Outward Bound

March 6th, 2010      Email this article to a friend Email this article to a friend

I got so sick of my anxiety, that I decided to confront it head on by going on an Outward Bound course.

Here’s a brief summary of what happened then…

Outward Bound’s vision is to help create ‘better people, better communities, better world’.

Outward Bound shows people their full potential by challenging them through outdoor challenge and adventure (sailing, rock climbing, kayaking, solitude, high ropes, tramping, running, reflection, etc). It’s pretty full on, up at 5-5.45 am, and to bed at 10.30-11 pm – every minute is used with some sort of activity, and I had no trouble sleeping that’s for sure.

Please note that all these activities are only tools to challenge you, which is the real objective of the course. For example, while kayaking I probably spend more time in the river than in the kayak. People were actually encouraged to go backwards down a rapid at one point just so they would tip over (and get rescued again of course).

It’s basically all about pushing yourself, and surprising yourself with how far you can go. This is then something you can transfer to other areas of your life as well.

There are bases all over the world. New Zealand’s base is located in Anakiwa (close to Picton) and was founded in 1962. So far 50,000 students have attended the school.


“We are all better than we know. If only we can come to discover this, we may never again settle for anything less.”
– Kurt Hahn (founder of Outward Bound)

The idea behind all the activities is to knock you out of your comfort zone. Basically whenever you feel the “stretch” in your stomach (like nerves) you’re looking at an opportunity to grow. Spiritual weight training I call that.

The “do, review, and apply” approach is used, so first you do an activity, you then review, and apply what you’ve learned to second time you do that activity. In addition to those three you can also transfer what you’ve learned into another activity (or managing anxiety in my case).

Everyone (eventually) runs into a limit they’ve set for themselves, it is then up to the instructors to talk you through the next level, and gradually you gain more confidence in your own abilities. Self-imposed limits are generally well below what you’re truly capable off. In other words, you will surprise yourself. There is also a lot of support from your fellow team members which really is invaluable.

And eventually I found myself thinking “if I can do this, what else can I do”, and that’s a very interesting way of looking at life. What am I truly capable of? What are my limits? Are there any?

Our instructors never told us what was next, because that’s part of the “living in the moment” philosophy at Outward Bound. Don’t worry about what happened in the past, don’t worry about what you think may or may not happen, just enjoy the moment.

Outward Bound is also a strong advocate of the environment. They do all their own separating of garbage themselves for example. Recycle as much as possible. Some stuff goes to the pigs, then there is cardboard, non-recyclable, etc.

While sorting some of the garbage I read this bit of information that pointed out 63% of all garbage in New Zealand could have been recycled, but is now landfill instead. That’s pretty sad really. Gave me a lot to think about.

I’ve had anxiety for several years, and for me it’s one of the most frustrating things to live with. Suddenly and with no logical reason my body goes into “anxiety” mode. At first this was just while in planes (small places), but in the end it also spread to things like going to the hairdressers, etc. The result; avoiding more and more things and missing out big time on the fun things in life.

I knew this had to end, because eventually my two year old son would copy this kind of behavior (or suffer from it), and that was the last thing I wanted. I was hoping that by doing Outward Bound I would be able to gain inner strength by continuously venturing outside of my comfort zone, and then using my newly gained strength to overcome my anxiety. I really saw Outward Bound as a last resort to try and sort my life out.

Only one problem. I had to get there by plane, and what about the 10 hours sleep I need, and what if … Sigh! The ‘easiest’ way around the “what-if” game is to just sign the cheque in a brave moment – now you’ve committed yourself to going. No refunds! 😉

There’s only so much you can learn from books, overcoming anxiety will at some point require you to go beyond your comfort zone.

Before you’re allowed to go on an Outward Bound course, you first have to pass the medical screening. In my case that meant talking my doctor/nurse about my mental state. I’ve actually tried enrolling on Outward Bound once before, but at that time my doctor said no – which in hindsight was the correct decision.

