Photo: Heather Mosher

Photo: Heather Mosher

Adversity Education

Seven Steps



“The most human thing we can do is comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”

Clarence Darrow


Darrow helps us see that compassion, when broadly applied, needs to be both hard and soft. As leaders of ourselves and others Darrow points out that we need to understand that there is a danger to a life that resides too much in comfort or adversity.

For a great deal of North American society, life is darn comfortable. I often remind myself that the possessions I have, the food I eat, and the general quality of my life, including education and health care, far surpasses that of an Egyptian Pharaoh. For me and much of my generation here in Canada, comfort has been king. We know scientifically and in our own experience that the human spirit craves challenge. We get bored and need stimulation, which is an urge that ultimately has the potential to draw out our best selves. Therefore, it is important to engage in challenging pursuits because by their very nature, strengthen.

I know for certain that what I learned from rock climbing saved my life.  Climbing up vertical cliffs taught me to hang on and solve the seemingly impossible puzzle before me to get to the other side of it. Understanding that difficulty can be traversed or climbed over gave me a deep where-with-all when responding to emotional and spiritual conundrums in my life. The trick is to understand that the solution to physical challenges, can be applied to emotional and spiritual ones, yet very few educators are effectively facilitating this process in our left brained culture. This unearths the question, how do we facilitate “Adversity Education” effectively?


Over the past 30 years, within the context of Adventure Education I have facilitated a subset that I would now call “Adversity Education” with my students and have developed seven practices that help me help others wade into hardship and harvest nourishing results. I have never worked from formulas, but the following is a compilation of the most consistent parts of my practice. They are a model for the leadership of self and others.


Embody the Value of Adversity.

As an educator I have always lived by the credo “Never ask your students, or those who you are leading to do something you are unwilling to do yourself.”  If we are asking our students to face the seemingly impossible then we darn well better have faced our own tests too. Why? If we have been there, our students can see the result of our effort through the comfort we bring to the arena. This is true of addictions workers, counsellors, life coaches and a laundry list of others. But this concept can also work in small ways.


I remember standing at the edge of a muddy pond with a group of high school students who were about to board a dodgy raft they had built out of sticks and logs, scavenged from the forest. The experience was part of an adventure challenge course I designed for their first day of high school. The aim was to get one member of their group, the keeper of the “fire” held in a small tin pot to the other side of the pond without them getting wet and extinguishing the flame. The others could, and needed too, get wet. There was a pause with the group after they finished constructing the raft and took in the realities of the bog. I stepped into the water up to my waist, to be witness to whatever strategy they chose.  Suddenly, everyone was committed and immersing themselves into the chocolate swamp.  The most beautiful thing however, was the actions of a girl in the class who suffered from autism. She wholeheartedly engaged in the pond, the raft, the water, everything. The teachers, who incidentally were standing on the edge of the pond, said that they had never seen this student be so animated and happy. They had worked with her for years and had never been able get her to open up in the same way. If we are facilitating adversity, we need to be well versed in wading into the uncomfortable.


Get “Buy In”, Before it Gets Hard.

A great challenge of being human is to hold ourselves accountable for our decisions. Accountability is freedom. When we have no person to blame but ourselves, we suffer less and learn more. Try it. The next time you find yourself in the midst of something incredibly challenging that you’re on the verge of grumbling about just say the words, “I chose this.” Then feel the energy of the situation change and becomes less of a burden. To support this end, as adventure educators it is important to let our participants know, without adding maple syrup to make it all sugary and sweet, that the endeavour we are embarking upon is likely to be hard. You can stretch this idea too by saying, “for some of you, might well be the hardest thing you have ever done.” I often use a quote from the old “Rocky II” movie to underline this point. The character, “Clubber Lange” when asked about his forecast for Saturday’s boxing match says, “The forecast is for pain.”  This tongue in cheek quip packs a punch and when participants still choose to come, they can’t say that you made the experience sound easy. It is critical to avoid making things sound easy while at the same time being careful not to intimidate. Tell the truth by saying, “It will likely hurt but I think you all have what it takes.”

On a 6-day ski mountaineering course I was teaching, the conditions on the approach to our first alpine hut had intermittent snow and rock, requiring us to put our skis on and take them off in a time-consuming practice of patience. It was a grind physically, mentally and emotionally. I had prepped the men for a difficult journey. When it started to hurt one of the participants lashed out, but the others reminded him that I had in fact told them that it was going to be difficult. Adventure like life, can be hard and unfair but adversity and life take on more of an ease when we own the choice of doing something difficult and dangerous. Adolescents blame, adults take ownership, especially when it gets hard.


Be Grounded in Educational Purpose

When we understand why we are doing something it is easier to accept the associated risk and carry out the straining hard work of it. Our reasons for doing the difficult has to be good enough to withstand all possible outcomes. That is the vision and philosophy behind the task. Building strong people and communities can never be done by taking the easy path, but there has to be a collective understanding of the “Why” of a particular hardship.  This idea is the underpinning of a human life. Knowing that suffering is expected and welcomed transmutes the energy of it from victim to warrior. It is why Eve picked the apple. In mythological terms the story of Eve is not about breaking the rules, it is about embracing the pain of life in order to be shaped by it, to know wisdom.


