Wednesday, June 21, 2017

My Commencement Address to the Graduating Class of 2017

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Bill Templeman, June 3, 2017
Each year at this time the rich and famous are called upon to bestow a little wisdom to the new flock of graduates who are about to be ejected, utterly unprepared, into the trench warfare of life. As Margaret Atwood said in a commencement address she gave years ago: "Even in the best of times, it (graduating) is more or less like being pushed over a cliff, and these are not the best of times."
Oh for the sweet chance to dispense a bit of free advice to this captive audience! If only I could give a commencement address....
But I am neither famous nor rich. So, in spite of my decades of diligent service at becoming who I am today, fame has successfully eluded me. I will never be called upon to give a commencement address.
Too bad. Faced with the gap between my pent-up urge to be a commencement speaker and the continued lack of demand for my services, I will have to be content with this address in absentia.
Herewith is my address to the Graduating Class of 2017:
Dear Graduates, Family Members and Friends:
Beware of fossils like me who are too eager to dispense free advice. Don't listen to what they say about the tangibles -- careers, money and technology. But stay open what they may say about the intangibles -- love, birth, death, the passage of time, taking risks, making decisions and living life on purpose. Remember that you are not the first person in the universe to be young and to face the decision of what to do with your life
Look in a mirror. What do you see? Whatever you see, know that this is the probably the best message a mirror will ever send you. From here on, gravity will begin to charge hefty interest. Make no mistake about it. This is your finest hour. It won't last
Keep staring at that mirror. Now that I have told you that you won't be young forever, consider your priorities. Do things soon that the young do best. Like travelling abroad on the cheap. Or living on Kraft Dinner in a garret as you learn your art, master your field or pursue your dreams. Or climbing high mountains. Or saving the world. Get your adventure juices going and do not postpone them. If you have wanderlust, then now is the time to wander. So do the young things now. Your career can wait.
Remember what I just said about putting your career on hold? Maybe I'm wrong. You can only put your life on hold for so long. Every college town has a scattering of lost souls who never left. They delayed life's decisions for as long as they could until they ran out of time. It's really cool to be in limbo at 23. It's not so cool at 45. Some of the important things to do when you are young- like graduate school or starting a career that needs to be started young, are also things that may restrict your ability to enjoy your youth. Does this contradict what I said earlier?
Living with contradiction is a life-skill you better cultivate in a hurry.
Do not worship other people. They are not you. You have come into this existence with a unique set of gifts. Your challenge is to discover these gifts, explore them with passion and share them with the world. Your are not here to fit into others' expectations of what you should be or mo"‹ld yourself in their image. You are here to become you. Get on with it!
Right now you are on your way up and you believe the world had better make room for you. If only it was true. In fact the world doesn't give a stinking toot about you.
You will have to make your own breaks. You alone are responsible for your own progress.
Another thing: Though no one else will do this for you, you can't do this alone. You will need your friends. Friendship is like oxygen. You can't see it, but it keeps you alive at all times. Cheat on sleep but do not cheat on your friends. Treasure them. In the end they will be like a prudent government bond fund. Nothing flashy, but immensely sustaining over the long term
Question your own assumptions. If you believe a 9-to-5 job is not for you, find out why. You may be right. Or you may be kidding yourself
Beware of ideology posing as reason. Learn how to tell the difference and do not trust those who would counsel you not to do your own thinking.
Regarding politics and saving the world: You will probably have no effect on the unfolding of reality or the Big Picture of History. That doesn't mean you shouldn't try. However, while you may not be able to alter reality, you can alter your attitude towards it. Paradoxically, this alters reality. Try it and see.
Take smart risks. Risk getting to know what you really want to do then risk going for it. Don't compromise your dreams. Ever.
Bill Templeman "skipped his graduation ceremonies, opting to receive his degrees by mail.

Peterborough Deserves Better Civic Engagement

I approach the speaker’s podium. A hush spreads over the hall. “Please state your name and your address.” I comply. “Thank you. You have seven minutes; you will be given a warning when you have one minute left.” I am about to take part in a ritual that is at once sacred and meaningless: I am about to make a citizen delegation—a presentation—to Peterborough’s City Council.

Why sacred? Civic engagement is one of the pillars of municipal democracy. A moment of silence is observed before these meetings. Flags are on display. The National Anthem is sung. These ceremonies send a message: “What we do here matters. Respect us and respect our rules. This is sacred space.”