My primary concerns were the amount of sleep I need (9-10 hours), the time it takes for me to properly wake up (at least 30 minutes), my “find the toilet in the middle of the night” zombie problems (medication), and of course my anxiety. It was quite obvious that it was going to be close, but fortunately my doctor said that it was up to me this time. I knew I had to be on this course, and after several conversations I decided to just go for it. Despite the many doubts I had, booking the course felt good and as another proactive step forward in my recovery. (As it turned out my ‘sleeping pills’ were actually an advantage, as I slept through all the snoring, and the party noise from next door) 🙂

The general requirements for the course are; run (or fast walk) 3 km in less than 25 minutes. I thought I was pretty fit from all the walking I do (30-45 minutes per day), but I was wrong. 🙂 After my first trial run everything hurt. I don’t really like running either, I only use it to boost my fitness. Tip: find other people you can run with (like at work). This will make things much easier. Although the running part is nice, I think having good stamina is much more important. You’re active most parts of the day, so I just stuck to walking, swimming and taking my son to the zoo, etc.

The gear list says to bring two pair of running shoes. I had one pair, but put off buying the other pair until a week and a half before the course. That was dumb. With about a week to go the new pair didn’t feel right, so I swapped it for another pair. So now I started to get real nervous, because I thought I’d be walking on them for the hiking part. Finally, my wife pointed out that shoes would be provided for that. Doh! I guess the moral of the story is: buy your gear early, and make sure you’re comfy in them.

Anxiety wise the days before the start were pretty rough. All pretty needless of course, because in the end things worked out. As a result I bought, some stuff to help with my anxiety, with sea sickness (I’ve always had motion sickness). Not sure if any of it helped though.

With only two days to go a filling in one of my teeth fell out. $#%$! That’s all I have to say about that. (The dentist put a temporary patch in it, because there wasn’t enough time to fix it properly)

The weather on the way to Blenheim was pretty rough (front approaching), and during the approach the nose was swinging from left to right, from left to right, … Did I mention that flying is my number one fear anxiety wise?

I felt pretty tired and stressed by the time I arrived, and that’s when we went sailing on a cutter with no toilet, and no a bucket does not classify as a toilet – nuf said.

Welcome to Outward Bound. 🙂

Personal best
One of the ideas behind Outward Bound is that you never compete with anyone else. You do your personal best, and use that within a group.

PT is a great example of that. PT stands for Physical Training, Physical Torture, or Party Time (depending on the mood of the instructors). At home PT stands for Pillow Time. Hehehe.

The first hour of the day sets the pace for the rest of the day. PT starts at 6 am, and normally means some kind of warm up routine (stretches, etc), a 3K run, followed by a quick dip in the ocean. Don’t always expect a hot shower afterward either, sometimes there’s just no time for that, so a quick cold outdoor shower will have to do.

Basically the idea is keep pushing yourself, and do the best you can for as long as you can. And always set some sort of goal or target, e.g. yesterday I ran the 3K in 23 minutes, today I’m going to run it under 20 minutes.

One morning I remember saying “I’ll do my best”, to which my instructor replied “I expect you to do better than that”. That sums it up quite nicely I think. 😉

So yeah, take a plunge, and give PT a go…
(You’re awake afterward – guaranteed)

Sailing is fun. Rowing is not. 🙂

Everybody had a go at being the captain which really was an opportunity to experience a leadership role. It was certainly interesting to experience different leadership styles. I thought the best captains were the ones that listened closely to the crew, and thought about row breaks, etc. The decision to bring out the oars was never a very popular one though, no matter whether it was correct or not.

At one point (during mooring I believe) everything was so chaotic that I contemplated a mutiny. I quickly dropped the idea when I realized I was the captain, as this would not have been a good look.

The highlight of our sailing trip was the arrival at Anakiwa I think. After five hours on board the cutter, nobody had used the bucket, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen that many people move so fast towards the toilets. Fascinating. 🙂

They later told me they had paid $100,000 for that boat; what a rip off, all that money and still no toilet…

Our instructors had prepared an Anakiwa welcome song for us which was just awesome. Thanks guys! 🙂
(The song was very catchy and it still gets stuck in my head regularly)

Rock climbing
I’ve done a little bit of rock climbing when I was a kid, but nothing too serious. I knew my body wasn’t the strongest (all the perceived stress from anxiety systematically wears your body out), but I figured I’d have a crack at it anyway. I never thought that I’d make it to the top though – didn’t even occur to me.

