By Steve Graepel; Photographs from top courtesy Steve Graepel, Andrew Skurka, Rebecca Rusch, Michael Tobin
The zodiac, your horoscope, tea leaves…people have been trying to make sense of human attributes since the dawn of dirt. Corporations pay big money to navigate these muddied waters and will train employees to better understand personality types to harness them for productivity. I recently revisited one such matrix, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), which hypothesizes that it’s possible to distill human characteristics into 16 personality types. David Keirsey later mapped these types into four general temperaments: the Artisan, Rational, Guardian and Idealist.
I jokingly wondered if these metrics have ever been applied to an expedition setting; exhaustion, hunger, and cold, wet conditions can quickly strip insulate layers of city life, exposing our reptilian ids. What may seems like "character" over coffee can reveal itself in spades below the crux. I began to contemplate my past adventures and consider what I could glean from temperament theory to apply toward my own trips. Here’s what I found. Keep reading for discussions with ultrahiker Andrew Skurka, mountain biker Rebecca Rusch, and veteran adventure racer Michael Tobin about their "types."
The Artisan: Adventure is…hey, watch this…
Your classic fun-hog, a conversation with the Artisan, may start with a text hinting “Hey, I’ve got an idea!” only to leave you teetering on a cornice as the Artisan, careens into the void with a frosty Mountain Dew grin screwed into his powder keg-head.
To some, his bias for action may appear to orbit around the outer Kuiper-belt fringe of lunacy. Once the idea has been pitched, their perceived work is done. The laws of attraction have already guided them onto the next shiny object, sometimes leaving the details of the current project incomplete.
Before you start screening their calls, though, appreciate the Artisan’s creativity and their ability to pit-bull a tangled mess into submission. They are more often than not, fun to be around and their polarized goggles seem to see a world ‘half-full’ of opportunity, picking solutions the rest of us overlook.
Be aware they may not be able to carry these ideas to completion—at least not in detail. And they may sometimes come to the party unprepared (I’ll figure it out when I get there…).
These guys are great at trouble shooting unexpected situations, say, negotiating a "customs charge" out of Kazakhstan.
The Rational: Adventure is the result of poor planning.
I recently schemed an idea to traverse Idaho by bike, pack raft and foot. I'm an ideas guy—with a big picture sort of view—so I thought it wise to invite a friend who lives in the details to look at my proposed 850-mile route. Jason is an ER doc and an adventure racer with giant quads (which fits his fashion preference for scrubs and Lycra). He immediately turned to the maps, highlighting potential pitfalls in my "plan."
The Rationals have a no-nonsense, logical approach to decision making—either the plan is going to work, or it isn't. If the latter, don't expect them to buy into the pipe-dream unless you can provide data to support the contrary.When the proverbial hits the fan, though, they maybe caught off guard. Troubleshooting is akin to a lack of planning. To counterbalance, they are meticulous thinkers and may constantly be offering up plans c, d and e…just in case.
Without a doubt, these are your navigators with instinctive mapping skills.
The Guardian: Adventure is to be prepared.
I was a Boy Scout—there, I said it in public. Before my first weekend trip, my patrol leader, John, handed me a tin Band-Aid box (aging myself here). John thought it wise to send each member into the wild with a home-made survival kit, packed with enough supplies for Bear Grylls to winter in the Cascades. Among his ten essentials were an FAA approved signal guidebook, a Slim Jim, enough twine to snare a wildebeest, and a quarter (to make a call in case we wondered off to, say, Folsom?). John was the quintessential Guardian.
Guardians are conservative on change but didactic in preparation. Their systematic approach to process can be perceived as pedestrian by some, and their work ethic and obsessive mindfulness of time lines might walk on those who prefer to mix it up. In times of change, this person will be antsy until a decision is made. But expect support once a direction has been chosen.
He’s the guy you want to tie into when on-belay or to dig the snow pit before launching into fresh pow. Guardians know the rules and why following them is smart. He thrives planning meals and logistics.
Idealist. Adventure is exploring the human condition.
This group maybe the most misunderstood as their motivators defy the rest of the population. These types yearn to be part of the group, but don’t outwardly express motivation in measurable ways (money, producible goods, etc.). Their strength is in their ability to be inclusive, protecting democratic input. As such, they will often rise to roles leading teams through friction.
Idealists are passionate about their goals, tirelessly devote themselves to other’s ideas, and are generally positive. If they are on your team, provide ample opportunity for them to weigh in and soft-pedal criticism, as they could take it personally. Keep in mind that you may find it necessary to bolster strategic and logistical tasks through other avenues.
Putting Stealth Rubber to the Trail
People are complicated; we’re not likely to radically identify with the temperaments outlined above. But it captures the general flavor. I wanted to test these theories against reality, so I asked a few pro-level junket junkies about their personality traits to evaluate how they may fit into this schema.
