I recently graduated with an MBA from the University of San Francisco, a Jesuit school in the best city in the world – and boy, have I learned about economics, data analysis, marketing, accounting, and even the rare factoid about baseball! All this knowledge will sure come in handy for a career in the corporate world. What is equally important to what I am taking away from the past two years, however, is what I learned in the woods.
For about a year, I have been lucky to become involved with a property of 600 acres of wild Northern California hills; first as a guest of the on-site campground falling in love with the rugged beauty of Mendocino County, then as Intern for strategy and business development during the last semester of my studies, and finally as Assistant Property Manager taking care of the property during the rainy months.
In several school papers, I referred to Mendocino Magic as a perfect MBA sandbox: its small team allows me to take on projects in all realms of the business. But apart from that, spending time in a remote area, far away from the tech focus of San Francisco and met with completely new challenges, has helped me grow and learn in ways that would never have been possible with “only” my MBA. This series is a recount of the lessons learned; and a pitch for everyone to go outside and get dirty!
Part 1 – Universe & U: I come from a small college town in South Western Germany that has had a Green party mayor since 2007 and have grown up in a community of trailblazers for green initiatives like waste separation and bike lanes. With that background, I have always appreciated sustainability efforts; living in Mendocino County, however, has taught me just how important it is to be aware of the world we live in and how we move through it.
Part 2 – Me, Myself & I: As an alumna of a Jesuit school, I am familiar with the idea of cura personalis, the care for the whole person, and the importance of self-awareness. While it is vital to teach yourself new skills – whether it be interpersonal or technical – you will not fully benefit from those if you don’t know yourself, your strengths and shortcomings. This is a retelling of what living and working in the woods teaches me about myself.
Part 3 – You Shall Be the Fellowship: Mendocino Magic is run by a small group of dedicated staff and volunteers, and often we all live in one house and work on multiple projects at the same time. With 600 acres to keep track of and only few people to do it, you have to assign projects in a way that utilizes everyone’s talents and skills as efficiently as possible. This and meeting our guests and campers on a regular basis has taught me as many lessons about human nature as my TA gig for an Organizational Development class.
Part 1 – Universe & U
Part 1 of this series deals mostly with the relationship with the outside world, with nature, with the way things are and the way they should be. Because sometimes the best way to learn about connection is to go to a place that has no internet and hardly any cell reception.
Lesson I: I Have a Dream
When I first came to Mendocino Magic, I was very much used to how things were done at business school; sure, we had good ideas but studying in the global hub of technology, we tended to come up with apps for a lot of our class projects. Arriving on the property, I had to realize one of the most important lessons: with 600 acres at your disposal, you can do almost anything. I specifically remember one glorious whiteboarding session where three of us were sitting in a work shop and trying to come up with every possible use of the property: a dude ranch, an olive farm, a zip lining facility, and a spot for boot camp-like team building retreats were just some of the mentions.
Going back to school after my first weeks in the woods, I felt my approach changing: I still tend to play devil’s advocate and ask a lot of questions during ideation meetings but my mind had been expanded, I had become aware of the box that some of our thoughts are encased in. Now I can remind myself of that particular – very full – whiteboard before similar tasks and dive right in knowing that even if I don’t have 600 acres to play with, the possibilities are still endless.
Lesson II: The big!picture
It is one thing to watch ‘The Lion King’ and sing along to the ‘The Circle of Life;’ or to realize in early physics experiments that water will find its way to the lowest available level. It is a completely different thing to live close enough to nature to remember that sometimes bears eat goats, and that Northern California winters are so rainy that you really have to know where the lines of your gravity-fed irrigation system run to avoid seasonal waterways.
In the larger context, living in a system so elegantly balancing all its parts has definitely changed my view on the world and how I function in it. I come from my Green politics college town and I have cared about sustainability for a long time; but living in woods reveals that there are bigger consequences for everything you do. With this experience in mind, I have learned to always plan for contingencies and think all plans and ideas through to the end.
Lesson III: Constant Vigilance
Any self-respecting nerd will know this quote is from Harry Potter but sadly – despite its name – Mendocino Magic is not affiliated with Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and we don’t learn from a gruff one-eyed veteran but rather from hiking in the woods every single day.
To know what is happening on your property, you have to go out there and check it out so I usually start my day with a half hour walk. And as much as I like listening to podcasts, that is a time of day where I leave my headphones at home. I want to be able to use as many of my senses as possible: I watch, listen, smell and even feel what is going on on-site: changes in weather and vegetation, or movement of any wildlife.
This attentiveness is something I will take away for my future career: I often play devil’s advocate as is and my work up here has reinforced and changed that notion. Previously, I was concerned that being on the lookout might be mistaken for paranoia. But now I have learned that a combination of caution and curiosity can be used to find not only potential downfalls but also opportunities.