I am a huge fan of observing the common underlying principles in different settings. After experiencing an amazing adventure on the Camino de Santiago in the Summer of 2019, I started thinking about what made it so great and what can be replicated in a work environment.
Big goals matter, smaller ones make you feel better
Camino de Santiago is one of the most famous medieval Christian pilgrimages that has multiple routes, all ending in Santiago de Compostela, in Spain. The most travelled is the French way that starts in France in St. Jean Pied-de-Port and is about 800 km long. For this kind of journey thorough preparation is required.
First of all, you need the proper equipment: confortable shoes and a light backpack, with only the necessary things, are of utmost importance. The lighter your equipment, the faster and longer you can travel each day. The body adjusts to a heavier equipment too, but it takes longer and it depends on its previous condition. Second, an efficient daily routine acts like a power source. Even though on the Camino there is no day like other, there are some rituals that provide a touch of stability. Preparing the backpack each morning, putting vaseline on the feet to prevent blisters, stretching before starting to walk, stopping for breakfast after the first 5-7 km, doing the walk, checking in at the albergue, having a shower, washing clothes, having lunch (and maybe a siesta afterwards), having dinner and getting to bed by 22.00… these made the 800 km just fly by. And lastly, listening to your body is key to making sure you reach Santiago de Compostela. Some days you might walk 35 km, others you might not…even if you are very well trained, so many unexpected things can happen (I hurt one of my toes in the second day on the Camino and I had to walk bandaged and at a lower pace for the next three days). There’s no point in hurrying. Better done (the Camino) than perfect (walking the same distance every day).
I like to think that a pilgrim’s equipment is similar to the tools, techniques, and procedures that one has to work with. Bureaucracy and complicated tools can sometimes slower the process of getting things done. The skills and capabilities required to perform daily activities are similar to the body condition of the pilgrim. And trust me when I say that nothing is more frustrating than having to stop or slow down because of blisters caused by inappropriate shoes… Yes, we are able to learn and navigate complexities, but the bigger the gap between the goal and the appropriate means to reach it, the longer it takes. This is also true in the case of personal values vs. company values.
Like in the Universe, change is now the only constant in the current economic environment. There is no work day like other. Being adaptable is good, being too adaptable takes a toll on you. Some sort of stability must be ensured in order to maintain the balance of the system. Going to sleep and waking up at the same hour every day, having programmed and timeboxed periods of time for answering emails, or pausing from time to time to breathe deeply, are all rituals that bring stability, focus, and increased productivity each day. In a work environment we might have little control over the items on the to-do list, but that does not apply to our own behavior.
Big goals matter, but smaller ones make you feel better. Each successful walking day on the Camino (without blisters, tendinitis or unbearable pain in my shoulders from the backpack) felt like victory. After a while I even forgot about the goal and started enjoying each day at its fullest. The funny part was that the joy of reaching Santiago was packed with sadness when I realized my Camino was ending. So once again it was not about the destination, it was all about the journey. How did that impact the way I work? It just made me realize that all goals are attainable when divided in fast reachable smaller ones. The most important thing is to start walking. Things will just fall into places at some point.
The goal is important, the people you reach it with are even more
In my Camino experience I was lucky enough to meet truly amazing people, some of whom I now call family. Each journey is ultimately an interior one and the people we meet along the way are mirrors of our own selves. They help us grow (not always the easy way), adjust the route, and enjoy the ride. 🙂 When you ask people who walked the Camino what they enjoyed the most, in most cases the response would be the camaraderie between pilgrims. Even though most people start the Camino alone and they are coming from different parts of the world, everyone is eager to help everyone, no matter their age, race, sex, religion, social status, etc. Everyone is equal. You could say it is the “culture” of the Camino. Reaching Santiago with the friends I made on the way felt amazing. And even though sometimes our ways were split for a few days, we all made it back to the group richer and more appreciative of the strong bond we had developed for each other.
In this respect, Camino was again a snapshot of the real life. Having a good support system (family, colleagues, friends) to share ones experiences with (either good or bad) makes the journey enjoyable and full of hope. No matter how hard the project or task, being surrounded by people with similar values makes everything feel possible. The culture of the company is also important. The group thrives when differences (of opinion, work habits, etc.) are embraced and when people are given the time and liberty to perform the roles they best fit in. Success just gains a different dimension.
Time really is the best healer
The hardest thing about the Camino I found out to be the life after it. After a month in a bubble of fresh air (literally and figuratively) and deep, structural cleansing, returning to normal life can sometimes be depressing. Reality strikes you in the face without warning. From a world of pure bliss and freedom you return to responsibilities and agitation. You come back transformed and you have to find a way to manifest that into everyday life. The most challenging part of all is that no one back home really understands what you have experienced unless they have done a similar journey themselves. So you are now caught up in-between two worlds without any clue about how to navigate from here. I was lucky enough to have had the time to reflect on all of this and to, finally, integrate it (it took me 6 months). The most important lesson for me is to keep going and allow myself to pause from time to time. I have always had this pressure in my head to perform, and society isn’t helping either in this respect. Now I am at peace with the fact that nothing will fall of the sky if I take a day off (I used to do that in the past as well, but felt really guilty about it). Like the body, our minds also need to rest and make the learning and integration processes possible. Some people need longer rest periods than others (depending on the propensity for reflection) and it’s perfectly fine.
The constant adaptation we go through at work (new projects, new clients, new tools, new management, new strategies, etc.) challenges our brain tremendously. Time to adapt to everything is key. Even if in the short run it might feel like things will get out of control for not answering an email or returning a call right away, on the long run having patience with ourselves will be healthier.
Camino felt like a lifetime in one month and that’s why it was a very intense experience. Met friends, said goodbye to them, only to meet them again. Confronted different aspects of myself that I had previously thought were healed. Being a part of a new multicultural family, to whom I can always talk even if we are miles apart… All of this has placed my life into a different perspective.