Life Lessons Learned from Doing Rock Work

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This summer I taught a leadership class in the backcountry while visiting a California Conservation Corps trail crew in Shasta-Trinity. The crew is spending the summer building and maintaining trails. Although I brought some information about leadership to the crew, I learned a lot from them and the experience. I only spent two days doing rock work, but it was long enough to observe that we have something to learn from these heavy, dense, massive, chunks of earth.

Rocks come in different shapes and sizes, which make them challenging to work with. When building rock walls and steps, it takes many rocks to complete the trail. This can also be said about the challenges and obstacles we face in life.

Here are some lessons I learned about life from doing rock work.

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Ian (USFS sponsor) consulting with Kim and Trevor

1. Working with rocks is emotionally draining. I learned this from our cook and camp manager after my first day. Workers were voicing frustration over working all day only to have their work undone or break apart from a final blow…and isn’t that the way of life? Our life’s work is sometimes taken from us in an instant. We build our lives – careers, families, estates- rock by rock, but we are not invincible. It serves us well to build with care and take risks with caution, but we must also appreciate that it can always be taken away. And we must be prepared to build again tomorrow.

2. You may not need something as much as you think you do. After picking out a beautiful rock…a boulder, really… my team rolls it 50 feet to our work area. It looks like it will fit perfectly. It’s the largest step anyone on our team has put in. We use three rock bars for the better part of the morning to get it into position…only to realize it’s not as perfect as we thought it was. The face that seemed so beautiful when we were picking it out up the hill now looks lumpy. The ears that were going to be our points of contact, seem less symmetrical than they did at first glance. And overall, the rock is much too big for the modest space between the upper and lower step. In the end, the rock we thought we most wanted isn’t going to fit into our rock wall.
How many times have we done this in life? We see something – an object, a person, a job- we are sure will make us happy. We work hard and sacrifice to obtain it, only to realize it isn’t a fit or as perfect as we thought it was. But it isn’t time wasted…we learned something about ourselves in the process. We learned what we were capable of, what muscles were strong and which need to be developed. We gained a keener eye for what we really want. And we had a lot of laughs.

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Lucy removing a rock to use for her rock wall

3. When you think you made a mistake, you may end up with something better. While chipping away at a jagged edge to make it flatter, an entire piece of the rock wall breaks apart. A day spent putting this rock into place seems wasted. But after a few minutes of frustration, we realize that by flipping the rock on its other face it fits even more perfectly than before. Sometimes mistakes, accidents or strokes of bad luck can bring us to exactly where we need to be. By accepting our circumstances we may find ourselves in a better position than before.

4. You can’t always do it by yourself. Rocks are heavy. And they can crush you if you lose control. They don’t care if your tiny fingers are smashed and bloody. When we have big rocks in our lives, we need to call on others – others who have tools, strength, and expertise – to help us. We cannot always move every rock by ourselves, no matter how strong or experienced we are.

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Aaron supervising the crew

5. Persistence is necessary. You can hit a rock 100 times but it might not break until 101.

6. Work smarter not harder. Leverage, strategy, and the right tools are key to saving energy and your back.

7. Cursing your rock won’t make it move but humor makes the work easier. When you’re exhausted and about to lose your sanity, you may feel tempted to call your rock a dirty name and curse it for causing your frustration. The rock won’t care. Cursing it won’t make it move. But when you find humor in the situation, you can more easily accept the reality and release your frustration.


Ethan working on his step

8. We must take advantage of our unique perspectives and skill sets. Working with rocks is an art and a science. I learned this lesson from a worker named Ethan. There is a lot to learn about rock work, but at the end of the day each person has his/her own style – a unique perspective paired with an individualized skill set.

9. There is always more to learn.

The take away is…patience, acceptance, and loving the journey as much as the destination are the keys to happiness and success. We all have rocks in our lives. They present themselves in different ways, but we all struggle with them. We try to manipulate them daily. We strive to overcome and master them. But in letting go of our expectations and looking for the lesson, we become better rock workers. We build stronger walls. We work smarter and not harder. And we have more fun along the way!

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Thank you to Ian (the sponsor), Lucy, Janiece, and Ethan for your patience and instruction.


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