It’s the middle of the night, and I’m standing ankle-deep in mud, in the middle of a cane field.
I’m holding a log on my shoulder. With me are 5 other guys I don’t really know.
We’re going to carry this log 8 miles. In the dark. In the rain. (Which is making the log heavier and slicker and harder to hold.)
Along the way, we’re going to stop to do log presses, log get-ups, log curls, log squats, and a variety of other log-related physical exercises that can variously be described as running the range from ‘painful’ to ‘torturous’.
Our commander for the evening, ex-Navy SEAL Brett “Captain Crunch” Vernon, is barking at us in a stern monotone. He seems completely unimpressed as we gasp and wriggle about under the log.
I wonder to myself: why did I sign up for this?
At that same moment, the organizer of the trip says out loud: “Why did I organize this trip?”
Welcome to Man Camp Hawai’i. It’s a decidedly low-tech opportunity for men to get out from behind their computer screens, escape the fluorescent-lit cubes and Nerf guns, and grunt and swear and become better men the old-fashioned way: by sweating through something tough.
I’ve written before about how modern men lack initiation rites. That’s why Man Camp Hawai’i starts with what can best be described as a modern initiation: a slightly sadistic Navy SEAL and a heavy log, plus sleep deprivation, dehydration, and distance.
I don’t sleep for over 24 hours during which we go through two grueling “log PT” sessions. We learn how to stalk humans, navigate using a map and compass, throw the tomahawk, erect tent structures.
We learn some other things, too. I made a list:
- Excellence is made up of many small details. Small details can make or break a process or operation, or a business. Multiple times throughout the weekend I was confronted with the necessity of making sure that the idea I had in my mind was matched exactly by the message I was communicating to my team. This is a concept echoed by championship UCLA coach John Wooden: “Big things are accomplished only through the perfection of minor details.” Wooden used to teach his players to put their socks on a certain way to reduce the possibility of blisters. Now that’s attention to detail.
- Pain is in the mind. Yes, it hurts — but what hurts more, a temporary physical ache or letting down your teammate? It’s really true what Muhammad Ali said: “I hated every minute of training, but I said, ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and spend the rest of your life as a champion.'”
- You are capable of more than you think you are. This is a cliche until you hit failure, in the dark and the rain, and have no other option but to do just one more rep. And then another. And then another.
- One rep at a time. We only ever do things in life one at a time. We forget about this, and imagine we are multi-tasking, but this is bullshit. Even Navy SEALS only do one single push-up at a time. It’s worth remembering that.
- As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another. If you don’t have some sort of Master Mind or mentorship group with other men, you’re not living the life of excellence you deserve — period. Life is not meant to be lived in ego-driven isolation or chest-beating independence, but in community. If your community doesn’t include men who can both support you AND challenge you (call you out on your shit) then your life is a shadow of what it could be.
- Confront, not retreat. Most of the modern world encourages us to retreat from our challenges. This is baked into the very idea of a “men’s retreat.” Personally, I think more men should be mindful of the balance between the number of “retreats” versus “confronts” they go on. As an attitude, it’s critical to learn to “lean in” to our challenges and fears. (By the by, this trip was more of a “confront” than a “retreat”.)
- Boundaries are essential. Most modern men (including me) struggle with setting and maintaing strong boundaries — with our relationships, our friends, our work, and within ourselves. Being put in a challenging leadership test forces us to practice developing and holding these boundaries. Ultimately, this is one of the tests of mature manhood — how can you protect others if you’re not able to set and defend strong boundaries? You can’t.
- You don’t really know yourself until you face adversity. Your true colors show when it hurts. What happens when you come up against something you just can’t do? What happens when every step is painful? What happens when you really don’t think you can take another step? What happens when you can’t even stand up straight, let alone stand up straight under load? What happens is, you start learning useful things.
- Being alone in nature with other men does good things to your testosterone levels. When I got back in town, women started respond to me differently — like someone flipped a switch. I would chalk this up to coincidence, but a similar thing happened when I got back from a 10-day primitive living skills excursion in the mountains of Utah, so I’m going to say it’s being in nature in an all-male environment.
If you haven’t put yourself in one of these situations — and you’re a man who is currently living a predominantly screen-based existence — then I can’t recommend it highly enough.
You don’t have to get trained by a Navy SEAL. You can start with a 2-hour Saturday class and learning how to tie the 5 most essential knots, or any of the other 30 basic man skills taught. This training happens every couple of weeks, and it’s up to you to take advantage of it.
Here’s my prescription. Go into Nature – even car camping is a good enough start.
Take a journal and no one else.
Go out of cell phone range and turn off all your digital devices. Don’t take pictures or live-stream anything. Just be present — with yourself, by yourself.
Think about what you’ve done in life. Does it measure up to your dreams for yourself? Are you satisfied with your place in the social order? From whence comes your ambition? Are you motivated by fame, prestige, money, sex? Or is there a deeper reason for your being here on this planet?
Out of 100 million sperm cells, why did yours make its way to the head of the line? Why did you win the genetic lottery? You must have wanted to be here pretty bad, to be present at this exact moment in history. You must have had some purpose.
Do you remember what it was?
Write it down. Consider it. Is that the true purpose, or is there something deeper, more primal, more primitive?
As you’re reading these words you may shuffle this challenge off into the corner of your mind, something to be done “someday” — but another part of your mind is aware that someday will never come. Another part of you wills to do this, because that part of you is fierce, and knows that you will not grow sharper or stronger without putting yourself to the test like this.
I force myself in situations like the test in Hawai’i because I am weak. I am addicted to comfort. I know myself enough to know that unless I push myself out of my comfort zone, I will never get better.
What about you?
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Also published on Medium.