In my current practice as a mountain guide and life coach, the idea I present is that our adventure on the mountain is living a mythology and if the events we go through were to speak to us in some way, as a wise elder would, what would they say to us? The question takes the experience deeper, to a place where we see ourselves as a hero in the context of our OWN story. Much of our experience with this motif is through spectating. Many of our movies and novels are based on the “Hero’s Journey” a term coined by Joseph Campbell. We watch these and wish we too could live a life that draws out our best. We can. My exercise lifts adventure events lived to another level, one that resonates with our DNA, because according to Joseph Campbell, humanity has identified that the human experience is about growth and transcendence from one way of being to another, as we yearn to know wisdom. We are meant to grow form adolescent, to adult and elder and this process helps make that journey possible.


This is the closest I will come to drawing out value from adversity FOR one of my students or clients. All of us want to be heard and we listen, we support our students in their unique process. When the answers come from them, it feels good and the lessons stick. In the thick of the pain and discomfort, projected learning and value might be an impossible sell. However, value drawn from the participants themselves, connecting to their own heroic journey, is a life saver in so many ways when the going gets tough.


Don’t Save Yourself.

A few years ago, I was on a high mountain pass in the Canadian Rockies with a group of business students.  The scholars were participants in a leadership program at the University of Calgary’s Haskane School of Business. Clouds were darkening and the wind freshened, I knew we were going to get wet and cold. I peered down the other side of the pass and saw a lovely scree slope that went all the way down to the trees, that for me personally would only take a couple of minutes to run down the gravel pile 25 degrees steep. The group numbered 10 and one was brand new to moving in mountain terrain and quite terrified. Coming down from that pass was slow. Very slow. When the storm hit, we all got soaked to the bone from wet snow and chilled from the cold wind. I was aware that I could have been down in the valley bottom in minutes. However, facilitating adversity requires that we love our participants enough that we meet them where they are at and go through the storm with them, whatever shape it takes. If we choose the easy way, they will know it and the message will be, when the going gets tough, save yourself. When it comes to adversity, a sense of community and belonging comes from going through challenges together. Working together is the key to our modern global situation.

Know the Difference Between Eustress and Distress  

On a particularly hot day this summer I was with a group on the slopes of Mt Finlayson here on Vancouver Island. I was with men who were laddering into jobs and homes after experiencing homelessness. The program was a series of days out that fed into a backpacking trip on the Juan de Fuca trail. One of the men was quite ardent about complaining. His rhetoric was centred around the idea that this hiking shit was way too hard. To complicate matters he also recently had a number of stints put in the arteries around his heart. I had to watch him carefully and it was hard to see past the noise he was making to understand what he could really do. I reduced the load in his pack and as his complaints gained in volume and frequency, I sought the truth in his eyes. While his voice was saying one thing his eyes were telling me a completely different story. I knew he was okay because his eyes never communicated distress. I have used this for years and it is powerful in pushing people just enough. Eustress is good stress. This is the place where we take a step out of our comfort zone. Distress, is another matter altogether. When in distress, we do not need to be pushed, we need to be comforted. Remember Darrow and the idea that one moment we are “the comfortable” and the next we can be “the afflicted.” Being aware of this is the key to pushing enough but not too much.


Be Willing To Be Thought of as a Villain

As educators, we can sometimes be cast as the villain by our students. One of the things that many people suffer from is a victim mentality. Sometimes even though we have nurtured “buy in” at the start, we will be criticized. It takes courage to unearth people’s potential and because the process hurts them a bit, it is likely that some of their pain will come squiring out at us. As educators we must know that it is their pain and has nothing to do with us. What we are hearing is their acute reaction to the stress the situation is putting them in. This can be the thankless part of the job and to keep the eye on the prize is important. In the end, the best teachers are the ones who push their students while at the same time carefully nurture them. Disagreeing with them is not the tool. Saying it does not hurt only invalidates their experience. Agree with them. “Ya this hurts.” “This is the type of fun that is only good looking back.” “I hear you,  this sucks, and stopping here would suck worse.”


Give Your Participants All of the Credit.

What we do as educators is our job and most times, we get paid for it. It is important work and it is rewarding to be witness to people’s growth. The most important thing is that we celebrate our student’s success. It should not be about us. It should be about them and the barriers they cross. Certainly, the effort we put in is to help them grow and we are definitely beside them, however, if we make it about us, then something is lost for them. The trick is to completely empower them, and this means that they need to be recognized for the barriers they pushed through.

There is an art to “Adversity Education.” Each person and situation unique in as much as the process cannot be a formula. The guideposts presented here are a means of being intentional and educative, bringing meaning and richness to the difficult. It is critical that we draw meaning and purpose out of the difficult for it is the difficult that has the potential to draw out our beauty.


“We had seen God in His splendors, heard the text that Nature renders. We had reached the naked soul of man.”

Sir Earnest Shackleton.

© Ken Wylie September 2018