Why meaningless? These delegations frequently happen after council members have decided how they are going to vote. Delegations from the public are often heard directly before a final discussion and the vote in council. The councillors are merely going through the motions to satisfy a procedural requirement of local and provincial law. The decision in question likely has already been made.

“Thank you for your presentation. Any questions for our presenter?” (a brief pause as the chairperson’s eye sweeps the council) “Seeing none, I thank you.” I shuffle back to my seat, chuffed to have spoken up, but angry. I know none of this matters. At all.

Why is civic engagement in such a dismal state in Peterborough?

How can all of us, the City and its citizens, move beyond the current tone of mistrust and divisive partisanship? How can we make these rituals come alive again? How can we make civic engagement matter?We have a representative democracy; our councillors make decisions on our behalf. While they listen to us, in the end, they decide, not the citizens. If we don’t like their decisions, every fourth year we can elect different councillors. Direct democracy, as practiced in ancient Athens, had citizens making all the decisions. Given the pace of modern life, most of us do not have the time, interest, or ability to study all the issues. We need to embrace the best of representative democracy, then open the windows and let the fresh air and sunshine in. We need open democracy. Here are some practical, low-cost steps City Council could take to really improve the way the City engages with its citizens:

Release key reports issues 10 days prior to the meeting at which delegations are to be heard and a vote held.

Frequently these reports are released only four days before an issue is voted upon, not enough time for citizens to prepare for effective delegations.

Invite citizens into the decision-making process much earlier by welcoming delegations or convening discussions at the outset of deliberations, instead of right before the final vote.

In the campaigns over issues such as the Casino, the Parkway, and PDI, many talented volunteers with substantial experience spoke up. Why not let City Council take advantage of this free expertise?

Redesign the City’s website and enhance its social media posts so that the public knows when decisions are being made and what the opportunities are for citizen input.

Right now, from a civic engagement perspective, the City’s website is a labyrinth of daunting complexity. The site should be thoroughly searchable via keywords, not just report numbers.

Allow real, two-way conversations between citizens and council members.

Delegations are one-way. A citizen can present, councillors can then ask questions, but there’s no dialogue. These conversations need to be between large numbers of citizens and all councillors, not one citizen at a time, standing like a condemned prisoner before a firing squad. Trained city staff or citizen groups like Reimagine Peterborough could facilitate these large conversations. A broader use of citizen advisors, as described in the 
Planning Act’s newly mandated role for citizens on committees, could improve civic engagement.

Augment the content of staff reports to include the concerns of a broader range of citizens.

Currently all staff reports address financial implications. How about including standard sections on implications for environmental and community resilience?

Set up a way for citizens with a specific interest or area of concern to register with City Hall.That way, they could receive all notices and reports related to their area of concern by email.

Better civic engagement would make for better decisions and ultimately more effective governance. The Parkway Extension is now stalled because civic engagement was seen as a nuisance. Defiant citizens responded accordingly and petitioned the government to intervene. Now that project is in limbo, perhaps never to be implemented; a lack of positive civic engagement has costs.

The City has learned from this mistake; the public consultations held prior to the PDI vote were far more robust. City staff and PDI executives were on hand to answer questions. Consultants were hired to survey citizens. While these PDI consultation sessions were also, like the Parkway consultations, largely sales promotions, nonetheless attempts were made to at least acknowledge the importance of civic engagement.

Peterborough deserves better civic engagement. Right now, citizens and councillors talk past each other, not questioning, not listening, and not understanding the other side. We need to have real conversations, not staged confrontations. We need to tell our councillors we want more open civic engagement. Enhanced civic engagement must become an issue in the 2018 election.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Surviving PPDD (Post Peterborough Dialogues Depression): How the Peterborough Dialogues Drove Me Crazy