Okay, so I reached the pointed where my arms and legs were literally shaking, and I had no where to go. Had been trying to get good new footholds, but no such luck. So, I yelled “that’s it, let me down”. I was kindly instructed to take a leap (of faith) anyway. That’s what safety ropes are for right? Sounds reasonable, but when you’re up there your mind has some trouble getting around to that idea. Anyway, I jumped, and fell, but what I learned was that it’s okay to fail. Sometimes you just need to try anyway. I learned from that, because the second time I tried that jump, I succeeded, and not only that, I actually made it to the top.

When I got back down I thanked my instructor, and he said “I’m not going to let you sell yourself short, I know you can do it”. And that’s another good lesson right there; don’t set your goals too low, because you might just sell yourself short. Once you start to see you can do more than you thought, you also start wondering what else you’re capable off.

Another good group exercise, I wouldn’t have made it to the top without their support.

Rock climbing
Looks easy doesn’t it? (Hint: it’s not!)

Kayaking Outward Bound style means going down some rapids, then carrying you kayak back, and try again. I was first, and went the wrong way round. Oops. I was supposed to remain calm for 5 seconds so my fellow kayakers could tip me over again. I instead choose to bail out which was unwise because now my kayak was full of water. Silly me. On a positive note, it’s a lot nicer to go upside down in clear fresh water, than it is in dark salty sea water (yuck). 🙂

The second time (feeling the stretch there) was great because I overcome my fear of doing it again, and I actually stayed upright this time. Yay! The people that achieved this the first time round, were asked to go backward. He, it is Outward Bound after all. 🙂

I felt a lot better about the second time, not so much because of the result, but because I had another go knowing it could very well go wrong again.

In addition to kayaking we were also asked to keep track of the film that was playing in our head, what we were saying to ourselves kind of thing. All people experience some level of “self talk” (some 60,000 thoughts per day – your mileage might vary of course). If you keep saying to yourself “I’m going to fail” then your chances of failing increase dramatically. A bit like yelling “fore” before you even hit the ball. Your brain will focus on your self talk, and make it real. Sport stars excel in positive self talk, as they are completely focused on success. The negative self talk is just not helpful, best to replace it with something else, e.g. “I did something similar last time, surely I can do this”.

I decided to call the film in my head “Beaker goes bananas” (from the Muppets). In “The Great Muppet Caper” Beaker was asked to ‘test’ the alarm system (see if it was on) by putting a screw driver on one of the wires. Sure Beaker knew there was a fair chance he was going to get electrocuted (and he did of course), but he did it anyway – he took one for the team. Then he was asked to do it again to make sure it was definitely off, which he did as well (albeit somewhat hesitantly). 🙂 That’s kind of how it went for me that day as well. Oh yeah, the “bananas” refers to my yellow kayak with yellow paddles.

Beautiful, but didn’t see much of it, as we were around the corner going down the rapid hole

One day, and two nights of solitude. You are basically dropped off in the dark with a tent, some rations, and a poo bucket (more on the bucket later).

I got quite a fright when I heard the first possum, but I was reassured they were only curious. Note: curiosity has its place, but not when you’re in an open tent!

We were asked to do several exercise, e.g. values exercise, team feedback exercise, write a letter that you’ll get back in 6 months time, and a gift for the group.

When we got back we launched straight into the group gifts. That was a lot of fun. Some people had written poems, made drawings, written songs, etc. I had chosen to write a story about my poo bucket. (I called it “Wilson”, and taught it how play “fetch”, etc). I knew it had funny things in it, but I had no idea of the amount of laughter it got. That was absolutely awesome, people actually laughing about my jokes! 😉 The story was later re-enacted during sketch night (see below). The entire “Wilson” story there is included later in this article.

