Mountaineering, Quarantine, and Professional Development: Six Lessons It Took a Worldwide Pandemic to Teach Me


by SimGHOSTS Board member Matthew Charnetski

Stick with me on this one. It’s a bit of a long one, but I’ve given myself a lot more space to let my mind wrap around it. Come on this journey with me, I think it’ll be worth it in the end…

Years ago, I had the opportunity to climb Mt. Baker in the Cascades. It was the first time I had climbed a mountain that would require much more than a hike or a hike at altitude, I was inexperienced, and I was unfamiliar with the area. So, I hired a guide. His name was Dwayne. He showed up with a whole pile of zinc on his nose and lips. He was a kind man and he spoke a bit like Keanu Reeves from Parenthood and Crush the Turtle from Finding Nemo. No, I’m not exaggerating.

On the last stretch of our first day of climbing we stopped to make camp at the base of a slope that was covered in snow. After setting up camp, we proceeded to use this slope to practice crevasse travel and self-arrest. Practicing self-arrest is essentially hurling yourself down the side of a mountain with sharp spikes on your feet and in your hands. You hurl yourself in different configurations in an effort to learn how to stop yourself should you or a teammate start sliding toward a crevasse for one reason or another. When mountaineering in glaciated terrain, it’s an insanely useful skill. In the meantime, it’s super fun. But I digress.

After we had each had a couple of turns (I had no idea this was essentially rapid cycle deliberate practice), Dwayne stopped us all and had us have a seat looking out at the rest of the Cascades. If you haven’t had a chance to go, you should. Honestly, we all should take more moments to sit and look at what (and who) is around us. We sat and Dwayne, in this Keanu/Crush voice suggested that “the best part about learning stuff up here, is what you can do with it down there…”

As you might imagine, this stuck with me.

All of this happened fairly early in my Antarctic career. I spent the better part of a decade after this wandering the planet, only to cool my heels briefly back in Iowa before I’d start wandering again. Every step of my journey I just kept thinking about how I take things from one place and translate them to another. How each previous experience managed to uniquely prepare me for the one set before me. 

In addition to that, I became extraordinarily good at isolation. You spend enough time in airports and you’re bound to have down time. You go to enough countries where you don’t speak the language, or worse, that aren’t particularly safe, and you become used to spending time alone and being stuck in one place or another. I got really good at being alone and at keeping myself entertained and engaged while stuck somewhere.

Fast forward nearly 20 years.

COVID-19 struck a lot of us a lot of different ways. And many of us have been surprised at the toll that being in some degree of “stay at home” or quarantine has taken on us. Home life changed drastically. Work life changed drastically. Things that we took for granted or had been easy suddenly took so much more effort to accomplish. Some of us had to stop work completely and some of us found our departments and programs completely hijacked in the name of this worldwide pandemic.

We’re clearly not out of the woods, but we’re starting to have to come to terms with what things may be like for the foreseeable future…

So, in my best Crush the Turtle, I ask myself “Self, what can I take from up here, down there?”  Or, more appropriately, what are the lessons from this very strange time that I want to apply to my future life; personal and professional?

Connected isn’t always connected

We work in a technological field. It’s in our title. It’s in our community. Technology is important. Until it’s not.
In this age of smart phones and wi-fi, email, text, and video chat, and in this time of increased work from home our ability to stay connected electronically was hailed as a saving grace when stay at home orders were issued. But I found the opposite to be true. I found that I had more interruptions and less time to actually get work done, and yet, I strangely found myself more accessible and available for questions, requests, and meetings.

Ironically, the inspiration for this blog came from putting my phone down, abandoning my devices, and heading up into the hills of New Hampshire and Vermont. I came up with potential solutions to a lot of problems in that few hours of driving. I became more thankful for the people in my life. I gave myself space to actually process through things.

So, lesson one, put the phone down. Step away from the computer. Spend a little time in my own head and actually talking to humans. Or even just alone time, but without the constant pinging of the world. Technology is our friend, until it is not. Principle of parsimony, Occam’s razor, the K.I.S.S principle; whatever you prefer. At the end of the day, sometimes more tech isn’t the answer. And sometimes, getting out of the depth of the tech might help you find a better way to use that technology.

Structure, more structure, and unstructured

I’m really good at planning. Not to brag or anything, but my calendars have calendars. And, some days, that structure was the only thing that got me through. I couldn’t always tell you what day it was, but I could tell you what meetings I had and what projects were immediately in front of me.

As things got crazier and my time had more demands put upon it, I structured more. I used every device I had, I set timelines for everything. Eating. Sleeping. This is my time to meditate. It got intense.

For a while this can be good. Make time to make time. Block out that time on your calendar for you time. Put time to relax on your schedule. Yada yada yada.

The problem was, I lost my ability to be in the moment. My creativity went down. I could react to the issue immediately in front of me, but I was quickly burning out. Solutions were just out of my grasp.

Our work is inherently a creative pursuit. I’ve said it before and I will say it until the day I die. Even in the deepest, darkest holes of technical mumbo jumbo, the most elegant and useful solutions to just about any problem are creative at their core.

Technology, education, teamwork, organizational politics (barf), worldwide pandemics; they all require us to be creative in the ways we approach our problems. The only way we can be truly innovative is by approaching things from angles that we’ve never considered before.

