My Personality Nearly Got Me Killed
- Steve Williamson, VP Digital Marketing and Content, eRep, Inc.
- Monday, January 22, 2024
Knowledge vs. Understanding
Knowing how you are emotionally hardwired is important. It's a powerful thing to learn about your personality's DNA. But understanding how your emotional hardwiring can influence your success or failure in life is even more important.
The difference between knowledge of your personality and understanding how it influences your actions can be life-threatening.
The following are a pair of true stories from my past that highlight the difference between knowledge and understanding.
When I was in my late teens and early 20s, I spent a lot of time hiking and backpacking. Seeking adventure was a recurring theme at that time of my life, as it is with many people in their youth. Perhaps you can relate.
My personality type drives me to find answers to tough challenges. When I was young, that drive was coupled with a kind of arrogance that made me think I could find the answer to every question even when the risks far outweighed the reward. It nearly got me killed. Twice.
I sat there for several minutes pondering my options, but kept drawing the same conclusion. I was going to have to jump.
Joe vs. The Volcano
It was late spring and two college buddies and I decided to spend the long Memorial Day weekend backpacking within the Newberry Crater of Central Oregon. It is an inactive volcano with two lakes in the caldera, East Lake and Paulina Lake, which are separated by a lava dome and obsidian flow.
The plan was to drive to the eastern-most campground within the caldera, hike up the slope to just below the rim, make our way laterally across the northern hillside, then down to a cozy little spot we picked out at the base of the obsidian flow on the western end of East Lake.
Despite the mild weather on the flatlands below Newberry Crater, the weather inside (starting at 6,000' feet elevation) was blowing snow and getting worse by the hour.
But, we were young and fearless (and foolish) and I kept insisting that we could overcome the challenge through sheer grit and tenacity. "Tough it out" was the answer.
By the time we were halfway up the hillside, there were 3 foot waves on the lake below us and the snow was blowing sideways.
We stopped for a lunch break a little more than halfway up the caldera, hiding on the leeward side of a small cluster of pine trees to get out of the near blizzard-like conditions. After consulting my topographical map and confident I knew precisely where we were, I insisted we had climbed far enough up the slope and it was time to start traversing it laterally toward the west.
Although it was very cold and the snow was getting deeper, it seemed easier than the steep 1,000 foot climb we'd already endured. About halfway across the slope, we came to a wide patch of lava rock called the Red Slide. Exposed to the full force of the snow storm, it was covered by rough lava rock and boulders the size of beach balls.
The Red Slide slopes down toward the lake several hundred feet below, getting steeper as it goes. We needed to cross it before making our way back down the hill toward the relative safety of our intended campsite between the lakes.
In my overconfidence, I felt that it was smarter to start angling diagonally down the Red Slide as it would save time and get us out of the exposed wind. My buddies, Matt and Paul, stayed fifty feet or so further up the hill where the slope was more gradual.
My feet got mixed up in a section of loose gravel and I tripped, falling face first down the hill.
I somersaulted forward, my feet tumbling up and over me, and landed on my side. I began sliding down the scree slope with increasing speed.
I spun onto my stomach, spread my arms and feet wide, and began scrambling on the rough lava rock to stop my slide. At this point the slope was steep enough that by the time I arrested my fall, I could hear rocks around me break loose and fall into the open air of the sheer cliff below me.
I inched my way up the hill on my belly, moving inches at a time, one hand and one foot slowly after the other, until I reached the more gradual slope above.
Angling diagonally down the Red Slide would definitely get you to the bottom — all the way down — much faster, but it definitely wasn't the smartest answer to the problem at hand.
To wrap up that story, we made it to the obsidian flow, made camp tucked into the trees by the lake side, and spent a bitterly cold night huddled together in a tent much too small for our three bodies while the blizzard outside roared with renewed energy.
Boot Prints to Nowhere
Jump ahead a few years to my early 20s where my inability to discern the difference between knowledge and wisdom nearly got me killed (or at least severely injured) yet again. This time it was on a solo backpacking trip along the Pacific Crest Trail in the northern Oregon Cascades.
It was mid May and I was going to backpack the stretch from Lolo Pass north along the PCT to the trailhead on the Eagle Creek Trail where it meets the Columbia River about 28 miles away. My goal was to make it halfway to Whatum Lake and spend the night, then continue my journey the next day.
After a few miles, I ran into a large snow bank across the trail. I saw boot prints leading into the snow but none coming back, so I assumed the snow bank was just a minor obstacle. I made my way across the sloped and slippery surface to bare trail on the other side and kept hiking.
Then I ran into another snow bank. And another.
For some reason I didn't think about looking for boot prints in the snow, either going or coming, assuming the trail would be fine. My personality drives me to think I can solve any problem with enough effort and time and I deduced that since I saw boot prints going into the first snow bank but not coming back out, then the trail must "go through."
I kept going, but the going was slow. What soon became numerous snow banks were all steeply sloped and traversing across them was dangerous and time consuming. It was also wreaking havoc on my knees and ankles (not to mention I was carrying a pack that weighed more than 80 pounds). The pain got worse with every mile.
Soon, only small patches of trail were bare, the rest were covered in icy and steep snow banks.
After about 10 miles of this, I finally reached a point where the trail had enough western exposure that it was bare dirt. I was in intense pain and knew I'd not be able to make it the rest of the way to Whatum Lake, not to mention the Eagle Creek trailhead the next day.