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Bill Templeman, June 5, 2015
With ionospheric expectations, I joined the Peterborough Dialogues in April.  My full exuberance unleashed, I leapt into my first Saturday morning dialogue, ready for an instant conversion experience.  At last, a place to build community!  At last, a forum in which to find co-conspirators to advance my revolutionary plots!  Somewhere to be and someone to do it with.  Intoxicating phrases burbled like vintage wine from the skillful tongues of our charismatic hosts: ‘let’s hold this field’, ‘let’s create a space’, ‘let’s share our gifts and offerings’, ‘let’s go with the energy in the room and see where it takes us’. It all sounded so optimistic, so positive and oh, so easy.  I really didn’t have to do much. All I had to do was show up, participate, and all manner of warm and fuzzy treasures would spontaneously spring forth, like hot, buttery popcorn, into my lap.  I had reached for what I assumed would be a paper cup of Kool-Aid and discovered instead a crystal goblet of fine Chablis.  I was an easy drunk. 
Ten weeks later, bitter reality has set in.  The earth has not moved.  The fine Chablis turned out to be grape Kool-Aid after all.  I’ve sobered up.  The issues that brought me to the Dialogues are still unresolved.  I made a few connections, but everyone has busy lives and the way forward is murky.  Why the let-down?  
First, a confession: I am a survivor of a stifling education system that does a pretty thorough job of eradicating the notion of having any agency over my own learning.  Not only did I go through elementary and high school, but then I succumbed to 8 years of post-secondary schooling that burdened me with two degrees and a teaching certificate.  To add to this millstone of sin, I taught school for 6 years and still teach contract courses at Fleming College.  So I am very skilled in matters of passive education.  I can dissolve your motivation and bore you to exhaustion with the worst of them. But what has this sorry tale of woe got to do with my bad case of PPDD?
Simply this:
I have forgotten how to learn.  I have heard (and voiced) a number of dis-satisfactions with the Dialogues.  In my case, these complaints boil down to issues of my own agency.  I have forgotten that I am in charge.   If I could press ‘rewind’ on my life, go back to April and restart the Dialogues, I would memorize the following the following 8-Step PPDD-Prevention Protocol:
·         I am responsible for my own learning
·         If I want something to happen, I must make it happen
  • I have agency
  • "Someone should" is henceforth banned from my vocabulary
  • We co-create our logistics.  Ptbo Dialogues Hosts are equal players, not Ringmasters
  • The Hosts provide the kitchen and the pots.  I have to make the stew myself
  • If I make a commitment, I need to keep that commitment
  • This is not like school  -- the learning happens bottom-up, not top-down
My hope is that this 8-Step Process will help other PPDD sufferers come to terms with their own afflictions.  Don’t let the Dialogues get you down!  I have a hunch, and I am pretty sure I am right on this one; there are lots of other kindred spirits out there.  We are not alone; together, we can rise up and take charge.  There is hope.  There is a cure.  But we’ve got to do it for ourselves.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Organization Politics - This post is the first chapter in my new book, "Leadership Basics for Frontline Managers". This book was published by CRC Press (Taylor & Francis) in March, 2014.  To see the book, click here  then click on the Google Preview button to browse the first 25% 
Find me via email: info(at)ascentassociates(dot)ca or visit my web site or blog 


Imagine what your work would be like if the fear bred by organizational politics did not exist.  Imagine workplaces in which employees were encouraged to tell the truth, no matter how unpalatable this truth might be for their executives.  Imagine what coming to work every day would be like if integrity was the primary operating principle.

Any organization that is dominated by extreme levels of organizational politics can become toxic and fail.  When I worked for a company in the financial industry, I was hyper-concerned about conforming and getting ahead.  I wore the right clothes, worked the right amount of hours, contributed during meetings in appropriate ways and in general did my best to fit in, to be highly valued and to get promoted. Or so I thought. 

When my firm began to take imprudent business risks, the rumor mill ran wild.  I remember being told by a colleague that someone in accounting had said, “You just wouldn’t believe what the executive team is telling us to do with the books!”  The numbers were being manipulated to hide the true picture from shareholders, yet very few of us were willing to become whistle blowers.  Very few of us dared to challenge the directions that were coming down from the executive suite. The company’s share price gradually slid from over $20 to below 50 cents.  Terminations became the order of the day.  Eventually the company was sold.
The corrosive fear that undermines organizational success has a long history.  Writing shortly after the end of World War II, Admiral John Godfrey, the former Director of Britain’s Naval Intelligence Division, in analyzing ‘Operation Mincemeat’, a highly successful wartime deception conducted by British agents, identified two major weaknesses of the Nazi’s espionage establishment: ‘wishfulness’ and ‘yesmanship’.  These words are strictly the good admiral’s concoctions.  Yet wishfulness and yesmanship have changed the course of history.  And they are still with us today, every day of the week, at work and at home.

