In July I flew to Europe with my friend Pam to hike the famous Haute Route, which starts in Chamonix, France and finishes in Zermatt, Switzerland. The route is beloved by trekkers not only for its fantastic scenery but also for its relative luxuries; you can carry just a day pack with no camping gear because there are mountain huts and village hotels to stay in along the way, all of which will feed you well.
By the second day of our two-week trip we had begun to meet other trekkers, and by the fourth day we had made friends. Because it was early season, there were few hikers on the route, and we often stayed in the huts and hotels with the same people over and over and ran into them on the trail. We met a French engineer hiking with his son and a Canadian woman hiking with her daughter; three adventurous Australian women celebrating their 40th birthdays; a couple from Utah hiking with three kids under the age of 10; an FBI agent and his retired Marine wife from Montana; three Chinese men who had clearly never done this kind of hiking before and whom we worried about every night when they hadn’t shown up yet; a young backpacker from Canada traveling around the world before getting married; and four women in their 60s who danced wildly to their iPods every time they reached the top of another mountain pass. We began to take inventory of who was there each evening when we checked into our hotel, sharing stories of the day’s hike and asking for news of those who had taken a different route on that leg. Often we made plans to meet for dinner, sharing bottles of wine and our best photos from the day.
Somewhere along the way I noticed that I always gravitated toward people most like me, the Americans who were close to my age and came from similar backgrounds. And Pam always gravitated toward those who were most different from us; she usually went looking for the three Chinese men, despite the difficulty in communicating with them, and she loved to practice her French with the French father and son, or with other Europeans we passed on the trail. I began to think about the fact that Pam has always been this way during the 20 years we’ve been friends. She married a Frenchman and two of her best friends are Swiss and Dutch. When we travel together she zeros in on the people we meet who are most challenging to identify with, no matter how uncomfortable it may be. And yet I’m the consultant who preaches to training participants about the importance of getting out of one’s comfort zone, of making connections with people who are different in order to build a culture of inclusion and continuous learning. It’s one thing to understand the concept and quite another to actually practice it, not because someone has told you it’s a good idea but because it is truly what you enjoy. Pam doesn’t have to get comfortable being uncomfortable because for her, difference is exciting and enjoyable. For me, I will just have to keep trying to walk my own talk.