In my preparations, I came up with a Plan B. I noted the location of Lost Lake (no irony intended) east of the PCT. If something happened along the trail, I reasoned, I could "bail" and head down the eastern slope of the ridge line cross-country style, make my way to the narrow Forest Service road at the bottom of the valley below, and follow it to the Lost Lake campground.
By this time it was 6 PM, the eastern slope of the hill would be in the shade, and darkness would soon follow. But, it was closer than continuing on the trail, so down the hill I went. That's how my Innovator's brain reasoned things out.
I underestimated how steep the hill was, as well as how high it was above the valley below, but I was committed to my route. In some spots, the slope was approaching an 80% decline; for every foot I moved forward, I would drop eight feet in elevation. I was essentially having to lower myself down the hill by grabbing hold of trees and sometimes even cruel briars to get down.
The palms of my hands were shredded and bloody as if I'd been juggling wolverines.
Somehow I found myself on top of a rocky cliff face above a roaring creek with no safe way to go back up. There was a large snow bank 15 feet below me, hovering over the creek with at least 10 feet of gap above the jagged boulders beneath it. I couldn't scale my way back up the cliff and there were no options to go laterally to either side.
I sat there for several minutes pondering my options, but kept drawing the same conclusion. I was going to have to jump.
My fear was that I wouldn't be able to leap out far enough to land on a solid chunk of snow, and that I'd break through and fall onto the boulders underneath. No one would find my body for months, or maybe years.
I was also fearful my knees would snap with the fall. They hurt more than any physical pain I'd ever experienced before and I had no idea what they could endure.
Thinking it through — putting on my problem solver's hat — I realized I couldn't make the jump while still wearing my heavy backpack. I'd have to toss it first, watch to see if it feel through the snow, and if not, how far down the slope it would slide before coming to a rest several hundred feet down the hill. If that all went okay, I'd then leap after it.
Tossing my pack took commitment, though, with an uncertain outcome. If the snow couldn't handle the pack landing on it and thus couldn't handle me landing on it, I'd have to abandon my gear and find some other option (which I previously concluded there was none).
After a bit more deliberation and mental calculation, I made the commitment and tossed my backpack. It landed on what seemed like a solid section of snow, and as I predicted it slid all the way to the bottom of the steep snow bank landing amid a huge patch of briars perhaps 100 yards below.
I rose to my feet, took a few deep breaths, then leaped forward as far away from the cliff as I could.
I landed on solid snow and didn't break through. I even managed to hang onto my walking stick (which had actually kept me from falling off a similar cliff further back up the hill, but that's another story).
Fortunately me knees didn't "blow out" as I'd anticipated and I was able to sit on my butt and slide more or less in control down to my backpack at the bottom (that was the easiest part of the entire day's journey).
Reunited with my pack, I crawled on my hands and knees through the briars before I emerged onto the narrow one-lane road at the bottom of the valley.
It was now after dark, my knees and ankles were in so much pain I grimaced with every step, and I had two more miles to go before I made it to the lodge at the Lost Lake campground. Fortunately those miles were on flat, safe ground.
I made it to the lodge just before 11 PM and caught a lucky break. Despite the campground not yet being open for the season, the caretakers had arrived earlier that day for pre-season preparations and were still there. They allowed me to climb up into the attic of their small building, a place high enough to get a faint cell signal, so I could call a relative to come get me (this was back in the day when cell coverage was sparse).
What is the lesson behind all this calamity?
The Value of Knowing Your Own Strengths and Weaknesses
After taking the Core Values Index™ psychometric assessment and personality test back in 2016, I discovered that I am a profound Innovator. I like to solve problems more than anything else, which is great for my career but as my youthful brushes with death convey, it also got me into trouble (at least when I was young and foolish) by instilling in me the overconfidence that I could solve any challenge.
When I was young, I did't have an older person's sense of proportion or risk assessment. If I was faced with a challenge, I felt I could find a way to overcome it. Period. On the Pacific Crest Trail, it didn't occur to me that I could abort the hike at the first snow bank and try again in a few weeks. In Newberry Crater, it didn't occur to me that the weather and route were highly dangerous.
Just because I had an Innovator's drive didn't mean I was any good at innovation. It was just my passion.
All motion and no direction may get you far but your destination will rarely be on target.
Today I'm much wiser about how I am hardwired. I've learned that sometimes the best solution may come from a completely unexpected approach, or even from another person (Innovator's like to be THE best source of wisdom in the room. We can be somewhat competitive that way.)
With time and experience, I have learned that the solution is what matters, not where it comes from. I've also learned that the most obvious answer isn't always the best one.
What the Core Values Index taught me is that each person has a unique and hardwired personality, combining different ratios of four psychometric categories called core values. Every person I meet has something valuable to offer and their approach or perspective, especially if it's different than mine, can make success more likely.
After all these years, my adventures of youth have proven to be valuable lessons, especially learning how our innate emotional hardwiring influences the way each of us approaches life's challenges.
Fortunately, my knees are just fine — no permanent damage — and I've successfully avoided any further life-risking incidents out-of-doors. I still have my walking stick, too.
Core Values Index™ and CVI™ are trademarks of Taylor Protocols, Inc.
Go to eRep.com/core-values-index/ to learn more about the CVI or to take the Core Values Index assessment.
Innovator/Banker - VP Digital Marketing and Content, eRep, Inc.
Steve has a career in project management, software development and technical team leadership spanning three decades. He is the author of a series of fantasy novels called The Taesian Chronicles (ruckerworks.com), and when he isn't writing, he enjoys cycling, old-school table-top role-playing games, and buzzing around the virtual skies in his home-built flight simulator.
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