How Wildland Firefighting (and other Blue Collar Work) Prepares You to Excel in Business Environments
Blood? Check. Sweat? Lots of it. Tears? Not quite, but I felt many emotions on the fireline. There are several major lessons I learned in my three years of wildland firefighting across the U.S. Each of them is a foundational principle for succeeding in my professional life and are important personal traits to possess especially for working in any business.
Tech startups are the fire crews of the private sector. The work is demanding, and unpredictable. Complacency is out of the question. No role is explicitly defined, but everyone is expected to pull their weight or risk pulling the whole crew down. Failure to align with these intangible expectations can put the entire company at risk. Failure to buy into the collective mission kills the operation before it can even reach its potential. And though there may not be any presence of blood, I’m certain there have been many long days and nights of sweat and tears as a direct result of the peaks and valleys that accompany running a tech startup.
Anyone can learn a new tech tool or coding language to improve their marketability, but the intrinsic worth of the requisite attitude for navigating the work environment of a startup cannot be taught. So, I will show you how wildland firefighting gave me the intangible tools to attack life at a startup with impeccable efficiency.
1. “Minimum Standards” are Just a Starting Point
To many peoples’ surprise, the prerequisite training for becoming a wildland firefighter isn’t very difficult. You take a few FEMA courses, a few introductory wildland fire courses, then simply need to pass a Pack Test (Walk 3 miles on a track in under 45 minutes wearing a 45lb vest). After those things, you can legally work on a crew.
Wildland firefighting is extremely arduous work, however. You often have to hike unprepared, rough terrain in steep, hot, and generally unsafe conditions. That hiking can be anything between one and ten miles at minimum. Not only that, but 45lbs is more likely to be 50 or 55lbs when you have all of your gear, including your boots. That’s not even mentioning the fact that you have to hike five miles, work fourteen hours, then hike another five miles back to wherever the crew is camped out. As you can imagine, being able to walk three miles in 45 minutes on a flat, nicely paved track wearing shorts, running shoes, and a shirt isn’t at all an accurate depiction of what you actually need to be able to do. For that reason, rookies must take the initiative to prepare both physically and mentally to far exceed the minimum standard and pull their weight.
This applies directly to working for a startup because the roles within a startup can be ambiguous. Ambiguity often invites a self-directed approach to your daily workflow, with a less explicit expectation of how a day should look. Everyone’s busy trying to keep the ship afloat, so no one can sit over your shoulder to make sure you’re challenging yourself and fulfilling your commitment to the team. You must intentionally seek challenges and opportunities for growth, or risk letting a complacent, “That’s not my job to do” attitude hurt the bottom line. Minimum standards set the line of mediocrity to work from, not to exist in.
2. Tediousness is Necessary
In all of my fire jobs, we had hours of what we believed were useless training, briefings, administrative tasks, non-fire work projects, and little things like cleaning the engine, sweeping duty station floors, and patrolling for unattended campfires during hunting season. Sometimes, the tasks were physically exhaustive, like a time where I chucked north of 1000 logs while prepping a fireline. Others, you’re driving around for hours on end, watching the same trails over and over again – bored to tears. I remember a time when my team needed to prepare for a large prescribed burn (1600 acres), but had to protect specific endangered trees, so we had to clear exactly 6–10 feet of brush around 300+ trees over the course of weeks preceding the burn.
It was during these moments that I came to understand that tedious work is necessary because it bridges the gap between getting from one “fun” thing to the next. Without those little, annoying, slow tasks, there’s no way we could get to the point of burning or going on fire assignments. I got through those moments by remembering the larger mission, but also remembering my personal mission, which was to serve to the best of my ability.
This ties heavily into startup work because there will obviously be many moments where things that seem boring or unsexy need to be done in order to move on to the thing you want to partake in. It could be due diligence, meeting prep, reporting, cold calling, research, or even that end-of-day Friday meeting people aren’t too excited for. The little moments build a foundation for the opportunities to do enjoyable, impactful work. Without an attitude that permits an understanding of this fact, the chances of burning out and even just giving up outright increase exponentially. There is time and place for all things, and it won’t all be exciting to the same degree. I’ve welcomed that notion, and now have an easier time doing the work others don’t want to do.
