Lessons from the Camino

So I spent my final day in Spain wandering about Madrid and thinking about lessons learned from the Camino… The wandering about Madrid isn’t terribly interesting (except for the woman whom I met over lunch and talked about travel, personal, business challenges – she’s trying the digital nomad thing, which I find interesting), so I’ll focus this  on things I learned from the Camino as I wing my way back to real life at home.

What I learned….

  1.  Reduce, reduce, reduce

I walked the Camino with a backpack that weighed less than 20 pounds , containing all the clothes and other things I really needed.  And I was able to walk the 500 miles and still be successful at completing the walk.  It drove home the point that we have a lot of stuff (and baggage) that we don’t need to live successfully and happily.  In fact, it might be argued that we can be happier with less stuff.

From a business sense, this means we should look at simplifying and reducing the extras that our customers don’t really care about.  That’s one of the core tenets of the lean startup model: research what your customer really needs and provide it to them… ease their pain.  Narrow down your initial customer base and provide them what they really need, and leave out stuff that doesn’t help them.   Features can come later, but even the features need to deliver value to the customer.  (Do you use – or even know how to use – all the features in a Microsoft Office package?  I’d argue that very, very few people do.)

From a personal sense, this means we should look at our lives, figure out what’s really important and why, and then do things or buy things to meet the important needs.  Do we really need  25 pairs of shoes or can we live happily with a few pair…. And maybe a few good friends to hang out with & rely on for support when we need it. 

  1. The power of relationships

I had originally hoped to meet a few folks along the Camino – I completely underestimated the power and strength of building new relationships & friendships along the way.  I am talking about people who support each other, care, and encourage everyone to success (and folks that are able to take care of themselves, with the support of their friends, even if it meant disappointment).  We were constantly checking on each other and nearly every pilgrim would ask if someone resting or dealing with a blister was OK.  Non-judgmental and stress-reducing.  None of us are walking in the other’s shoes.

From a business sense, I am reminded that America is very t transaction-oriented while much of the rest of the world is built on relationships.  To much of the rest of the world,  not about maniacal focus on money, it’s about succeeding together.  In so many of the classes supporting entrepreneurs we teach in a group session and encourage folks to talk about their ideas… not the secret sauce – and what they need to determine whether it’s a viable product that succeeds in the marketplace.  That may be as simple as contacts for interviews.  Japan has “families” of businesses (“Keiretsu”) that supply and support each other.  My walk on the Camino taught me just how valuable relationships are to our success.

On a personal note, I leave the Camino with deep friendships and relationships that I expect will last a lifetime.  We helped each other & each of us achieved a greater reward.  These are the folks that we can reach out to in the future.  Perhaps we can learn to build new and better relationships and let our guard down a bit.  What you give will be returned in excess.

And yes, I know about the Maslow Hierarchy- I am now a firm believer that close relationships will cause people to help each other to satisfy the bottom layers of the hierarchy.  In other words, those needs don’t have to be met by one’s self.  For example, folks would step up if someone were having problems finding lodging or food and help them meet their basic need.  We can all do a lot better at helping others.

  1. Reduce stress

An enduring memory of the Camino for me will be the “rule” in a particular lodging and eating establishment: “stress is prohibited”.  I overprepared for the Camino with the hope of reducing my personal stress level, and really didn’t have anything or anyone that I had to worry about directly.  The strenuous exercise and outdoor activity itself pretty much ensured that stress was minimized.

From our business lives, I find that stress hurts business performance and causes angst amongst all the workers, from top to bottom.  Making commitments that can’t be achieved and browbeating make it very hard to produce a quality product that we’re proud of.  I know of the old joke that “beatings will continue until morale improves” – and I know of companies that operate that way.  Induced stress is, perhaps, one of the few areas where I disagree with the iCorps program model because it is designed to introduce stress rather than reducing success to achieve a better result.  Yes, I understand WHY it’s done that way, even if I disagree as to whether it’s necessary.  

From a personal sense, there is a boatload of evidence that stress affects our health and personal lives.  I believe that one reason the Camino facilitates deep relationships is that it produces an environment that reduces the usual stress and makes us less focused on posturing or putting on airs – we can be our “real selves” to others without worrying about judgement.

  1. Persevere, but listen to your body

If there’s no other lesson from the Camino it’s that achieving success or a goal requires perseverance.  At the same time, we can’t push on to the point of harming our bodies and our health – we have to listen for the clues that we are causing harm.  You gotta stop and take care of a blister before it gets infected: if you have a bigger health issue, you gotta take a break (or stop and decide to finish later).  I have the utmost respect for a couple of my new friends for either slowing down – or stopping – when their health was affected despite the great disappointment it caused to step back.  While I feel very sad for them, at the same time I am confident that they listened to their bodies and did the right thing to stay healthy and succeed in the future.

From a business sense, I believe that we need to push hard & persevere to gain success, but at the same time we need to take care of our own health (“reduce stress”), the health of our families, and the health of our business.  Sometimes we believe in our product but the market doesn’t, sometimes the market is not easy for our product, and sometimes we figuratively kill ourselves in trying to be successful.  Listen to our bodies, listen to up our customers.  The business world is littered with stories of families and relationships that ended because one of the principals put work life above everything else…. Or folks that had heart attacks and other medical problems because they ignored their bodies.

From a personal sense, we can work hard, scale difficult challenges, and do extraordinary things, but what good is it if the cost is our health?  Dying doing something you love is still dying. 

  1.  Trust the data, but use instinct too

Airplane pilots are taught to trust their instruments (“the data”) when flying in the clouds without reference to the ground, but it’s equally important they need to know when the data is bad – that is, when the instruments/data are lying.  I’ve experienced failed instruments as a pilot, and I saw was reminded of the lesson firsthand on the Camino: I came into one town and trail arrow pointed to the right, and I followed it.  About 500 meters later, something just didn’t seem right and I pulled out my phone and checked the GPS map.  Sure enough, the right turn should have been a left turn – it cost me a kilometer of walking but imagine if I hadn’t checked?  A reversal of course got me on the right path and to my destination with only a minor delay (well, at least compared to the delay I would have had if I’d wandered around for hours).

So it is with business.  Market data can lie to you.  Others may tell you things without having the proper basis.  Your sample size may be too small.  Or a particular customer or two provide input that gives you confirmation bias and you build something unneeded or waste time on a feature that others won’t use. Listen to your customers and make sure you listen to enough of them to get a really good sense of the true need.  One reason I don’t like surveys for market research is that the wording of the questions make all the difference in how the question is answered.  Better to use an open-ended conversational interview process to get to the heart of the matter.

Personally, sorties abound – from folks that blindly follow their GPS into the drink or into a dead end i the mountains or desert.  Or a bad thermometer that causes an entire meal to be under or over cooked.  Or the stories of professionals that either overlook clues or disregard them in making a diagnosis and prescribing a solution.  

I’m sure I’ll have more to say the longer I digest my experiences.  For now, I’ll take a break and try to live my life in honor of the Camino.