Eustace Conway is a naturalist, author and appears on the History Channel’s “Mountain Men.” He was also the subject of the book “The Last American Man,” so his thoughts on manhood in modern day America may be relevant.
What you’re reading is an excerpt from an interview that will be published in Wilderness, a new print magazine our friend Steve Dubbeldam is putting together. Steve is the publisher of Darling, an excellent magazine for women and runs Wilderness Collective, which organizes epic outdoors adventures. So, translating his experience to a magazine celebrating the outdoors makes sense. The first issue is available for pre-order on Kickstarter. It’s already doubled its funding goal and is the kind of project I’m personally happy supporting. I just subscribed for a year.
What makes Wilderness different? “We won’t be giving you tips on how to get shredded abs, more dates, cars, yachts or watches,” Steve tells us. “But we will be having inspiring conversations around some of the weightier issues and themes that men face but rarely talk about: leadership, fear, failure, success, fatherhood, perseverance, and the list goes on.”
Wilderness: What are your thoughts on the philosophy of rites of passage?
Eustace: I was lucky to have some true rites of passage. You can create some for yourself, and I did a whole lot of that, and didn’t even realise what I was doing but did it anyway. Young people do that today, they smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol, drive cars fast, get tattoos but the true and highly functional rites of passage have to do with leaders and elders, not peers. The elders consciously guiding those young people, and generally the rite of passage is going to be for the greater good of the community, for sustainable living. Those are some of the elements of what a rite of passage is.
I have had a few very unusual things in my life that I’m blessed by. A lot of them have to do with my grandfather, his leadership, giving the idea that ceremony and a a rite of passage is something that’s set aside, and unusual, and usually alarming, a lot of times there’s brutality, scarring, bleeding, but several times I was, like 3 different times where I was woken up in the middle of the night, in dead sleep, like 3 in the morning, taken by people from my sleeping quarters and taken up on the mountain by a horse flight in the middle of the night, and gone through elaborate and long lasting ceremonies, including the letting of blood and some very profound storytelling.
Like the story of a turtle. He would turn a turtle over in front of me, and told me “You see this turtle, he’s struggling.” He’d turn and use his neck to try to turn over, it’s very hard for a turtle on it’s back to turn itself over. “This turtle will continue to try, it will either die trying or it will turn itself over.” It’s never going to give up. So I sat there, in the torch and firelight, quiet, and I watched, and the turtle tried and tried, and eventually that turtle turned back over and crawled off into the darkness.
Wilderness: How do you handle being wrong, as a leader?
Eustace: I make a real point even on small stuff, especially about small stuff. One reason, they don’t know it usually but 95% of the time I will immediately call it. I’ll say “Hey Guys, I made a mistake here. This is what I did and this is what I should have done.” This helps makes me more human, helps them understand they’re not the only ones making mistakes. They are making mistakes over and over and over. I tell them from the get-go and repeat it over and over that mistakes are their blessings. Mistakes are how you learn. If you aren’t making mistakes, something is wrong. If you’re making mistakes left and right, the more we do, like action, work, action, movement, that creates opportunities to create mistakes. The more involved you are in doing something, the more mistakes you’re gonna make, and the more mistakes you’re going to make, the more you’re going to learn. But only if you go through the process of learning. You have to learn from your mistake, don’t just can it and say “Nothing happened, oh it’s not a problem.” See that it’s a problem and use it to your advantage. I like for them to see that I make mistakes too. That I’m working with the formula I’m handing them. Be accountable, be responsible and look at it as a beneficial thing. Mostly the mistakes I make are small mistakes, so I jump on them and use them to the benefit of the whole team.
Wilderness: How would you define a person of character in your own words?
Eustace: Let me back up a little bit and come around to that and give you a little historical background. I don’t know if you know much about my family but my mother’s side of the family, my grandfather’s named Chief Johnson, who’s a heck of a leader, which is one reason he’s called Chief. He was extraordinary in what he accomplished in his lifetime, one of the most amazing leaders of our time. A lot of his writings and legacy, are bright and shining now many years now after he’s dead. He set up a program at a boys’ camp called Camp Sequoyah. The entire purpose, in fact the motto was: a camp with a purpose. The purpose was to develop character growth. So that was amazing and extremely successful program of developing character, and again just like I do from the model I got, he went about it very consciously, meticulously, wrote out ‘This is how you develop character, this is what character is, this is what it’s all about.’ So, that gives you a little background.
Character has a lot to do with the building blocks of foundational ethics that are clear and crisp, well defined, you know ’em. Instead of mucky, ambiguity they have hard, sharp edges and are very engaged with those things and developed each one of them instead of ‘Yeah there’s this ethical thing, I think it’s some values.’ Instead of that, it’s if you do wrong by somebody, you should fix it, you should apologise. There’s this format. It’s a system and you go through that and that kind of dedication to the correct, ethical, moral, values is sort of what shapes character. Kind of like the foundation, the petri dish that the growth on top comes out of. What people see is what’s on top, the strength, the foundation of it all is what’s in the depth of your character. The basic building of who you are.