Want to improve mental toughness? Try the bush for a dynamic and interactive learning environment

Jason Murray, COO, KPMG Performance Clinic
Jason Murray, COO, KPMG Performance Clinic

Developing high performing teams and individuals over the past 20 years I have often been asked which is more effective: learning in the classroom or outdoors in nature. Of course not all learning is going to work in either environment. However, if you’re looking at developing leadership and mental toughness capability, the natural environment wins hands down. Why? Because the bush doesn’t care what title you have on your business card, or what colour credit cards you have in your wallet. Most of the time it’s just trying to kill you! Nature levels the playing field completely. Social hierarchy is irrelevant in the great outdoors – its every plant, animal, and human for themselves. Not simply survival of the fittest, but of the toughest and most resourceful.

If nature could talk, it would tell us how much it loves to destroy massive egos, faster than an avalanche. For instance, I never cease to be amazed that within hours (sometimes minutes) of stepping off onto the Kokoda Track a trekker whose ego you can’t typically jump over, is suddenly introduced to the humbling experience of needing their colleagues help. Ego is such a development inhibitor. Take it away, and all sorts of magical learning moments appear.

Nature presents us with a unique mix of elements: terrain that tests our physicality, weather at both extremes of the scale, and an environment that rarely stays still. So even setting up basic requirements like shelter, and of course sourcing food can be a challenge. When the creature comforts of our normal surroundings are removed, it increases stress at a subconscious level, but also provides an opportunity to man or woman up. How you manage the situation, what you use to overcome the mental and physical barriers, and the way you interact with your peers to achieve the task at hand all go towards building mental toughness.

Mental toughness is a characteristic that all great leaders possess and one that you can foster through life and learning. But, in our increasingly risk averse, red tape wrapped culture there’s a tendency to bring the vanilla and beige into these learning experiences, which robs people of the gift of failure. You simply can’t develop scars on your own back by reading about other people’s trials and triumphs from the comfort of your couch. You need to get out and do it.

Unfortunately we tend to gravitate towards what we know and what’s safe. And while I’m not averse to the odd lecture, or workshop, I don’t think people engage in as meaningfully as when they are in nature. Distractions are everywhere, and there’s a tendency to check social media, read emails, or even doze off instead of pay attention. But that’s just not an option in the natural world. Falling asleep midway through a talk, you risk embarrassment, but falling asleep halfway through a steep canyon descent and you risk your life. Plus with all the adrenaline surging through your veins it simply wouldn’t happen. It’s a lesson in focus.

And it’s not just the situational learning advantages that come with a bush classroom. Michigan University’s 2008 study “Your brain in the woods versus your brain on asphalt” found that a controlled study group temporarily increased their IQ after exposure to a natural environment!

Most change happens when you push outside of your comfort zone, which is why experiential learning, and in particular “going bush”, are so effective. You have to face fears to grow. And whether they are physical, social or emotional fears, the bush dishes them up in spades! Even more, the core behaviours inherent to high performance, including confidence, self-sufficiency, mental toughness, and discipline, are all staples of natural environment based learning. It’s invariably why I here “Wow, I didn’t think I could do that!” at the end every bush based learning challenge.

Besides building mental toughness, environmental psychologists have found that contact with nature helps with recovery from mental fatigue, and the ability to process information, creating a calm and focused mind. In simple terms, a walk in the woods is like a workout that replenishes your prefrontal cortex. This area of your brain is involved in planning complex tasks, decision making, and moderating social behaviours. In ‘The Cognitive benefits of Interacting with Nature’, researchers explained why nature is better than an urban setting for brain health:

Nature, which is filled with intriguing stimuli, modestly grabs attention in a bottom-up fashion, allowing top-down directed-attention abilities a chance to replenish. Unlike natural environments, urban environments are filled with stimulation that captures attention dramatically and additionally requires directed attention (e.g., to avoid being hit by a car), making them less restorative.”

Now I admit, I am a little biased towards including physical challenges with learning. This is because increased fitness, strength and flexibility provide you with the best bedrock to perform at your personal best. However, you don’t always need to include it to gain the learning benefits that an outdoor environment brings to the learning table. The next time you’re doing a reflective activity just get yourself or your team out to a park or beach, or book a workshop in a room with water views and an outdoor option. Bottom line, get yourself out of that air conditioned office comfort and into the bush.

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