Pioneering Outdoor Entrepreneur

Within the mind of the outdoor entrepreneur
Within the mind of the pioneering outdoor entrepreneur

“A torch?

“No, you don’t need one.

“The night is not dark!”

Frank Dawson, the ‘pioneering outdoor entrepreneur’ and head of centre, spoke with calm assertion to 10 newly acquainted teenagers.

Being 10pm,  the group was visibly alarmed. None had anticipated that their sensible request for light (ahead of their night walk through an ancient Cumbrian wood) might be refused…

And as the group walked nervously away from the perceived safety of the moonlit clearing their leader quietly led them along a forest path and into the imposing blackness…

And minutes later that feeling of uncertainty turned to genuine unease.

Sat alone in Silence

Without drama, Frank gathered the group close. In a hushed but calm tone he asked each by name, whether they’d sit alone in silence and ‘tune into’ the wood at night.

As senses started to adjust to the new world, the friend of the forest managed with apparent ease to persuade all. And so the group which had started to knit and relax was quietly and individually scattered across the undulating thick forest hillside.

Everyone was encouraged to make themselves comfortable in the undergrowth or at a tree base. With a compassionate whisper Frank said he would be back in an hour. Those with the forethought to bring a watch knew that midnight would pass before their solitude was broken.

I am sure everyone who experienced this night sit with Frank, remembers their time with clarity.

How a pioneering outdoor entrepreneur inspired me

Outdoor entrepreneur
Castlehead Field Centre. Picture courtesy of CHFC

From the age of 17 to 29 I frequently hitchhiked to the centre in the South Lakes run by Frank and his wife Fev. As a volunteer leader I thrived on the responsibility and trust I was given and often worked up to 16 hours a day in return for board and lodging.

Many other volunteers were also drawn by the magic. Like me they felt the centre’s deep and consistent values and enjoyed the connection with its ambitious, environmentally focused spirit.

The night walk and night sit were typical outdoor entrepreneur activities where participants were challenged to confront and better understand nature as well as themselves.

But whilst people were pushed out of comfort zones, as leaders we were always encouraged to be kind, caring and tolerant. This ongoing dynamic meant the centre was continuously creating insightful reference points which allowed people to share and develop new perspectives, adjust beliefs and forge long-lasting friendships.

So many of the people I worked with at the centre up until 1997 (when it was sold to the Field Studies Council) are still good friends.

Castlehead Field Centre opened for business in 1978. I never heard anyone use the terms ‘outdoor entrepreneur’ or ‘enterprise education’ during my time there. But whenever I’m in discussion or debate about these subjects now my thoughts always turn to Frank Dawson.

He was a passionate outdoor entrepreneur for his deep-rooted philosophy and pioneering approach to learning made a powerful, positive and lasting impact on thousands of people.

Glue of unselfishness

Strong and clear-sighted leadership was at the heart of a thriving ‘culture of enterprise’ at Castlehead Field Centre. But there are many strong and clear-sighted leaders which I would never work for.

Unlike the way so many organisations operate, an underpinning philosophy woven into the fabric of Castlehead was the ‘importance of giving’. As volunteers we gave of our time but the riches of what we learnt far outweighed anything we ever earned. And the people who ran the centre were a constant source of inspiration because they worked tirelessly, shared their wisdom and paid themselves comparatively little. As a consequence, people were empowered by strong bonds of support and a common sense of purpose.

Creep of greed

outdoor entrepreneur
We love our ‘Selfie’

‘Giving’ brings people together and has the capacity to bond people for life. Yet, according to the Oxford English Dictionary “SELFIE” was the word of 2013. Posting a picture of yourself, taken on a mobile device, along with the hashtag #selfie, has it seems become the new social media and therefore societal norm.

Likewise, in business, it’s difficult not to be self-focused because so often it feels like it’s you against the world. And for the thousands of entrepreneurs that find financial fortune, the struggle to the very point of success is sufficient justification to then hold onto it all; even though global inequality is one of society’s greatest ills.

Paul Piff’s excellent and enlightening TED film ‘Does money make you mean’ references some fascinating research into human behaviour. His work recognises that whilst the wealthy are most affected, we all struggle with competing motivations when it comes to choosing whether we put ourselves first or second.

But ‘pernicious and negative behaviours’ he says are creating a more polarised and unequal society where the gap between rich and poor is a distance and is only set to get worse. The diagram below (taken from Paul’s presentation) shows how positive aspects of life (green) decline and negative aspects of life (red) increase as economic inequality rises.

InequalityBut make sure you watch the whole of Paul’s presentation because there is some good news at the end. Paul talks about his latest research and shows how even very small interventions and nudges in human behaviour are having significant levels of impact on the decisions wealthier people are making in terms of how they use disposable money and time.

Message for all educators

But to fully combat economic inequality I think all educators have a powerful opportunity to convey a critical message and influence people who are about to embark on their entrepreneurial journey.

In their twenties, Frank and Fev met another ‘outdoor entrepreneur’ and enterprising educator based in Addis Adaba in Ethiopia. This man passionately believed (and still believes) in the principle of giving without expecting anything in return.

So can this powerful message be shared more widely with students and budding entrepreneurs from the outset? If it can then surely we have a much better chance of creating a fairer and less polarised society in the long-term because ‘giving back’ will be part of peoples’ DNA.

To emphasise this thinking further, I want to introduce you to the remarkable teacher in Addis Ababa. His entrepreneurial and enterprising ability, belief in education and lifelong commitment to giving has brought him and his students, unimaginable rewards.

Key Learning Points: There are people in our lives whose behaviour and inspiration is seemingly ever-present. Giving first is one way to have a lasting and positive impact on others. Individuals and wider society will always feel the benefit of your actions. 

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