The feedback exercise was very powerful, as we basically had to face each other one at a time, and give someone positive feedback, as well as constructive feedback. I found it rather hard to come up with constructive feedback, so I choose to just emphasize the positive in the hope that people would continue down that path. That was a very special night with lots of fuzzy feelings, and we got very close to doing a group hug that night. 🙂

I had actually looked forward to this part of the course the most in the hope that having some time to reflect would magically fix me forever. That didn’t happen, but I do believe that a lot of good things came from being by myself for a bit.

Months before I got to Outward Bound I ran into this text about chrysalis:
Major changes and significant transformations are here for you. You have an opportunity to break out of the chrysalis and uncover the amazing life you truly deserve.
– Doreen Virtue, and Lynnette Brown

It’s a bit hard to explain where it came from, but I knew it was directly related to me going on the Outward Bound course. I wanted to change myself into a new “me” that was more loving, and useful to others.

So when one of our instructors offered to tell a story about chrysalis before going on the high ropes (another team was running late), he immediately had my full attention. In the story a boy found a chrysalis, and witnessed the birth of a butterfly. When the boy wanted to show this process to his father he grabbed another chrysalis, and forced it open, but this time the wings were broken. The moral of the story – the transformation can only be initiated by the butterfly itself (via a chemical process). The transformation can be supported but not rushed.

Then I finally got it. What I was looking for had always been there, it was always inside of me. I had some chills at that point, because I knew that this was what I had come for. It was now ‘just’ a matter of initiating that process, and putting myself out there – out of my comfort zone. I strongly feel that I was only able to get to that point though, because everybody has always supported me, e.g. my family, friends, group members, and so on.

It felt like I was finally ready… 🙂
(As in ready to embark on a new journey)

“A ship in harbour is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.”
– William Shedd

High ropes
High ropes have been around for a while, and are always challenging. Some are easier than others. I had most trouble with the pole (slippery, and hard to find balance). There was also a rock climbing board in between two trees at the end of the course. That’s what I set as a goal; work my way through all the elements, and somehow make it past that board. It wasn’t easy, but I made it, and I felt really good about that course.

Another interesting aspect of the high ropes was that we also learned about “support talk”. Support talk is basically the way you want to be talked to when things get a bit tougher. For example, some people wanted to be talked to quite direct, e.g. “Get your ass in that tree”, whereas I preferred something more like “You can do it, …, well done”. If things got really tough I asked my supports person to say “Your son needs a dad” (or “Do it for your son”), because I didn’t want to be a scary boy anymore – my son needed a dad (role model). I told him that that line was only for emergencies though, and fortunately it wasn’t used.

Up at 5 am (in a weird way, you get used to it), and off we went for a day of tramping.

This was great, the weather was nice, great views, and a chance to have a chat with each other. I got a bit puffed after an hour or so, thinking “how am I going to do this?”, but I then applied some Outward Bound philosophy and just see how it would go, and how far I’d get. Everybody in our group did these, and nobody complained about anything. We had lunch at the top of Dukes Head hill, then explored an abandoned mine, and walked all the way back. I didn’t believe one of our instructors when she said that going downhill is in fact harder, but it’s true – much harder on the knees, etc.

Sketch night
Right, so for the final night we were asked to do a sketch in front of all other teams present (roughly 120 people).

Our group was unanimous (except me initially) that our sketch should be a re-enactment of my “Wilson” story from solo. I would be narrating it (sure put someone with anxiety in front of that many people), and somebody else would be playing me (!) – how weird is that. 🙂

I felt the group effort was an excellent example of much we’d learned during the course. We quickly came up with an idea, people were getting props, and a much better “moral of the story” end line was added, etc. We tried it a couple of times, and on the night itself some very funny improv was done. I think as a whole people were having a great time with our sketch. Yay! 🙂

I had a great time, and I had no idea that that story would end up that way. I felt very honored and proud that my group had chosen that story for the sketch. They all did a great job.

Final night, by the way, does not mean it’s all over, Mega-PT next day at 5 am, and off for a 12K run. Sigh.

The “Wilson” story
Hello everyone,

Congratulations on behalf of the Batten team for making it this far.

We’ve decided to re-enact the journal I wrote while on solo. The journal was written “as-it-happened”, but the times were only estimates – for obvious reasons (no watch).

