Just Walk Backwards

(from my soon-to-be-published book, Just One Step: Walking Backwards to the Present on the Camino Trail)

I’m a huge fan of Seinfeld – the show about nothing – and I’m convinced that everything you need to know about life, relationships and leadership can be found there. However, you may have to look at things differently in order to find what you should do amidst the many examples in Seinfeld of what NOT to do. One particularly memorable episode is called “The Opposite” and involves George’s decision to do the exact opposite of what he would normally do. George takes his first step into the opposite when he approaches a beautiful woman in the diner and says the following:

“My name is George. I’m unemployed, and I live with my parents.”

To George’s surprise, she’s impressed and agrees to date him, and George continues his strategy of opposite actions throughout the episode (at least until it inevitably blows up on him). While I always laughed at this concept – doing the opposite – I never imagined how insightful and even profound it was until I took my Camino journey.

One thing I painfully learned on the Camino is that having injured feet and ankles is no fun and presents many genuine physical challenges. I also learned that while walking uphill with bad feet and ankles was challenging, it paled in comparison to the pain I experienced when I had to walk downhill. While walking uphill puts stress on your heart (through exertion) and your calves and other muscles, walking downhill puts extra stress and strain on your hips, knees, shins, ankles and feet. This was not good news when I had painful issues on both feet and a shin splint on both ankles, and I made various attempts to find a solution.

I tried walking slower and walking faster. I tried leaning back into the hill and leaning over towards the downhill. I also tried running downhill, which mainly increased the pain but at least made the downhill journey quicker. I also noticed that some Camino pilgrims were zig-zagging down the hills, which reduced some of the stress on my feet and ankles, but it wasn’t a full solution. Nothing I tried worked, and I was getting desperate to find a way to reduce the pain I was experiencing. They say that desperate times call for desperate measures and that desperation can fuel innovation, and this proved to be the case for me on the Camino. When nothing else worked or helped I tried something radical – perhaps even crazy – and began to walk the downhills backward.

If you’re puzzled, it’s okay. It’s normal – many people are confused when I talk to them about walking backwards on the Camino. Yes, I’m literally talking about turning full around, facing up the hill and walking down the hill backwards. And here’s the amazing part – it worked. While it didn’t eliminate the pain, walking backwards greatly reduced the pain I was experiencing, and for my last seven days on the Camino I walked downhill backwards nearly seventy percent of the time. In fact, I walked downhill backwards every time unless the hill was too treacherous to navigate backwards (e.g. because of large boulders, excessive ruts or other obstacles). Even if the trail was rocky, I still walked backwards down the hill to experience the relief in my feet and ankles, as well as to speed up my pace –  most of the time I could walk backwards down the hill faster than I could walk it facing forward.

You might be wondering if I walked backwards over rocks and streams, and the answer is yes. Yes, I walked backward on flat surfaces, bumpy surfaces and rocky surfaces. Yes, I wasn’t looking where I was going, since walking with my head turned over my shoulder was even more difficult. I developed a little strategy where I’d take and count one hundred steps, glance over my shoulder to see what the terrain looked like “behind me,” and then face uphill again and keep walking backwards.

Incredibly, I never fell and only stumbled once or twice when I stepped on an unexpected or unusually shaped rock or root. I pretty quickly developed the ability to walk backwards very fast, and in several places I was rocketing down the hill backwards while swinging my walking sticks in my arms. I often wondered what I looked like flying down a hill walking backwards with my arms and walking sticks swinging back and forth, and I’m sure that I made some impression on everyone who witnessed this strategy in action.

Not only did I walk backwards, but I noticed that other people started doing the same – mimicking my bizarre walking approach and continuing it once they discovered that it worked. Trust me, I saw the “you’re crazy” looks from many people, especially when I passed them walking backwards and facing them. A popular greeting on the Camino is to wish everyone that you pass (99% of all pilgrims are walking the same direction – west) “Buen Camino” –  have a good Camino journey. You walk past them, and as you do you look over your shoulder and wish them “Buen Camino.” Imagine their surprise when they were walking downhill facing forward and I would come walking past them backwards and facing up the hill, look them in the eye and say, “Buen Camino” as I continued down the hill! I swear that some people were so confused that they wondered if they were facing the wrong direction.

Even when I talked about my unique strategy in the evenings, I was met with great resistance from other pilgrims, and I heard all of these comments:

“I couldn’t do that.”

“I wouldn’t be able to maintain my balance.”

“I’d be falling all the time.”

The funny thing is that I thought about all of these things too, but I did it anyway, and it turns out that I was wrong. And I discovered that I was wrong – that I could walk backwards – only when I chose to take the risk and try it – daring to do something different in order to change the outcomes and pain that I was experiencing. What’s the old saying – insanity is doing the same thing over and over and hoping for a different result? I decided not to be insane and to instead do something different – to invoke the wisdom of taking a risk by engaging in what I like to call crazy normal. Crazy normal is where other people think you’re crazy, but your choices and actions are actually normal and logical when you consider what you’re facing. I now embrace crazy normal as one of my life and leadership mantras, and walking backwards is one of my crazy normal practices.

My question to you is simple – if you’re not getting the results you want in any aspect of your life or leadership, are you doing things just a little different or are you radically shifting your perspectives and actions? Maybe it’s time to Just Walk Backwards.

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