As definitions for wishfulness and yesmanship do not appear in any dictionary, I’ll use my own.  Wishfulness is that tendency among individuals and organizations to believe information that supports their own view of reality while simultaneously rejecting all contradictory information. Godfrey believed that the Nazi high command, when presented with two pieces of contradictory information, was “inclined to believe the one that fit in best with their own previously formed conceptions”.

Yesmanship is the tendency of those with less positional power to agree with those who have greater power, mainly out of fear. Yesmanship feeds on fear of authority; the greater the fear, the stronger the tendency toward blind yesmanship.  Yesmanship is an enabling behavior for wishfulness.  Wishfulness, particularly in organizations in which there are dire consequences for insubordination, can give rise to deadly levels of yesmanship.
Milder forms of yesmanship occasionally take a seat at almost every corporate or government boardroom.  Fearful employees learn instinctively to deliver the news they believe their harried bosses want to hear.  Wishing to avoid an argument, employees will spin information for each other by hiding in yesmanship.  “Don’t make waves”.  “Tell her what she wants to hear and you’ll be fine”.

In the Nazi military command hierarchy that Godfrey analyzed, lower ranked personnel would deliberately distort information in order to crawl higher in Hitler’s estimation.  Yesmanship became integrated into strategic decision making at the highest levels of the Third Reich. In this rigidly hierarchical military structure, no one dared say “no” to the powers above.  Wishfulness and yesmanship ultimately destroyed the Nazi war machine.
What power does wishfulness and yesmanship have in your organization today?  Who could give you an honest answer?

We all know what organizational politics can feel like.  We all know the almost imperceptible sense of caution, of carefulness, of not wanting to communicate the wrong message.  We all know the importance of maintaining a professional image, or being seen to be a worthwhile contributor, of being perceived as someone who is ‘onside’ with current directions and plans.  All of which is not to say that by being careful, considerate, conscious of one’s image and messages we are somehow sabotaging our careers.  Far from it.  But it is a question of degree.  How careful do we need to be?  We all know the cost of not being careful enough.  But do we understand the cost of being too careful?

The costs of allowing these forms of organizational cowardice to become the norm could be immense.  What can we do to ensure that wishfulness and yesmanship do not distort our business planning and operational decision- making?   How can we encourage people to speak their truth?  How can we build an organizational culture of high integrity?

·                     Everyone, from the CEO on down must, to paraphrase Ghandi, be the change they want to see in their colleagues.  If you want the truth, you must speak the truth and be the truth
·                     Encourage debate and dialogue.  Welcome challenges, welcome questions, welcome demands for explanations and above all, welcome alternative ideas that conflict with your own assumptions
·                     If you are a leader, make a point of hiring people who are likely to disagree with you on business issues.  Conflict can yield creative resolutions that would never see the light of day had passive politeness been the name of the game
·                     Instead of arguing with dissenters, ask for explanations of their thinking.  “How did you come to that conclusion?  Please walk me through your thinking process.”  Listen first before fighting back
·                     Treat everyone according to a set of explicit and worthwhile values.  This is not about posting flowery vision statements everywhere.  This about your behavior, or more accurately, how you treat people, all people, every day
·                     Build a culture of trust by demonstrating trust.  You must believe in the people you work with.  You believe that they have the best of intentions and that they fully deserve your trust
·                     Show your commitment by demonstrating everything you believe in through your own behavior
·                     Developing a culture free of wishfulness and yesmanship does not depend on the oratorical skills of a Barack Obama.  Developing such a culture depends on being conscious at every moment of the messages you are sending through your every action.  People learn much more about you as a leader by watching your actions as opposed to listening to you or reading your words
·                     Beware of ‘Groupthink’, that creeping sycophantism wherein people to try too hard to fit in.  Cherish your dissenters and critiques.  At times they may be frustrating to deal with, but you can always count on them to speak their truth

Remember that conflict can, up to a point, be a sign of organizational vitality.  If people really care about their work, conflicts will sometimes happen.  By all means do your best to resolve these conflicts, but don’t prevent them from springing to life.  They could be a healthy sign.

