What Troubled Boys Can Teach Us

A group from the Allegany Boys Camp, located in the scenic deep woods of western Maryland, recently visited our church. The residential all-year camp was established for boys with emotional and behavioral troubles. The boys and their leaders shared songs and gave us insight into their daily life. I was impressed by some of the powerful techniques they employed to effect positive personal change. Their methods are apt for people from all walks of life in all organizations.

To one degree or another, we are all imprisoned by patterns of thought that limit our functionality, compromise our inter-personal relationships, and rob us of the peace and joy that we are supposed to experience in life. In extreme cases people break free of these chains via a “reset button.” A classic example is the addict “hitting bottom,” whereby they either muster the resolve to make needed changes or die.

In the case of the boys who live in camps such as the Allegany Boys Camp, they may or may not hit bottom. They’ve already been removed from their family environment where they couldn’t learn to function in a healthy way. Instead, they experience life broken down to the very basics as a way to shatter their limiting paradigms. A wilderness camp that lacks electricity or running water suits perfectly.

We take so much for granted in our modern life. We lack perspective about what is truly involved in the creation and delivery of the goods and services with which we are accustomed. We take the people in our lives for granted.  We assume that things will always be as they are, regardless of our personal decision making and behaviors. That assumption is dangerous, sometimes deadly.

The boys at the camp have some clothes and personal toiletries. That’s it. Their days are completely structured. That structure is well thought out. They deal with first things first, like when they wake each morning they make their beds and clean their tents. The boys engage in strenuous challenges that afford them opportunities to learn new skills and make important decisions. Their schooling is reminiscent of “unschooling,” or directed learning from life experiences. (Other than math – the counselors said it was hard to teach math that way.)They take on serious projects like designing and building the large and sometimes elaborate tents that provide them shelter. As they learn, achieve, and grow, they earn privileges. A bunch of other good things happen too.

Of course they gain more perspective about modern life and the important relationships in their lives. They learn that they are not isolated and alone – that others have walked similar tortured walks and emerged victorious. They share serious and not-so-serious experiences, and my guess is that they form bonds unlike they have ever previously experienced in their lives. Their new relationships, skills, and continual accomplishments build self-esteem and confidence. This erodes victim mentality, diffuses anger, and awakes them to the possibility of a brighter future.

The camp’s leaders shared two practices that particularly stood out. First, to accomplish the many tasks necessary at the camp, they employ a three-step process: 1) Plan, 2) Execute, 3) Evaluate. Each part of the process is equally important, and every boy must participate in all three steps. Second, when problems inevitably arise, they confront the issue immediately and together. Nothing is left to fester.

These deceptively simple practices hold power for all of us. In our workaday lives, we often operate unmindfully, at warp speed, and in response to circumstantial demands. We imagine that step two, execution, is what matters most. We give ourselves permission to sweep issues under the rug. This mentality is costly, both personally and corporately in our families and our organizations.

Planning and evaluating suffer under the demands of deadlines and pressures of crisis management. Yet this is where intelligence is both applied and gained. You may hear it said that “life is a marathon.” This may be a disadvantageous way to think. It’s perhaps more powerful to think of life as a series of wind sprints.

Before we do, we think. We take the time necessary to properly plan. Then, when it’s time to execute, we do. We run that wind sprint flat out and give it our all. After, we stop, take a breath and see what we may see. We are intentional about learning from our experiences. We ask good questions, such as: What went right? What went wrong? Why? What do we know now that we didn’t know before? If I had it to do over, what would I do differently? This manner of living our lives, running our teams, and functioning in any corporate activity is far superior to keeping our heads down and mindlessly hamstering away.

We are mostly risk averse. We generally dislike confrontation. We want to conserve energy. For these reasons, the most common disposition is to let things go. What things? Things that bother us. Things that we do that bothers us and things that others do that bother us. We’ve learned to worship our comfort zones, hold our tongues, keep a stiff upper lip, be a team player, don’t make waves, and avoid being seen as a troublemaker. This may be fine for incidental issues. But the ones that recur? They won’t go away on their own. They get worse. When we lack the courage to address them quickly and decisively, they cost us far more.

The culture of the Allegany Boys Camp creates the expectation that issues will be courageously confronted and that these issues are the business of the entire group. One person’s problem is every person’s problem. If families and work teams adopted this mindset and our organizational culture became informed by these practices, I believe that it would lead to higher function and healthier and happier relationships.

Thank you to the leaders and the boys of Allegany Boys Camp. Your generous sharing of your stories inspires me. I hope they inspire you too.

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