambition and super helpful to maintain pride in your work and the early parts of success in your career… but the same ego can lead people to believe they’ve, “made it”. Once we’ve “made it”… we shut ourselves off from many learning opportunities, even within the hum-drum of our day to day work. It’s pretty rare for this to be a conscious decision or something that happens with a flick of a switch one day, it’s far more insidious. So be vigilant. What I started doing about 7 or 8 years into my career was to deliberately pick an area or two of my guiding craft to work on ever season. Continued Professional Development. Sometimes it was a simple as taking the time to read papers or listen to podcasts about certain geological aspects of the environments we work in or getting a better understanding of the conservation work that goes on. Other times it’s history or other “soft skills” related to guiding and interpretation. Often it will be a more serious hard skill undertaking like taking a more involved First Aid course such as Wilderness First Responder or EMT. It could be adding another string to my bow within the Rescue 3 instructor frame work or training up as a Ski Patroller. But actively seeking opportunities to improve is a good safe guard against “making it”. Trust me, there’s nothing like being a 38 year rookie skill patroller to give your ego a huge check and give you a dose of humility. People who have “made it” quite often end up living their lives in a closed circuit without feedback loops. Ones approach to work and/or opinions one holds true to, can end up being unchallenged and warp into a hyperbolic mess of self grandiose bullshit, spat out with all the confidence of a “do your own research” Climate Change Denier. A walking Dunning Kruger personified. Don’t be that guy folks. Stay evidence based, stay current, stay hungry and keep learning. If you’re only gunna take one piece of advice home after reading this… make it this one.
BIG COMPANIES HAVE INSTITUTIONAL MEMORY
If you’re working for a huge institution that’s been established for decades, you’re standing on the shoulders of all those who went before you. Over the years, the little hints, tips and efficiencies have been passed down into your role through years of repetition. The role and the expectations on you have be honed and been made incredibly specific for that job…. so how much of your success is down to your own merit and how much is the system you’re in? It’s not universally true that you’re a basic bitch guide if you work for a big old company, but it’s worth checking in with yourself every now and then and being honest with yourself about your development. One of my most memorable mentors many years ago implored me to avoid becoming a Bus driver over a taxi driver. He said that Bus drivers know their route better than anyone out there. They could drive it with their eyes closed and absolutely crush it on a daily basis. A taxi driver however didn’t just have to go from point A to B then C and so on. London cabbies back in the day needed to get “The Knowledge” before they got their license. The Knowledge famously needed better recall and more study than Lawyers needed. They could describe to you how to start from A then go to D because the road to B and C was closed, then loop back to B, quickly pop to E and finish off on C late in the arvo when the traffic was better. It’s difficult becoming a taxi driver in a big company doing the same route ad nauseam. Change it up, challenge yourself. That could mean staying in the same company and changing roles, but better to challenge yourself in different areas. Move to improve.
SEEK PEER RECOGNITION
Guests will always blow smoke up your ass. They’re easily pleased, especially if you are proficient at your job. Peers however are harder to impress. Seek their recognition. It’s harder to gain and means more ultimately. Of course this can go the other way, you may make decisions that your guest don’t like…. but your peers think you’re an absolute baller for. Your peers are probably right. If you start believing your own press and listen to this constant stream of compliments from your guests, your ego is bound to conflate to your detriment. Worse, if your become dependant on that dopamine hit from your clients to determine your self worth, your decision making can become skewed towards eliciting that response from them. Being a strong leader in the outdoors means making the right choices, even if it’s unpopular with your clients.
Worth noting though that, while the customer might not always be right…. they are always the customer, so try and make them understand why you’re making the correct (but difficult) decision. Pleasing customers is easy. Pandering to them is weak. Be better.
BE A GUIDE+
Look, it can be a jungle out there. If you’re looking for work at a high level, it’s competitive. And it should be. Sometimes it’s not enough to be “just a guide”. How can you bring more to the role. How can you be a Guide+. I know some people who have got a foot in the door with some companies because they are skilled photographers/videographers, others have ninja like attention to detail and OCD and make the most kick ass spreadsheets you’ve ever seen. Others are phenomenal cooks, have a network of connections they can use, some can speak google analytics or are amazing handymen, some may have gear that they can hire out that will be super helpful or mad graphic design skills. These examples might be a bit weird but you get the point. Being a fully qualified and experienced guide might get you to the starting line…. but’s not enough to win a race. What other value can you bring to the table.
I didn’t realise how weird it was that i went freelance until fairly recently. I went self employed years ago to give myself better security, working conditions and significantly reduce the chance for companies to exploit me. I’ve since learned that these are the reasons that people often chose to be employed rather than self employed… but its a funny industry we work in!