  • AS A LEADER, MODEL THE CHANGE you want to see in others
  • ENCOURAGE DEBATE and disagreement; cherish dissenters
  • EMBRACE CONFLICT; ask dissenters why they disagree with you
  • TREAT EVERYONE with an explicit and worthwhile set of values everyday
  • BUILD TRUST by demonstrating trust
  • BE SURE to practice what you are preaching
  • BE CONSCIOUS of the messages you are sending through your actions

School Reform - This article appeared in the June 25, 2013 edition of the Peterborough Examiner.  Edited versions of this piece also appeared in the Hamilton Spectator and the Orillia Packet & Times

My new book, "Leadership Basics for Frontline Managers", was published by CRC Press (Taylor & Francis) in March, 2014.  To see the book, click here  then click on the Google Preview button to browse the first 25%.  Find me via email: info(at)ascentassociates(dot)ca or visit my web site or blog 



Across Canada public school enrollment is dropping.  The Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board is considering the closure of a number of facilities, including South Monaghan Public School.   During the 2006-2007 academic year, South Monaghan had an enrollment of 152 students.  This year that school’s enrollment dropped to 110, a decline of 28%.  The Board believes it has no choice.  This scenario is playing out across the country, with the exception of high-immigration areas such as Toronto.

For education planners and school boards, this means excess capacity and an opportunity to build more efficient alternatives.  The conventional wisdom is to close half-empty schools.  The preferred term for “school closure” is “school consolidation”.  Small neighbourhood schools with falling enrollment are being closed with their students being bused to much larger, consolidated schools.  Busing kids to school is seen as a worthwhile trade-off in order to provide more modern facilities that can offer a larger range of courses.   School consolidation is assumed to be a way of creating greater efficiencies while providing enhanced opportunities for students.  Both these assumptions are wrong.  As the following research shows, closing schools  
doesn't save money and the resulting large, bus-fed schools produce inferior academic and behavioural outcomes.
U.S. researchers have shown that the cost savings touted by proponents of school consolidation rarely materialize once the small neighbourhood schools are closed.   Why do Canadians steadfastly refuse to learn from U.S. mistakes?  Recent U.S. research ( shows that the cost savings from school consolidation are not born out in fact.

“• In many places, schools and (school boards) are already too large for fiscal efficiency or educational quality; deconsolidation  is more likely than consolidation to achieve substantial efficiencies and yield improved outcomes
• Financial claims about widespread benefits of consolidation are unsubstantiated by contemporary research about cost savings …  The assumptions behind such claims are most often dangerous oversimplifications.   School closures often result in extra costs due to more mid-level administration, added expenses of transportation, management, and the like
• Claims for educational benefits from systematic statewide school and (school board) consolidation are vastly overestimated and have already been maximized. Schools that are too large result in diminished academic and social performance…
• Overall, state-level consolidation proposals appear to serve a public relations purpose in times of fiscal crisis, rather than substantive fiscal or educational purposes”

. Allan Lauzon, a researcher at the University of Guelph concludes. "The literature has highlighted a number of issues that need to be considered in the context of …. school closure and board consolidation.  First, there is little empirical evidence for cost savings that can be realized through consolidation …. The literature reveals that this is a contentious issue and that differences in outcomes are dependent upon on how administrators and politicians calculate the costs and savings. The alleged savings that can be realized at this point appear to have more to do with rhetoric and ideology than it has to do with the empirical realities of what we currently know.” (

If school consolidations do not save money or provide better learning outcomes for students, why are they unfolding with such disastrous regularity?   Why are we wasting tax dollars on solutions that we know will not work? Are there any policy alternatives to school consolidation? School boards everywhere maintain that the easiest solution is to close small schools with declining enrollment. While closing schools is indeed the easiest solution, it is not necessarily the best solution. A better solution, albeit a solution requiring more work by school boards, would be to seek partnerships with other education institutions, social service agencies and appropriate community groups to share the use and costs of school facilities.  Keep small neighbourhood schools open by sharing building space with others.  Make more effective use of technology to provide enriched curriculum in smaller schools.

South Monaghan P.S. has a capacity of 210.  With a current enrollment of 100, there would be lots of room to share with a community library, seniors recreation program or other community group.  The school board would earn much-needed rent revenue, the local community would keep its school and young students would not have to spend hours riding buses every week. The board has reviewed one of these research reports and concluded that "Teachers, not school size, make the difference in optimal student success.  There is no single outcome to indicate what makes a school better or best when it comes to size." 

