Tolerance for Adversity and Uncertainty in Adventure Education Leadership Training


solitude and peace of winter forest

“Err, where’s the road gone, Salli?

“Whaat!? This cannot be! It’s here on the map – look, Ben! How can it just DISAPPEAR?!”


The Truth waits for eyes unclouded by longing ~ Lao Tzu



“Err, where’s the road gone, Salli?

“Whaat!? This cannot be! It’s here on the map – look, Ben! How can it just DISAPPEAR?!”

Indeed, in reality it had just disappeared and boy did our eyes long for a different version of reality! The loggers had been busy and not only cut down the trees at the edge of the national park, but in doing so, had totally destroyed the forest road – the road to our bed for the night.

This is what happens with maps: they get out of date.

Only a tank could get through there. Soon it was going to be dark and we had already been driving to Hossa for the last 11 hours for a week’s peer-led leadership training. A detour was going to add a further 1.5 hours. What to do now the original plan was out?

This is what we tried:

  • Give a little space to vent the emotions and frustration (swear, kick a rock)
  • Take a short time-out (pee, snack)
  • Accept the inevitable (facts on the ground; laugh at yourselves)
  • Think clearly (what are all our options?)
  • Discuss and weigh options with the team (inclusive leadership)
  • Make a new plan, get going (daylight fading)
  • Deliberately make the ‘extra work’ more enjoyable (belt out favourite songs!)
  • De-brief later what went wrong and how to learn from it (reflection).


Ever tried?  Ever failed?  No matter.  Try again.  Fail again.  Fail better ~ Samuel Beckett



We’ve probably all been there. Stuff goes ‘wrong’ (or, is it just not going according to our plans and expectations?). We have to adapt. But how long does it take for you to let go of your previous expectations? How much does your (natural) disappointment and annoyance affect you? What is the process by which you make the decisions that follow?

This is what I’m interested in.

How we meet adversity is a measure of our resilience, the word du jour. Employers are looking for evidence of it in their work-force (especially within the so-called ‘snow-flake’ generation); and people respect leaders who have the capacity to acknowledge the facts, admit mistakes, improvise, re-focus and make sensible decisions to steer the team back on track.

Paanajärvi National Park, northern Karelia (Russia) – September 2016


Of course, adventure education is perfectly placed to train people in improving these competencies. It is all about stepping into the unknown, facing yourself in relation to challenges. Outward Bound and the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) have been training people in exactly this for decades.

NOLS has identified 6 inter-connected skills for outdoor leadership and one of them specifically is ‘tolerance for adversity and uncertainty’ (Harvey, 1999). As I’ve experienced, part of their leadership training can be to deliberately take you on an expedition without knowing when the end is, or if it will be too much for you – hence, without the reassuring safety net of what you think your limits to be.

Character-building stuff, some might say. When the end is not after that next summit, or if you don’t know when you will reach your bed – or if you will even have the energy to get there – it can bring up powerful feelings. As a leader, you need to understand how people react under such pressure and – especially – how you react and where your limits lie.

Most people panic – at least a little inside. I’ve seen this when training adults to navigate through the winter forests of eastern Finland. Land suddenly no longer corresponds to map; that relaxed certainty of knowing where you are all too quickly evaporates, replaced by the discomforting fear of the unknown.

We can react in all kinds of ways particular to our conditioning – some give up, seeking the reassurance of authority: “You decide – you’re the instructor!” Some refuse to re-question assumptions: “We have to be here (pointing to a place on the map), we can’t have taken a wrong turn!” Some want to make snap judgements: “If we want to get to camp soon, we just need to take any route, it doesn’t matter which one!”

Metsäkartano Youth Centre, Rautavaara, Finland – March 2018


“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” – H.P. Lovecraft



Such heightened moments of uncertainty throw up great potential for important learning. What I do as an educator is to try to gauge just how much uncertainty they can tolerate at the time and attempt to keep a delicious balance on the fine line between where they are challenged and uncomfortable, but not so stressed that it tips over into traumatic experience or an inability to learn (Mortlock, 1984).

