Why are shared experiences so powerful?
Climbing Mount Fuji is a right of passage for Marines deployed to Japan for training. July and August make up the climbing season (the weather can go bad quickly the rest of the year), so timing it right makes a difference. The Japanese people revere the mountain, it’s been a central figure in the Shinto religion dating back for centuries. Many Japanese people consider it an obligation to climb the mountain at least once. A famous Japanese saying goes, “A wise person will climb Mount Fuji once in their lifetime, but only a fool would climb it twice.”
I’ve been lucky enough to climb Mount Fuji three times. Each time I was deployed to the Marine Corps’ Camp Fuji, which is a tenant camp on a larger Japanese Ground Self Defense Force training facility near the town of Gotemba. The maneuver and (especially) the live fire training opportunities there allow for greater possibilities than what’s available to Marines stationed on Okinawa, so units frequently cycle up to Camp Fuji to train.
In the summer of 2000, I was a company commander in charge of about 150 Marines and Navy Corpsmen. Ours was a weapons company, meaning that we operated the battalion’s heaviest weapons with the longest ranges. We needed to spend time at Camp Fuji so that we could train with our systems and keep our skills sharp. The first attempt at Mount Fuji for me was when First Sergeant Silva and I led the company on a climb up the mountain.
With a summit more than 12,300 feet above sea level, the climb is a good workout but it’s manageable for a reasonably fit person. On our climb we saw many, many Japanese families making the climb, often with young kids or elders as part of the group. There are lodging huts available at several points along the trail, but you can hike up in 5-6 hours and hike down in about three, and that was our goal.
The weather, though, can be highly variable, even in July and August. And that’s what we experienced on my first climb. We started early in the day, it was dry and cool when we stepped off. It wasn’t long before that changed. As we climbed the mountain, we hiked right into the clouds and a drizzling rain, we got wet right away. And cold, too. Not to mention that Mount Fuji is actually a dormant volcano, so the trail consisted of cinders and volcanic rocks. We stopped frequently to dump cinders out of our boots.
Did I mention we made the climb on a day of liberty, meaning the Marines didn’t have to be there because it wasn’t a work day? The First Sergeant and I had cajoled the platoons to make the hike, and almost everyone who was healthy enough ended up joining us. Once we entered the wet clouds, a fair amount of bitching started. We overhead a lot of “I didn’t need to be here” or “we could be drinking beer instead” comments. I started to worry about the company’s morale, thinking I had made a mistake in encouraging everyone to join us.
The conditions stayed miserable for the entire day. The summit was the worst, it was windy, wet, and cold. The clouds were so thick you couldn’t even see across the volcano’s crater, let alone see views of the surrounding countryside. In some ways, the hike down was even more miserable, because walking down hill somehow made it easier for cinders to infiltrate our boots. At the bottom, there was some quick picture taking then we boarded the busses and headed back to camp.
There were plenty of “that sucked” comments from the Marines after we returned to the barracks. Within a few days we returned to training, and I thought we had all moved on. An interesting thing happened in the following weeks and months. What had seemed like a negative experience turned into a badge of honor for the Marines. “That sucked” turned into, “That sucked, but we did it!” When we rejoined the rest of the battalion, the stories our Marines shared with those who didn’t get to climb got better and better. The mountain was taller, the rain heavier, and the wind colder each time the story was retold. For years afterward when I would run into Marines from the company, climbing Mount Fuji was remembered fondly and with a smile, even though they kept saying, “That sucked.” It turned out to be the first thing about the deployment they mentioned. It was their clearest memory.
Sharing an experience together usually makes a team develop closer bonds. This is the case even under tough conditions – maybe even more so. For leaders considering investing a team-building event, here are a few thoughts:
1. Most of the return on investment for a shared experience comes after the event concludes, often months and years later. This is especially true if the experience is a novel one for most of the participants.
2. A Cornell University study found that over time, people’s evaluation of material goods went down but evaluations of experiences tended to go up. The more novel the experience and the greater the challenge, the more impact it has on a person’s memory. Leaders can take advantage of these tendencies to accelerate (and deepen) their team building.
3. If you as a leader think a shared experience would help you build the team, follow your instincts. Make allowances for the capacity of the individual participants, but don’t hesitate to act. Just realize you’ll need to be strong enough to endure some bitching in the short term.