anthropology, mountains, personal journeys, travel & adventure

what kayaks, alpacas, and flowers have taught me: learning from ‘odd’ jobs

During university summers, I worked a lot of jobs, some odder than others. I worked at a kayak, canoe, and stand-up paddleboard rental facility; I babysat and tutored; I gardened and worked at an alpaca farm. Whilst at university, I lead hikes and served for two years as a class representative. In the year or so since graduating, I’ve worked at GoApe (a high ropes course and zipline facility), tutored extensively, taught piano, cared for horses, and worked at a greenhouse and flower farm.

Sometimes it’s intimidating to think of where I am, where others are around me, and where I’d like to be. I think of my dreams of being a writer, researcher, and explorer (basically, an anthropologist with a mountain problem) and wonder how I’ll get there. I see others my age doing crazy, scary shit like getting desk jobs (not knocking desk jobs). Life can be quite strange, can’t it?

As I’ve said before here, my life has proven to be a little nonlinear lately, but it’s given me so much joy and brought me some of the most treasured people in my life. I think it’s also easy, as humans, to look around and label circumstances as somehow disadvantageous to our goals. But honestly?

Alpacas taught me a lot, namely that animals built for cold mountain weather are pretty needy in hot, humid Pennsylvania summers. In all seriousness, they also taught me about herd dynamics, about how animals build their own social networks and power structures, about managing a lot of animals. Some kind redneck gave me a two-minute lesson on how to drive a quad without breaks with a trailer behind it through the woods, and I learned it didn’t kill me.

Working at a kayak rental facility gave me the opportunity to learn to kayak, canoe, and paddleboard. It showed me many sides of working with the public: the frightened children, the rude customers, the customers who beamed kindness. It showed me how differently people can perceive a certain activity and how many different assumptions people can make about each other. I learned to watch people there, to try to understand where they were coming from and how best to help them.

Working 11 or 12 hour days in summer heat between jobs paired with living in Scotland the rest of the year, I learned a thing or two about tolerating physical discomfort. I learned that discomfort or inconvenience often produces memories, joy.

‘An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered’ — G. K. Chesterton

Horses showed me unconditional irritation or unconditional affection. They taught me how to be assertive with an animal ten times my size and gave me lessons in medicine. I learned that working in subzero temperatures in a barn isn’t the worst thing in the world and can actually be quite enjoyable. Again, discomfort can lead to some crystal-clear memories.

Guiding hikes and mountaineering on my own in Scotland showed me a great deal in terms of camping, wilderness first aid, navigation, and so much more. It kept me on this planet during the hardest time of my life and gave me some of the best friendships and conversations I could have hoped for. It took me from not knowing how to read a map to tackling some of the most challenging ridges in the UK on my own or with a friend.

Tutoring lead me into hours upon hours of researching child psychology, the philosophy of education, and teaching models. I read countless books and articles about the Montessori method, Charlotte Mason, Classical Education, and Social Thinking. I worked hard to make my hours of lessons for homeschool kids fun, challenging, and always creatively joyous. This challenged me a lot: I had to understand how each child learn, pay attention to their needs and moods, and be open to wildly different personalities and learning styles.

GoApe helped me learn how to coach others through their fears and, very practically, set rescue systems at height.

Working at a flower farm and greenhouse has brought its own unique joys, from learning the name of so many new plants and flowers to watching the everyday workings of a family-run business. I’ve been able to ask so many questions and, as someone who aspires to live at least mostly off-grid at some point in my life, the knowledge it’s given me is invaluable.

And now I step back and think: I want to be a writer, researcher, and explorer. I want to work largely with indigenous circumpolar peoples, to conduct personal and interpersonal research in taxing, unfamiliar environments. My jobs have taught me, in a way academia never could, adaptability to different personalities, worldviews, and tasks; the ability to withstand physically uncomfortable or taxing environments; and assertiveness, endurance, and self-sufficiency.

The University of St Andrews gave me an education, but these jobs gave me tools that I feel will help me put that education to good use.

Maybe you haven’t worked what you think are the ‘perfect’ or ‘optimal’ jobs or internships. Maybe it’s easy to compare yourself to others or look at what others have accomplished. But everyone, no matter this circumstance, will do the human thing and catalogue their disadvantages. Let me ask you, though: what are the advantages? What are you learning right this second? How is this helping you love yourself and others more fully? How is this helping you become the person who will enjoy achieving your goals, rather than just hurtling towards them?

Your adventure isn’t around the corner; you might already be well on your way.

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