I want to step back enough for them to find their own answers and garner the corresponding sense of self-achievement; but to also prod and probe them with questions to highlight where their own thinking might lead them (down a wrong path, for example, in all senses of the word).

What I recognise is that when we get thrown, we want to escape as quickly as possible from this uncomfortable feeling. Uncertainty, it seems, can be inherently disturbing, destabilizing. As human beings we seek security: to know – that is what gives us reassurance (J. Krishnamurti). But, uncertainty is a fact of life.

Hossa National Park, Kuusamo, Finland – September 2019


As the philosophers of east and west knew two and a half millennia ago (Heraclitus, the Buddha, Lao Tzu, etc) – nature, time, and reality are always changing, in flux, essentially unknowable and un-pin downable. The art of living well, they taught, is to embrace these truths.

The ancient Greeks, those masters of sceptical inquiry, had a special word in rhetoric: aporia. This was the kind of logical inconsistency that leads to an inner sense of bewilderment and an inability to move forward. It obstructs progress. More recently, Derrida perhaps reclaimed the meaning of aporia to be used in a more positive sense: when a doubtful moment creates the opportunity for more possibilities.

I like this. It is when we let go of our grasp to the known, that the creative potentiality of the moment arises.

Can we be OK with ambiguity? Can we tolerate not knowing? Are we able to allow and to hold uncertainty, at the same time as making decisions based on the best info that we have at the time? What are my particular emotional reactions, and the ways in which I try to cling to security? What, you may ask, does this mean for adventure education?

I have my own saying: out in the field, “certainty is complacency and complacency is your enemy”.

If you don’t attentively read the map, you will miss important information; if you don’t keep questioning what you see in the landscape, you may think you are somewhere that you are not; if you don’t have a healthy dose of sceptical doubt about your own assumptions (needing to recognise them first), then you could be basing all your decisions on a very unstable foundation.

I’m with Nietzsche who said, “It is certainty, not doubt, that drives a man crazy.”

A wild Siberian Jay feeding off the author, Hossa National Park, Finland – September 2019


Uncertainty keeps you alert, attentive, and open to unforeseen possibilities. Uncertainty is alive, creative, natural.

Of course, we will all make mistakes. The weather will change. Roads will disappear. It is not foolish to have reactions to that change in circumstance. But it doesn’t need to be an impasse.

Calm is the key.

Exert self-control (deep breaths, time alone perhaps). Relax. Re-asses. Look afresh. Think step by step. Don’t panic. Don’t give airtime to the voices within your head that fear the worst.


Trust is the key to calm. And trust can be strengthened, like a muscle, by experience. Practice meeting the challenge of adversity, facing the unknown with confidence, accepting reality – and faith in yourself will grow.

Of course, the lessons learnt here apply not only to the forest and fell, but to also life and how to live it well. That rhymes, so it must be true.

Good luck on all your journeys…

Text and photographs: Benjamin Hammond, 2nd year Bachelor degree student in the Adventure and Outdoor Education programme



Tsu, L., translation Feng, G-F. & English, J. (1972). Tao Te Ching. Vintage Books (Random House): London, UK.

Beckett, S. (1983). Worstward Ho. Grove Press Inc: Dublin, Ireland.

Harvey, M. (1999). The National Outdoor Leadership School’s: Wilderness Guide. Fireside (Simon & Schuster Inc): New York, USA. p174.

Lovecraft, H.P. (1927). Supernatural Horror in Literature. Wildside Press: Maryland, USA.

Mortlock, C. (1984). The Adventure Alternative. Cicerone Press: Cumbria, UK.

Krishnamurti, J. (1969). Freedom from the Known. Rider: London, UK.

Derrida, J., translation Dutoit, T. (1993). Aporias. Stanford University Press: California, USA.

Nietzsche, F., translation Hollingdale, R.J. (1888). Ecce Homo. Penguin: London, UK.

Last modified: November 13, 2019