According to Dr. Kenneth Leithwood of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, "Smaller schools are generally better for most purposes.  The weight of evidence provided by this review favours smaller schools for a wide array of student outcomes and most organizational outcomes as well." (

Are government and school board leaders aware of these research findings concerning negative cost savings plus inferior academic and behavioural outcomes for large, consolidated schools?  Why do school board administrators choose to ignore these research findings?  Is the Minister of Education aware of these research findings? Or do these findings clash with an outdated ideology?  For more information, please visit 

Arctic Canoe Trip - This article appeared in the October, 2004 edition of the Canoe Journal.  Longer versions of this piece also appeared in the Canadian Geographic Journal, River Runner magazine and Cathay Pacific's in-flight magazine

My new book, "Leadership Basics for Frontline Managers", was published by CRC Press (Taylor & Francis) in March, 2014.  To see the book, click here  then click on the Google Preview button to browse the first 25%.  Find me via email: info(at)ascentassociates(dot)ca or visit my web site or blog 


On Captain Back’s Route: Retracing the First Descent of the Back River in Canada’s Northwest Territories

We had been preparing for this trip down the Back River for a year.  The logistics of getting six paddlers, three canoes and close to a thousand pounds of gear all the way to Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories had been formidable.  We wanted to retrace the route of Captain George Back; his was the first expedition to run the full length of the river in 1834.  So the Captain Back’s Journal became required reading.  Once we finally got on the river we found many echoes of our own experience in his words.  

"I had escaped from the wretchedness of a dreary and disastrous winter...from wearisome inaction and monotony....Before me were novelty and enterprise; hope, curiosity and love of adventure were my companions...In turning my back on the Fort, I felt my breast lighten and my spirit, as it were, set free again..."

With these words, Back and his crew of nine left Fort Reliance on Great Slave Lake on June 7th, 1834, bound for the Arctic coast along a completely unexplored river. A similar lightness of heart overcame me as our Twin Otter floatplane droned out of sight, leaving us on the shores of Musk Ox Lake -- the headwaters of the Back River. Over a century and a half had elapsed since the redoubtable captain and his hardy crew set out on this epic voyage but my sense of overwhelming relief at finally getting on the water was the same.

Our journey could hardly be described as an exploration epic. We had good equipment, state-of-the-art survival gear, a generous horde of freeze-dry food, a VHF rescue radio and best of all, highly accurate maps based on aerial photography, all impossible to even imagine in 1834. Back and his crew didn't know where they were going. Surely one definition of courage must include, as Back wrote in his journal, "heading off across the Barrens in a large row boat with nothing but aboriginal legends as a guide."

The Back River has a formidable reputation: Back’s route was not repeated until 1958 when a group of Americans ran the entire 600-mile length of the river. There have been several drownings since then.  We were all competent paddlers but none of us had tackled a river with such a treacherous reputation.  Although we has all paddled together as Outward Bound instructors, none of us had been north of the 60th parallel.  And none of us had ever been so far away from outside help. 

Our minor discomforts were trivial compared to the hardships on Back’s expedition.  We drove to Yellowknife from Toronto in seven days; it took Back almost a year to paddle up from Montreal.  Once in Yellowknife we were able to fly to the headwaters of the river in 90 minutes; Back and his crew had to drag their boat across lakes and upstream through rapids for 20 days to reach the same point. Once at our put-in, we were able to back all our gear in three 17-foot ABS canoes.  We didn’t have to depend on food drops along our route.  Back had to employ local hunters to go ahead of him to leave caches of caribou and pemmican. These food caches covered less than one-fifth of the total distance his team was to travel.

Even the weather favored us.  On July 19th, 1834, Back and his crew were trapped by ice on Pelly Lake and were forced to drag their boat for miles to find open water. They were frequently battered by rain and snow squalls.  We never saw lake ice during our trip; for the first two weeks we basked in T-shirt weather.

As we paddled out of Musk Ox Lake we began to run the first of 83 sets of major rapids before reaching Chantry Inlet on the Arctic coast.  Our new canoes proved to be responsive and stable in whitewater,  good at tracking on flat water and forgiving of the occasional scrape over a hidden rock.

Back’s crew, by comparison, traveled in one 30-foot boat built from local scrub pine.  This wide-beamed boat had a 23-foot keel, masts, tiller, oars and a hull coated with tar.  Although Back could boast that “considering the knotted and indifferent material of which (it was) constructed, (the boat) did much credit to the builders”, we cringed to think of running those heavy rapids in a large wooden rowboat.  Field repairs were not an option for Back’s expedition; their entire route lay above the tree line. 