3. Adversity is Suggestive, Not Factual
As a native Ohioan, I had never experienced a steeper change in grade or elevation than I did on a fire assignment in Montana. I’ll never forget how the nerves caused a pit in my stomach when we pulled up to the foot of the mountain. I knew the worksite was a 3500-foot elevation change over three miles from where we parked. It was so high that I couldn’t even see the spot we were hiking to. Within the first half-mile of this hike, doubt started creeping in. Then came the effects of elevation on my body’s ability to oxidize my blood. Then came the cramping. There was a pain in the ligaments around my ankles, and my feet felt hot from the friction of my double-socked foot rubbing the walls of my leather boots. It was miserable.
I remember specifically taking a moment to catch my breath because I felt like I was going to pass out. At that moment, an older guy on the crew approached me and said: “You can’t think about the whole hike. Take a breath for every step, watch your feet, and count your steps.”
In a startup, micro and macro issues can present obstacles that can fundamentally determine the success or failure of the company. The fact that this pressure falls on the shoulders of people without the infrastructure of a Fortune 500 can be really tough because there is no second chance when you’re living quarter to quarter or dependent on outside money until the company is netting profit. Everyone from the CEO to the entry-level employee feels this pressure to varying degrees, and it can be deeply demoralizing at times. But the answer is to remember that the only thing you can do is what you can do.
Ignore the impossibility of what you’re facing, and decide that the nature of the challenges you’re facing do not determine the outcome of those challenges. I’ve found that when you focus on the micro of what can be done today, the macro of what needs to be accomplished in a month, or half a year feels far less untenable. In understanding this, adversity becomes a matter of perspective.
4. Don’t Stop ‘til It’s Done
Wildland firefighters have highly unpredictable schedules. The lack of structure there can be very bothersome to people, but I quickly learned to hunker down and focus on completing whatever is in front of me with no concern for when it will end.
There is an underlying understanding between every wildland firefighter that you don’t ask when you can be done for the day. You don’t ask when you can stop for lunch. You show up like the rest of your team, and work until the project of the day is complete or are otherwise told it is okay to take a quick break. My longest day started at 4:45 am and ended at 11:30 pm. Not one word came out of my crew’s mouth about being tired, hungry, or the like. We knew we were all suffering in our own ways, so we kept it together for the sake of getting the job done as a team.
The application of this in the startup sector is integral to one’s success in it. I’ve read about the ungodly hours some people have to work in order to complete a project on time – sometimes spending the night at the office when in the throes of closing a deal or securing more funding. I’ve made peace with the fact that doing effective, impactful work may demand that level of commitment. Not stopping when “your” part is done; seeing the whole thing through to the end, as a group. Not all startups are run this way of course, but being able to dig deep and find that second or third wind in moments where the day feels like it isn’t ending or the deadlines are creeping ever-closer cannot be taught. I did it out in the backcountry for days on end, so I know I can do it here.
5. Grit is Learned
Mental and physical toughness can only be acquired by having your ability to endure obstacles tested. The compilation of all of the previously mentioned lessons and traits manifests as grit; or the ability to not just embrace, but leverage the suck.
In a startup work environment, you’re not going to be happy with everything that has to be done all of the time. You’re not going to love everything that is demanded of you. You may get blind-sided, slapped in the face, or even undermined by issues within the company. Grit acknowledges these realities but also commits you to solutions with such relentlessness that you cannot fail. Like I said before: Anyone can learn how to use tech tools; not everyone has the mental discipline, stamina, and sense of purpose to trudge in the face of a challenge.
If it wasn’t for my experiences on the fireline, I would not be who I am today. I have learned how to submit to the process; to the reality of the pain and obstacles that I may endure, with an understanding that these things are necessary for my growth. I know how to approach an issue and work hard at solving it without bashing my head against a wall, thus mitigating burnout. I allow my mission in life to be the north star that will guide me as I attempt to fix a problem, without being bogged down by missteps and down days.
Most of all, I understand that these experiences set the stage for my first experience at a startup, wherein I can begin the process of developing the career I’ve always wanted.