9.30 pm
Drop off. Dark cold, so started setting up the tent. Suddenly a loud noise coming from the trees. Possums? How many? My heart pounced. I felt so alone. I then did what every sane person would do…

I grabbed the poo bucket, tipped it upside down, penciled a smiley face on the side, and called it “Wilson”. (From the Castaway / Tom Hanks movie)

I finished the tent while Wilson kept guard. The nasty possums were all around, so I drank a water bottle, and marked my territory. Wilson offered to use himself as a possum trap. (By balancing the bucket on the lid, and using some nuts and a carrot as bait).

I briefly considered taking Wilson to bed, but realized I had to draw the line somewhere.

I went to sleep.

9.30 am (next morning)
One of my instructors entered my ‘home’, and woke me up. I apologized for the mess – leaves, and twigs everywhere.

10 am
Team feedback exercise, but could only remember 13 out of 14 names of our group.
11.30 am
The name missing was my own name – DUH!

1 pm
12 pm
Lost all track of time
1 pm (again)
Decided to teach Wilson how to play fetch, but he didn’t like it, and I ran out of sticks to throw.

3 pm
Bored. Decided to change tent into a hammock.
4 pm
Ropes not strong enough. Bum hurts. Wilson laughing.

7.30 pm
The moment I dreaded the most has come. I tip Wilson upside down, and lower my bum. I only fell off once.

After that things were never the same between Wilson and I, and we’ve decided to go our separate ways ever since.

The End

And the moral of the story:
Poo buckets make stink friends.

Trip back
On the way back I had a dodgy knee (from the morning run), got stung by a bee, lost my baggage (baggage shuttle delayed), and found massage oil (for my feet) roaming freely in my suitcase.

My baggage was found at some point after I boarded my flight, but Air New Zealand kindly took care of it by putting my baggage on a different flight (something they didn’t have to do). Thanks Air New Zealand! 🙂

To be honest, I wasn’t really phased by any of it, and had a really good flight back.
(The only downside was that I promised my wife I’d shave, but I had now lost my shaving gear)

The arrival back home was awesome – the hug alone made the course worthwhile. 😉

The Outward Bound effect
So, did it work? 🙂

When I came home I was motoring through my days at about twice the speed. I certainly had a lot of up&go. I was thinking clearly, and actually felt like doing stuff that I would have previously been nervous about. My wife almost immediately noticed the differences.

I no longer see any reason not to go and do things I’ve been dreaming of for so long. Big obstacles have turned in to opportunities to grow.

I completely surprised myself by coping with the early morning starts (without changing my medication), and the vastly reduced amount of sleep I was getting. I discussed it with my doctor, and he said that sometimes it’s possibly the body will maintain certain habits, like sleeping 10 hours, even if it can technically cope with 8 hours. I also suspect the higher metabolism makes it easier to deal with the medication, e.g. not so drowsy, etc.

I’ve installed some PT in my life, e.g. 6 am starts for some exercise, a walk with the dog, and a cold shower. I very much like to keep this going. If you move faster, you simply get more done – leaving more time for the things you truly care about.

“The real challenge starts when you come home!”
– Outward Bound instructor

I now know that each time I go out of my comfort zone, I will grow stronger. So I’ve let go of some more limiting beliefs. I’ll just give it a crack now – failing is okay. Giving up is the real failure.

When we left my two instructors gave me the following words of advice “Keep pushing yourself”, and “Keep doing PT”. So, what the hell, I’ll just do that.

That is also my challenge to you. Keep pushing yourself, and take a chance on something you really care about.

I was quite surprised to hear that my course had actually run at a loss, and that the difference was being paid for by donations and sales from the shop, etc. This completely blew me away, and has further inspired me to pay it forward.

Outward Bound New Zealand is a charitable trust, so if you feel like making a donation try Outward Bound donations.

If you’ve made an Outward Bound donation in the past, I’d like to thank you. 😉

The Outward Bound website also has a shop where they sell a booklet called “Challenge of Words”. The booklet contains many inspirational quotes. I highly recommend it.

Well worth it, book yourself a course today – nuf said! 🙂

For more information about Outward Bound New Zealand please visit:

For more information about Outward Bound International please visit:

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