Two weeks into our expedition the summery weather gave way to bitter, wind-swept days that had us wearing most of our clothing.  But for the fact that the interiors of our tents remained dry, Back’s journal entry for July 26, 1834, could have been written by us for the same date over a century and a half latter:

The men, with great resignation, making the best of their damp lodgings, looked about for the most sheltered place to lie down; some wrung out their blankets while others, as a last resort, put on their entire wardrobes in the hope of a little warmth.”

Although we were chilly at times, we were infinitely more comfortable that Back’s crew in their wool, hides and furs.  With synthetic clothing – polyvinyl-coated nylon, Gortex, polypropylene, nylon bunting and pile—we could keep warm and dry.  Our footwear varied from neoprene booties to laced rubber boots.  We all agreed that it would have taken a very special kind of fortitude to endure icy water in the bilge of what surely must have been a leaky boat for up to 14 hours a day in wool socks and frayed moccasins. 

Part of our comfort was due to our superb tents.  No matter how miserable the weather was outside, life inside our domes remained snug and dry.

Often during the last two weeks of our expedition – two weeks of stormy weather, strong headwinds, aching muscles, lack of sleep and frayed tempers – we marveled at the fortitude of Back’s crew.  Despite having superior equipment, much better food and a far greater chance of surviving an upset swamped in the rapids – we were all strong swimmers and wore life jackets—we were still itching for the comforts of home.  Imagine the terror those explorers had to face at each rapid: Life jackets had not been invented yet and few of them even knew how to swim.  In our canoes we could ferry back and forth, pick our lines and avoid stopper waves and bus-eater holes.  Running rapids in Back’s rowboat must have been the 19th century equivalent of rafting minus all the floatation and most of the maneuverability.

Our respect for Back’s crew extended beyond their courage in whitewater.  Our rotating menu meant never having to face the same dish more than three times every two weeks.  Our bland lunches (crackers, cheese, trail mix, dried sausage and on rough days hot soup) included a different chocolate bar every day.  Back’s crew lunched on far rougher fare:

“The meat had suffered considerable mutilation from the wolves.  The cache was most consisted of deer and musk ox, both very poor, and the latter impregnated with the odor to which it owes its name.  This was so disagreeable to some of the party that they declared they would rather starve three days than swallow a mouthful; ...I thought it right to counteract the feeling, and ... impress upon their minds ... the necessity of accommodating their tastes to such food as the country might provide.”

Who were these men who endured so much while travelling down the river we were on?  Back came to Canada with four Englishmen – Dr. Richard King, the expedition surgeon and naturalist, and three others.  In Montreal, Back accepted three volunteers, all British soldiers stationed in Quebec.  In Norway House, an outpost en route to Great Slave Lake he recruited two Metis from the Hudson Bay Company.

In the evenings we would read Back’s Journal to know what the river would be like during the next days.  We were eager to get to a chain of mountains that Back described as being “formidable summits of Alpine grandeur”. When we arrived at the point on the map where these peaks should have been, we were amused to discover that Back’s lofty mountains were just a cluster of low hills. The tallest of these – perhaps 200 feet in altitude above the shore – he named Mount McKay, in honor of one of his crew.  We strolled up this hill in less than 10 minutes after lunch. Back had applied a generous dash of hyperbole to his journal in order to impress his sponsors back in England.  In the 1830’s the Royal Family could have hardly ordered their Auditor General to verify Back’s claims by dispatching a mission to fly to Yellowknife then rent a floatplane to inspect the river.

On August 13 we arrived at a small island in the mouth of the Back River where it emptied into Chantry Inlet on the Arctic coast.  A motorboat was supposed to meet us there and take us across to Gjoa Haven, a hamlet on King William Island, from where we could catch a flight back to Yellowknife.  Our boat captain was not there.  We hunkered down to wait, assuming our boat was held up by bad weather.  Two days later we started broadcasting requests for help.  No reply.  We sent messages that our boat was overdue and the crew possibly in trouble.  Again, no reply.  We switched frequencies, attempting to make contact with high-altitude commercial aircraft.  No return calls.  During our 35 days on the river we had seen aircraft on average every four days.  Now the sky was empty.   

We were in no danger.  We still had enough food for a week and our two fishermen were at last catching huge trout and Arctic Char.  We made ourselves comfortable by erecting a large windbreak made from the wreckage of an abandoned nursing station.   We knew that if we did not arrive back in Yellowknife by August 22 that our families would alert the authorities.  Still, we were marooned. 