Lesson two, put down the calendar man
. Roll with it and sometimes, go off course. Drive through the mountains. Spend the extra time catching up with a friend unexpectedly. Read that book (or this incredibly long blog!). Take a deep breath. Step away from everything. Let your mind wander. Sleep on it. Go for a walk. Or a hike. Or whatever you do to unwind. The time crunch will always be there. Sometimes the best thing you can do for your deadline is walk away.

Be a personable professional and a professional person

Working from home led me to blur work/home life lines. I’m already really bad at this. I don’t do a good job of actually stepping away from work. In the past, this has absolutely led to me being burned out and resulted in becoming less effective in both my personal and professional lives.

During this entire thing, I felt like I was constantly running in a million directions. I’d roll out of bed, shower and head to work. Come home 18 hours later, fall into bed and sleep a couple of hours before I’d do it all over again. Even as the direct demands on my time eased, I still work some just about every day. I bring a lot of work home. I do a lot of work on weekends. Sometimes that is necessary, but it became my normal. This wasn’t new in the pandemic, but it was worse and reflection on the last few weeks certainly gave me insight into how I may have been going about it wrong all along.

I have often been against the idea of work/life balance. I’m more of a “find something you love and let it kill you” kind of person. But the last few months have really shown me that I need to be passionate about both my professional and personal life.

Lesson three, have a personal life. And have a professional life. They can be adjacent. They can overlap in parts. But be intentional. Look closely at your personal and professional lives and see when they need fed and watered. Our personal and professional lives will always bleed together, after all, we are still one human (I hope), allow the ebb and flow, but try not to neglect what’s important to you. Professionally and personally.

Perfection is the enemy of progress and busy is the enemy of productive

I love the phrase perfection is the enemy of progress. We should always strive for perfection, but we’re more likely to get there through an iterative process than we are to hold off on doing something until we can get it perfect. Try it, break it, mess it up, fix it, do it again; repeat. In order to be creative in how we approach anything, we have to be experimental. We have to be fearless and ready to give things a shot. So, make your baby steps. Know it may not be right the first time. Learn. Adapt. Proceed. It matters not how slow we go, so long as we do not stop.

Relatedly, I noticed many of my colleagues and I through all of this pandemic business is that the response to “how are you” or “how’s it going” became even more “busy” than usual. I certainly caught myself doing it. The issue was, as you might guess from so many of my earlier lessons, the more I was “busy,” the less I was actually getting done. There is always more work to do and we are unlikely to be remembered kindly for a volume of mediocre work. Instead, we are more likely to be considered highly based on the quality of our work.

Lesson four, be ambitious in your pursuits, and stop being busy. Start being productive. This has been a stark reminder that quality work is not based on perfection alone, and that if my response is “busy” without some qualifier of what short term thing is occupying my time, I need to re-evaluate my decision-making paradigm (my favorite quote from the movie Sahara). I need to step back and see if I’m busy or if my schedule is just full but I’m delivering at the level I expect of myself.

Act well your part, there all the honor lies

One thing that I’ve always struggled with is minding my own business. At least professionally. If I see an issue, I want to speak up. If I have an idea, I’m arrogant enough to think that you might want to hear it. Mixed results on whether that is true or a good idea.

But during all of this I discovered that I needed to trust those around me. I needed to “stay in my lane.”  It doesn’t mean that I don’t speak up if I see a potential issue. It means I choose how, where, and when I do that. It means I respect my colleagues enough to believe that they will do their job and I will do mine. And, together, we make a kickass team that can do just about anything.

I started a new role at a new organization at the end of 2019. This was my first real test with these folks. They did not disappoint. I can only hope that I held up my end of the deal as well.

Lesson five, stay in my lane. Trust my team. My permanent team and my temporary team. There are times for input and times for doing. Know the difference. Collaborate. Kick ass.


Authenticity of desire

This one was unexpected. At different times in all of our lives we talk about how we want to do something. Moreover, we talk about “if only…” and then proceed to talk about the obstacles that are in the way of us accomplishing something that we express the need to do.

Sometimes these obstacles are real. Sometimes they are not. Turns out, quarantine is a great time to consider these things. Be honest with yourself. Suddenly, you may be served a pile of time to get that thing done. Write that novel. Go to school. Workout more. Whatever it happens to be. Those projects that you always wished you could do, “but…”

This isn’t to say that if you weren’t ultra-productive in quarantine that you failed. In fact, just the opposite. Whole new layers of obstacles and worry appeared. This lesson isn’t about what I did or did not accomplish during my work from home time.

Lesson six, be honest with myself about what I want and don’t want. If I truly want something, I’ll find a way to keep moving toward it until there is a real and concrete obstacle in my way. I want to go to Mars, there are some real obstacles in my way at this point; extremely unlikely through no real fault of my own. I want to read more books. I want to cook at home more. Suddenly, I have time, and I didn’t read that many new books. And I’ve cooked a little more at home, but not as much as you’d think being relegated to home. And, seriously, I love you Macaroni and Cheese, but your box made powdered “cheese” comfort doesn’t really count as cooking… So, I need to put on my big girl pants and think about what the real obstacles are. And then, either move them or re-evaluate my priorities. I need to be authentic about my desire to do things. Do I really want to do them, or do I just feel like I need to talk about wanting to do them?  No judgement, just be more real.

So, that’s what I took from these last few weeks. What about you?  What are the things that you want to take from up here and use down there? (Sheaah)

Finally, if you’re interested in my Dwayne impression, please let me know. And I can then offer the associated impressions as the rest of that year was filled with strange connections between his life and mine…