In June I spent three weeks working as a camp counselor at Camp Grounded, a summer camp for adults in the redwoods of northern California, where we don’t use digital technology, we don’t talk about work, and we call people by camp nicknames instead of their real names. As someone who spends a lot of time on his digital devices and a lot of time using social media for work, the experience was profound and I learned a lot more from watching 700 adults with names like Popcorn, Bubbles, Big Spoon, Shtetl Fabulous, Sea Monkey, and Ladybug, become their best selves, than I could have ever learned from checking my Facebook feed twenty times a day. Here are a few life lessons I learned at camp that I’m trying to incorporate back into my technology-prone daily life in San Francisco.
1. Take time
We’re always moving, we’re always going somewhere, we’re always doing something, we’re always busy. We’re busy being busy but we’re rarely busy just being. At camp I spent a lot of time taking time. I spent a lot of time doing well, nothing, and in turn, saw everything. The tall redwoods towering above me, swaying in the wind. The late afternoon sunlight pouring through the redwoods making my eyes squint and my heart expand. The luminous moon (Oh luminous moon!) smiling down from her throne. The birds chirping love songs to each other. The ice-cold river passing over my feet, leaving me invigorated. The ding a typewriter makes when you finish typing a line, as if to say, “FUCK YOU INNER-CRITIC! Keep writing you incredible warrior, keep writing!” The sound of the piano playing and the guitar being strummed and the beautiful voices singing. The taste of food when you’re considering every bite and how blessed you are to be eating it. The crackling of the fire giving you warmth.
Take time—especially in the moments when you are alone—to breathe. To look at the world around you instead of your phone. It’s these moments when you have nothing to do—when you’re waiting for the bus or waiting in line to buy a coffee—when time sort of stops and says, “Well, you’re alone now, this is kind of awkward, I guess you should check Instagram,”—that make up much of our lives. When you take time to take time you remember why you’re here.
2. Get weird first
There are people in this life who always do what they are told and there are people who question what they are told and do whatever the fuck they want. I want to be around people who do whatever the fuck they want—who decide not to wear a shirt, who wear a tutu for underwear, who paint their face, who shave lines into their hair, who jump butt-naked into an ice cold frozen river in the morning, who wear onesies to breakfast (and to dinner), who scream when they feel like it, who blow bubbles in the morning, who throw chairs in the sky for no reason, who sing songs even though they don’t know a single word of the song—these people make me feel alive. They make me feel like I belong. When you get weird you inspire others to get weird too—and when everyone is weird, everyone is themselves—and when everyone is themselves, everyone is perfect.
3. Make eye contact
The default way of talking to someone is to look past them and scan the room for someone more interesting or more attractive. This is rude. It’s also unwise since each person we meet may share wisdom that inspires us or changes our perspective on life. When you make eye contact you are actually listening to someone—you are validating their reason for being and they in turn will value yours. When you look down at your phone when you meet someone, you are communicating that the Gmail notification you just received (alerting you that your Bank of America statement is now available online) is more important than a human being’s heart. Treat every person like they’re a beautiful person that has something precious to teach you—because they most definitely are.
4. Your job (however cool or shitty) does not define you
Society likes to box people by their name or ethnicity or where they live or what they do or how much money they make. A person is not a box to be checked off in an annual census. A person cannot be defined by labels or prejudices or guesses or judgements. At camp we don’t call people by their real names, we also don’t talk about what they do for work. So when you meet Uncle Freckles, you are not thinking “Oh, they work at Google, they must be like so and so,” or “They run a startup non-profit, they must be like so and so,” or “They’re unemployed and broke, they must be like so and so.” Starting a conversation with “What do you do?” is a good way to ensure the conversation will be as boring as every other conversation you normally have at happy hour. At camp we ask things like “What’s a fear you’ve overcome recently?” or “If I were to go traveling with you where would we go?” Beyond just asking questions, you have to listen and watch and play with and realize that getting to know someone has nothing to do with their job title.
Greatness is rarely found on a resume; greatness is experienced when we allow people to share their gifts. Gifts can be anything from the way someone hugs to the way they write a poem to the way they dance to the way they listen. Gifts let us see how infinite someone is, which makes us feel infinite too.
5. Validation is power
The role of a camp counselor—similar to that of a good teacher, coach, mentor or friend—is largely undervalued in our society. The role of a camp counselor is to validate their campers. To tell their camper: “you belong and you are awesome.” We don’t get told that enough as kids, and we certainly don’t get told that enough as adults. Rather, we get told things like, “You’re not smart enough, you need to get better at math, you need to dress differently, you need to lose weight, you need to stop being so weird, you need to stop playing, you need to stop making so much noise, you need to pay better attention, you need to buy more of what I’m selling, you need to change your life, you need to change your life NOW!”
The truth is people just don’t need to change as much as they need to be validated for who they really are. You can have a profound impact on the world simply by turning whatever environment you spend your days in—be it an office, a school, a business, or a camp in the woods—into a place where everyone feels validated. When we create this kind of community, people are empowered to fully express themselves and anything is possible.
A version of this post also appeared in Medium.