If you can get yourself to the point where you have the skills, reputation and qualifications to go self employed, I strongly recommend you do it. As an seasonal employee (which is how mother nature works, we’re bound to the seasons) you don’t get any sick pay or annual leave or many of the standard benefits that “Normals” enjoy. There’s a strong expectation that you go above and beyond what is required of you in your contract (I have a good friend right now on a 30 hour a week contract being pressured in to work 7 days a week for example). I’ve been pressured into working illegal hours or encouraged to short cut safety measures for the sake of efficiency or profit and even had multiple friends who have been systematically shucked under the bus to protect their employers. Lots of these companies do everything in their power to suppress wages or even influence government level policy to disadvantage and exploit their employees. That’s the dirty truth of our industry. Because our jobs are “fun” people will seek to use that a tool to beat you with, suggesting that because it’s “fun” you don’t deserve dignified treatment. But here’s the thing, as a freelancer, you are entering into a B2B arrangement. You are business to business. Yes, nobody is promising you minimum number of hours or certain levels of work…. but you are not promising to work for them either if they miss treat you. Truth is, your insecurity is often easier to live with than theirs and so their insecurity around staffing levels puts positive pressure on your wages and working conditions. Employment contracts often protect employers but are dressed up as if they protect you. Good, highly skilled members of crew are always in demand, you’ll find work. And if you’ve got a lean spell…. well that’s where that time as a dirt bag pays off my friend. Time do to your own missions! Commitment is often the mother of providence. Back yourself and up your rates (you’ll need to factor in holiday pay, acc contributions, Kiwisaver or pension contributions etc). Here’s the other thing though…. it also forces you to up your game. There’s nobody to hold your hand and offer you more training if you’re not hitting standards…. your phone just stops ringing. Professional development and reflection is now a necessity, but one that ultimately will benefit you.
IT’S A SERVICE INDUSTRY
This is a competitive opportunity for you. Don’t be afraid to outshine more senior guides. They may be more experienced and have perfect muscle memory for some of the hard skills required for your craft… but that’s got nothing to do with their level of service. Seeks to be better than your peers, even more experienced ones, on this level.
IF YOU’RE GOOD AT SOMETHING, NEVER DO IT FOR FREE
This was a piece of advice that I got from Sir Ranulph Fiennes. He is the world greatest living explorer according to the Guinness Book of Records and he endorsed one of my first descent expeditions back in 2011. I was seeking career advice as a professional expedition leader, especially in the area of seeking funding for these weird and wonderful trips I wanted to try and pull off. It’s simple but profound.
Part of the reason that it’s so hard to scrape out an austere living in the industry is because some “Normals” just don’t value what we do or recognise the years of training, sacrifice needed and competitive nature of elite level guiding. If they can see opportunities, even if it’s few and far between, to do training courses or trips for free, they will hold out and wait for these opportunities rather than paying. It’s that simple. That makes it harder for companies to charge more, which makes it harder to pay you more. There is nobody is who entitled to a free vacation. We don’t owe anyone the value we’re creating and if they don’t recognise this value, then they don’t deserve to have nice things. Simple. This really boils my piss. People who run shit for free, devalue our whole industry. They are scabs. Don’t be that guy.
As a caveat to this, I will say, that i’ve prefaced this by saying “If you’re good at something…” There is a time and a place to potentially get your foot in the door and do some work experience or similar at the beginning of your career whilst your cutting your teeth. But set a time limit on it. Don’t allow people to take the piss out of you. And this comes from a business owner who has offers of “free labour” often. Don’t make it habit and if you do chose to do something for free, don’t sing about it from the rooftops. It impacts all of us. If you need to an assessment or similar with “mock clients” who you can’t charge, take your friends of people who would always be FOC (free of charge) like agents who sell your products, aspiring guides, admin staff from within the business or suppliers, but DO NOT put the shout out to the general public. We sometimes run off a barter system where people can offer their skills/time in return for ours for those who are passionate but not necessarily money rich or the opportunity to pay stuff off instalments to ease the financial pressure so this isn’t exclusionary thing. But it is a key tenet of keeping our industry healthy.
DON’T BE AFRAID TO FAIL
Fear of failure can be crippling. It can lead to you passing up opportunities or creating your own. Truth is, especially in adult learning, failure is a huge teaching aid. We learn well through trail and error. If we’re afraid of errors, we simply won’t try in the first place and if we don’t try, we don’t improve. Be brave, get out there and fuck up. Fuck up quickly and go to version 2.0. Test it again, fuck up again and re-invent. Improve bit by bit but end up with some epic results. Radical incrementalism.
If your guiding qualification is expiring. Don’t just re-certify. That’s for basic bitches. Do the level up.
MINIMUM STANDARDS ARE A PRETTY LOW BAR
Especially in safety and rescue training, hitting the minimum standards you need for you work, should not be aspirational. Aim for best in class, not “satisfactory”. Be better. Take pride.
There is folks. The random ramblings of a dinosaur. Any other career tips people should consider? Any great bits of life advice? Leave a comment below… Chur