5 Lessons Future Entrepreneurs Can Learn at Summer Camp
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Friends from outside New England sometimes look shocked when I tell them my three kids are spending the summer at a sleepaway camp in the Maine woods. “You send your kids away for seven weeks? Don’t you like them?”
For those without this tradition, I suppose it seems odd to send children as young as 8 years old away from home for weeks at a time -- but I can tell you that they are excited to go and usually sad to come home.
There are many practical benefits to camp that my wife and I have seen firsthand. Our children have gained leadership skills and independence at camp. They’ve learned self-advocacy and become more responsible. In fact, they’ve learned many of the same skills that entrepreneurs and emerging leaders need to be successful. Here are a few of the most important.
1. Take responsibility for your actions.
Children at sleepaway camp don’t have their parents around to pick up the slack or whisper constant reminders in their ears, so when kids forget to put on sunscreen, they get burned. If they forget their cleats, they don’t play soccer. These are critical life lessons.
Pain is a powerful teacher, as I’ve seen with my middle son. He started getting migraines for the first time this year, and we were worried about how he would manage them at camp. After his first migraine there, however, he stepped up and internalized what his body needs. He has since been very responsible about avoiding his headache triggers and has had fewer migraines as a result.
Like kids at camp, entrepreneurs have to learn how important it is to acknowledge reality and take responsibility for our actions, for better and worse. Doing so sets the tone for a company culture where failure is embraced for what it is -- a lesson learned.
2. Get out of your comfort zone.
Summer camp encourages kids to try new things in a safe environment, one full of support from peers and counselors. Kids regularly get out of their comfort zones, something that is good for everyone.
Founders should strive to create a similar environment -- one where people take on new challenges and work to become their best selves.
The first year my daughter arrived at camp, she was afraid of the water. She was so nervous about even taking the basic swim test that her mother and I half expected her to too fail. But, when she had to step up to the expectations set at camp, she surprised even herself. By the end of the first week, she chose to complete the half-mile lake swim. A few weeks later, she got up on water skis. This rate of accomplishment would be the envy of any startup founder.
Entrepreneurs can learn a lot from this model. Creating a business culture that that encourages risk-taking in a supportive environment -- through mentoring and coaching, for example -- can really pay off.
3. Focus on values and expectations.
It’s impossible to make every decision for a growing business, yet entrepreneurs have a tendency to micromanage. That’s not a scalable model. Instead, set teams up for success by giving them goals, establishing guidelines for action and letting go. This is another lesson from camp.
Before my kids left for Maine this year, my wife and I talked to them about our family’s core values and gave them some tips for how they could live them at camp. It was all we could do, because we were not going to be there to provide course corrections and daily instruction. We simply had to trust them.
Parents need to let their kids grow up, and the same principle applies to employees. Rather than micromanage, set high expectations, and give your people room to discover how to meet them.
Yes, there will be failures, but there will also be growth. And your goal should be for people to grow under your leadership, not remain dependent.
4. Practice leadership.
Leadership is a tough job, and tough jobs take practice. Camp has given my kids the chance to practice making decisions and handling the consequences -- experiences they will carry with them for the rest of their lives.
This year, for example, both my boys were elected to serve as lieutenants for their respective age groups in Color War, a camp-wide competition that encompasses not just athletics but also singing, bunk inspections and even silent meals that are judged for points.
My boys had to set up the teams and organize line-ups for the competitions. Sometimes their teams won, and sometimes they lost. They were held responsible, so when their friends weren’t happy about their decisions, they heard about it. (Welcome to management, kid!).
Leaders also need to give their teams opportunities to experience both the benefits and challenges of leadership. Delegating tasks can be difficult for anyone who likes to be in charge, but if you don’t let others take responsibility for some areas of the business, you will never have time yourself for strategic, blue-sky thinking.
5. Make time for relationship-building.
Finally, camp has given my kids quiet time -- something we all need to reflect, recharge and reconnect.
Since the camps we send our kids to have strict “no technology” policies, our children take a long break from social media and instead get social the old-fashioned way. They don’t even miss their devices, which is a beautiful thing.
Many people think they could not survive being unplugged from today’s interconnected world, but technology breaks can benefit all of us. Taking time to focus on in-person relationships strengthens emotional intelligence.
What’s more, when you’re not distracted by having Instagram, Facebook, the news and more in your pocket, you can focus on exploring new endeavors, like mastering archery skills or creating a killer go-to-market strategy. Learning to focus like that is invaluable -- at camp, at work and elsewhere in life.
Of course, I don’t know if any of my kids will end up becoming entrepreneurs themselves, but even if they don’t, I am confident their time at camp will pay off. Learning to make friends, take responsibility, make decisions, take risks and lead teams will give them a step up and critical leadership skills for whatever they choose to do.