CASE STUDY #1
Andrew Skurka, 2007 National Geographic Adventure of the Year, is a professional ultra hiker. He promptly agreed to weigh in and even knew his specific profile: ISTJ (Guardian). I laughed. If you haven’t seen it, Skurka posts excel spreadsheets of every adventure to his
website, where he meticulously itemizing everything according to its weight and value. Skurka confirmed that his success starts with his logistical mind. “I just break the whole thing down in a spreadsheet–distances, pacing, itinerary, gear, food, supplies…”, crunching reams of data into bite-size possibilities. His mastery of the minutia perfectly defines his Guardian profile.
But with a nose to the trail, a logistical mind may tend to wander off into weedy details, sometimes forgetting to lift their head up to see the big picture. I asked if Skurka if this sounded familiar.
AS: During the Alaska Yukon Expedition, I had to deviate from my past trips, where I’d follow man-made trails…(I had to ) operate almost entirely on Nature’s terms…deviating from my ‘planned’ route when factors like snowpack and visibility made a detour more practical.
SG: Is keeping an intuitive eye open your greatest challenge?
AS: I really wish I was just smarter so that I required less data and could process it faster. But I’ve learned…the importance of getting things right.
Skurka seems to have a healthy dose of Rational, which ultimately may nail his success to the trail post. He balances his logistical, take-action mind by keeping an eye open for new information that might change his situation.
CASE STUDY #2
Rock climber turned adventure racer turned world class mountain biker, Rebecca Rusch is an ultra endurance, knobby-wheel phenom. In addition to winning several World Mountain Bike Championships, she’s won the Leadville 100-mile mountain bike race three years in a row and is the current women’s record holder for the race. Like Skurka, Rusch also tested out as a Guardian. But her persuasions are different.
While Skurka relishes in the articulation between preparation and action, Rusch shared that’s not the case for her. She still identifies with the Guardian’s need for structure (order and organization are mandatory for success), but she works with her coach to strategically layout a detail training plan to get it.
Rusch also shared she feels an absolute sense of duty; duty to those she trains with, her coach, and her sponsors. This sense of responsibility is the carrot that keeps her on target for her larger goals. But, if she doesn’t deliver, a dread of letting people down can follow. Of course, this can also be a burden. If things start to go south, Guardians can be hard on themselves– almost pessimistic. Rusch agreed that she’s her harshest critic.
According to Rusch, her road to success isn’t seal-coated with natural ability, “it’s accomplished through hard work”. And in the end, this is her dominant Guardian trait. In her coach’s words, “she’s able to churn surreal amounts of disciplined suffering into world-class results”.
Case Study #3
Michael Tobin could be the most uncelebrated elite athlete you’ve never heard of. Low key, he’s a cat 1 cyclist, elite-level runner, a solid paddler and he plays a mean game of tennis. Racing for Team Nike—yeah, that Nike—his W-9 read professional adventure racer. Now retired, his specialty was crushing the competition over 500-mile courses inside 5 days…on 13 hours of sleep.
Tobin tested out as an Idealist, which is rare in the population…rarer yet among elite level athletes. I asked if he agreed with the typical traits of the Idealist. He somewhat agreed. “I’m a really good follower” he joked, “…as long as we’re gong the direction I want.” I probed deeper.
SG: We all have blind spots. Some Idealists may focus on making sure everyone is on- board with a decision or they may be less proficient with details or analytic skills. Do you relate?
MT: I’m pretty good at those things, though not always the best on the team. At times I should have probably applied myself earlier instead of being content with following…I noticed a tendency toward dealing with what happens instead of creating outcomes.
SG: What about other teammates? Did others bring something to the table that compensated for those tendencies?
MT: I was always grateful when their personalities were drawn toward handling situations I didn't care for. I had a teammate who thought we could still win when we were hopelessly behind. His fight was almost laughable, but I couldn’t believe how often (his plan) worked out. Another teammate had an almost delusional optimistic attitude; he could turn a (mess) into a possibility.
The teammates Tobin referenced were no doubt Type A, Artisans—alchemists, spinning their optimism into podium gold.
On the topic of ‘challenging’ teammates, Tobin shared he’s come to appreciate the diverse qualities and contributions of all his team members–even those that caused friction at times. This reinforces the theory that even the bluntest ‘tool’ can excel at the task it was designed for.
To Test or Not to Test?
So should you and your travel-mates take a temperament test before your next foray into the hills? At the risk of scaring off partners, probably not. Perhaps the soundest advice I’ve found is to identify your own weaknesses and have an open conversation with your companions about them. If you are going solo, be keenly aware of your shortcomings and look for ways to overcome them through coaching, skill building, or perhaps ask another to join you. Aligning your blind spots with another's strengths can provide coverage when nature decides to express her own temperaments.