At last we made contact with a cargo plane.  The pilot knew where we were from our description of the land and the river.  He relayed our message to Yellowknife.  It turned out that our boat captain had been trapped by sea ice and was unable to leave his harbor. Two days later a Twin Otter droned over the horizon, circled three times and landed at our beach.  In minutes we had loaded our gear and were en route to hot showers and cold beer in Yellowknife, five hours away.

In late August Back and his crew began their return journey to Great Slave Lake.  It took them over a month to row back upstream to their base camp. 

We arrived just before dinnertime in Yellowknife; we were soon settling into motel rooms, flipping through surreal TV channels and squabbling over which restaurant we should go to for a final feast.  Back arrived home to a very different set of circumstances.

“Late in the forenoon (of September 27) we arrived at Fort Reliance, after an absence of nearly four months; tired indeed but well in health, and truly grateful for the manifold mercies we had experienced in the course of our long and perilous journey.  The house was standing, but that was all; for it inclined fearfully to the west, and the mud used for plastering had been washed away by the rain.  Nothing, in short, could present a more cheerless appearance for a dwelling, and after three hours’ rest, the men were set to work about the necessary reparations.”
Information Overload - This article appeared in the March, 2011 edition of the Durham Business Times

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No matter what we do for a living, all of us face an avalanche of distractions each day that can throw us off our game.    We must constantly keep asking ourselves, “What do I have to pay attention to right now, what can wait until later, what might be good to know but not essential to my success and what can I safely ignore?”

According to a recent article in the McKinsey Quarterly on information overload (, the challenge of staying focused in midst of an excess of information pre-dates the Computer Age.  Writing in 1967, management guru Peter Drucker recommended that executives reserve large blocks of time on their calendars for thinking, not answer the phone and return calls only once or twice a day.  While Drucker’s readers in the 60’s didn’t have to deal with digital technology, his admonitions nonetheless ring true today.

Those with leadership responsibility at any level face a torrent of email messages, phone calls, text messages, Tweets, Facebook postings, blog comments and messages on other social media platforms that might contain useful customer feedback or information about competitors, new products and business trends.  How can we avoid being buried by this information tsunami?

Many of us believe that if we excel at multitasking, we can stay on top of this wave.  Research cited in the McKinsey article reveals that multitasking is an ineffective coping mechanism leading to lower productivity, lower creativity and impaired decision-making.   The reality is that multitasking slow us down.  The human brain does its best work when focused on one task at a time.  Individuals may dispute this conclusion, but the evidence is in.  For example, why is it now illegal to text while driving? 

The inefficiency caused by multitasking is due to the brain’s inability to let us perform two actions at the same time.  While multitasking may allow us to cross off simpler tasks on our to-do lists, it rarely helps us resolve more difficult problems.  Multitasking can become simple procrastination. 

Multitasking can also make us anxious.  People required to multitask show higher levels of stress.  The information overload associated with multitasking lessens job satisfaction and can disrupt personal relationships.  And multitasking can become addictive by causing specific ‘emergency’ hormones to be released in our bodies.

So if multitasking doesn’t work, what can we do?
·                     Be highly disciplined in how you use your time
·                     Constantly set and update your priorities
·                     Be focused on what matters most.  Beware of cruising through information that may be nice to know, but not essential for the tasks at hand.  As one CEO said, “You have to guard against the danger of over-eating at an interesting intellectual buffet”
·                     Encourage your colleagues to respect your priorities.  One colleague of mine used to place a “Focus Time” sign at her work station.  She made it clear to all of us that unless the business was in immediate jeopardy and her input was critical to resolving a crisis that we were to leave her alone.  She only posted this sign a few times a week, and usually only for a few hours, so we respected her wishes
·                     Filter the information as it comes at you.  Know what you can ignore, what you can skim, what you must read in detail later and what you must deal with right now
·                     Give your brain down time during the work day to solve problems and reset your priorities so that you are focusing on the right things. A quick walk, a short workout, and a set period of time away from all communication technology can all help the brain to do its best work

Accept the fact that multitasking is not heroic.  Understand that it is really counterproductive.  Instead of doing a half-baked job on five tasks at once, then be forced to take additional time to fix your mistakes, work on one task at a time but get it right the first time


·                     Pay attention to how you use your time
·                     Constantly refresh your priorities
·                     Focus on what matters most
·                     Make sure your colleagues know and respect your priorities
·                     Filter the information coming at you
·                     Give your brain some down time every day
·                     Stop multitasking.  It’s counterproductive; it wears you down