Beyond bears: What I learned about people in Alaska

Stuck? Feeling hopeless? Unsure of your next step? For the almost two decades Idealist has been around, we’ve been asking you—our community—to tell us about the obstacles you face when trying to turn your good intentions into action. We’ve compiled a short list of the top-reported obstacles, and now we’re blogging about them one by one. This week, we present: people issues.

A few years ago, one month away from college graduation, I had no idea what I was going to do with my life.

I was a double major in communications and Spanish, had two internships under my belt, and no earthly idea what I wanted to do or where I wanted to go. I applied to dozens of jobs, mostly in New York City but also abroad, and crossed my fingers.

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Idealist’s Community Manager Matt Cifaldi immediately after bear-spraying himself in Alaska.
(photo courtesy of the author)

During this time I called a friend of mine who told me to apply for a job at a nonprofit he had worked for in Alaska through an AmeriCorps grant. He was enthusiastic and thought it might be a good fit for me.

Little did I know then that two weeks after commencement I would find myself setting up a tent in a field outside of Anchorage at 2:00 a.m., wondering what I had gotten myself into.

The program lasted from June to November, and the idea was simple: in teams, we traveled across the state of Alaska improving trails, keeping highways clean, and developing events with local communities. We lived at campsites in tents. Showering was a weekly event, and we had no access to electricity.

I expected my time in Alaska to be a trying experience, and it often was. Rain would last for an entire week, the mosquitoes were unbearable during the summer, and I never really got a full night of sleep. I ran into all sorts of wildlife, most of it frightening. I climbed mountains and glaciers, and I learned more about living outdoors than I thought I would ever know.

What I didn’t expect, and in fact didn’t even consider, was what I would learn about other people. I signed up for the Alaska program for relatively selfish reasons: I wanted to wash off four years of city living, have an adventure, and get some experience working in the nonprofit sector.

But when I arrived home in November smelling like a campfire and ecstatic to sleep on a mattress, I came back with more than bear stories. I had learned some valuable lessons about living and working with others that I still find useful today.

1. First impressions are almost always wrong.

For our first week, everyone attended an orientation program. We learned how to use chainsaws, practiced CPR, and watched a video about bear safety. We made meals together and started to get to know one another. After the end of orientation, the initial large group of fifty split into six smaller teams.

We were all from different areas of the country, and ranged in age from 18 to 30 years old. No one on our team seemed to have much in common, and I thought I had everybody figured out within a week of working with them. I decided they were lazy, or stubborn, didn’t work well with others, or were distant.

However, as their unique stories unfolded over dozens of campfire conversations and morning coffees, I realized that each of my teammates had a deep personal story to tell.

And that I had been wrong about each and every one of them.

For example, during the first few days, one person on my team casually told me he’d come to Alaska by following an eagle that had appeared in his dreams. I quickly dismissed him as a little bit crazy. But by the end of our time together, I looked up to him and considered him my good friend. And to this day I record interesting dreams I have, mostly due to his influence.

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The grandeur of the 49th state! (photo courtesy of the author)

2. Different personalities clash in close quarters. Get over it.

We did everything together. Every day we woke up, made breakfast, drove to our worksite, worked until lunch, ate lunch together, worked some more, drove back to camp, cooked dinner, then went to sleep.

With nothing but time on our hands, we gossiped. It often felt like we were living a supercharged version of Survivor. I’d be friendly with one teammate for two weeks, get into an argument with them, then find another teammate to be best friends with for the next fortnight. Everyone did it. With a limited supply of potential friends, most transgressions were quickly forgiven, and just as quickly occurred again.

Working with such a small group of people and being in constant contact taught me this: everyone has something valuable to offer, as well as something negative. Focusing on the negative aspects of someone’s personality is often easier, especially in a work setting, but it’s never productive.

3. Being a leader is a lot harder than it looks.

Our team leader was responsible for our budget, arranging jobs across the state, and generally keeping us motivated and alive. She was our boss, parent, and friend all at once.

Before Alaska, I’d viewed my past managers’ jobs as similar to mine, except they got paid more. From living in close contact with my boss, though, I realized her responsibilities were much greater. She had to do everything I did, plus keep everything organized and solve disagreements between team members, of which there were many. She was also just as far from home as the rest of us, and couldn’t as comfortably confide in us as we could in each other.

There’s a reason managers get paid more: their job is often much harder than it seems.

The entire Alaska trip was harder than it seemed it would be, in fact, and there were times I truly wanted to give up and book a flight home. But in the end, I wouldn’t trade the half year I spent there for anything else.

I am a better person for having been to Alaska, and not a day goes by that I don’t use something I learned there. Like when I meet someone new, I know not to judge them based on first impressions. And when I meet a bear, I know not to run away. It will just chase you.

Tell us about a time you unexpectedly learned about people when you set out to learn something else.

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