Finding My Fire On The Ice

Nestled in Montana’s Tom Miner Basin just outside of the Yellowstone Park boundary, the pond adjacent to my A-frame cabin beckoned. For weeks, I had been anticipating my ice hockey debut. The Sochi games had just ended. The wounds were still raw from the US women’s hockey team’s devastating loss to Canada for the gold. We had the numbers for a US – Canada rematch (even if it was co-ed). I was certain that somehow my days of playing field hockey and rugby had prepared me sufficiently to take back our country’s honor. Have I mentioned, though, that I can’t skate?

The incredible setting for my pond hockey epiphanies -- the sun's afternoon glow on the Absorka Range. (Photo courtesy of David Thomson)

The glow of the late afternoon sun on the Absorka Range was an idyllic setting for pond hockey reflections.
(Photo courtesy of David Thomson)

I was back at the B Bar Ranch for the final stint of the leadership training I’ve written about here and here. Resilience and self-care were integral to our training, and winter brought fresh opportunities, like hockey, for energy management. In the middle of a long afternoon session, we’d re-energize with a game. Little did I know that pond hockey was about to become a metaphor for how I want to live my life. Like most PhD’s, I pride myself on being a fairly heady, rational person, rewarded for my intellect. But my time in Montana, on and off the ice, showed me the power of living more fully from my heart.

Joy. Playfulness. Tenacity. Those of you who know me professionally may not think of me in quite the same way again if you saw me wrestling my TREC coach in the snow, aiming to simultaneously grab both the puck and his hockey stick. Every time the puck left the ice, I was there. Leaping into the snow with pure joy. I was tenacious. Fearless. Giddy. Not even a hint of my more typical worrisome self.

I was willing to take risks. Sure – I got a few bruises – knees, elbows, wrists, and some impressively sore muscles. But, unlike some actual hockey players, I have all of my teeth and I managed not to hurt anyone else along the way. I have SO much fire in me. And yet, like many of you, I’ve kept it buried underneath so many layers…of ice.

Imagine a world in which scientists were willing to lead with their hearts as much as their heads. What about your science makes you feel fully alive? What animates your heart? Being in the field? Mentoring a graduate student? The joy of discovery? Sheer curiosity? Knowing that you’ve somehow made a difference? We cling so tightly to our need to be credible and objective that we fail to communicate our passion. Our humanity.

Live from your why. What motivates you to do what you do? What is your commitment to yourself? To the world? How can you more fully live from your why? In this TED talk, Simon Sinek describes how we, as individuals and as organizations, fail to talk about the why that underlies what we do. Instead, we tend to lead with and stick to the what and the how. But it’s the why that motivates people to care. It’s the why that forges connections. It’s the why that inspires. It’s the why that builds trust.

And that why is at the core of one of COMPASS’ favorite questions: So what? This question marries the head and heart, as it forces us to consider the meaning of our science not only to our audiences, but also to us.

Play to win. This philosophy (learn more here) was a key underpinning of our leadership training. Playing to win is about courage. It’s about embracing discomfort for growth. Stretching outside of our comfort zones. Being willing to be vulnerable. In contrast, playing not to lose is about avoiding fear. Avoiding situations where we might lose, fail, be uncomfortable, or get rejected. Sound familiar?

Playing to win means taking risks. And taking risks means being vulnerable. As I’ve talked about before, we scientists tend to shy away from vulnerability. It shakes our foundations of legitimacy and credibility. The scientific enterprise, on the whole (and perhaps academia most prominently), is fairly risk-averse. What risks are you willing to take to speak up for or stand up for what you believe in? To make the changes you want to see in the world?

Playing to win takes vision. This is especially true for pond hockey. Without boards, subtle moves, puck control, and passing are imperatives. Good players see space where none exists. Wayne Gretsky said, “A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be.” They anticipate openings and connections before they’re fully apparent. This kind of vision is as useful to science as it is to life. This may be especially true at the nexus of science and environmental decision-making, where visionary scientists work to illuminate what’s at stake and shed light on the likely consequences of actions we’ve not yet taken.

Great hockey, like great science, requires a commitment to courage, one’s heart, and one’s head. I am committed to living my life with the joy, playfulness, and tenacity I showed on the ice. How are you willing to show up more fully from your heart? As a scientist? As a human being?

And in case you’re wondering, the Canadians whooped us, 4 games to 1. But, it was the most joy I have ever experienced as a loser.

About Karen McLeod

Karen McLeod is the Managing Director of COMPASS. She's an ecologist and outdoor enthusiast who loves living in Oregon's Willamette Valley -- a rich landscape of old growth forests, bountiful agriculture, scenic wineries, and gorgeous hikes nestled between the mountains.


  1. Cynthia McCreery says:

    Thank you Karen, you have inspired once again! I sure love reading about your experiences at TREC. It brings back that wonderful state of learning that is so heightened there. Keep writing and keep visioning. Oh, and keep up the hockey; you’ll be on the winning team one of these days!

    • Karen McLeod says:

      I’m glad you found this inspiring, my Canadian friend. I can still remember how hard you and I laughed trying to get back out of that snow bank. And I will keep writing – it’s all part of joy, playfulness, and tenacity for me!

  2. This was very beautifully written! I think the TED talk hits the nail right on the head – people want to know why they should care about science, so science communicators need a compelling why. In the past the role of science in driving societal progress has been emphasized as the “why”, but I think people do not care as much about societal reasons. I think the greatest impact would be seen with an appeal on a personal level – the why should be an innate desire to discover, the rush of being on the frontier of the unknown or the satisfaction of understanding how the world around you works.

    • Karen McLeod says:

      Thank you, Kevin. Glad you enjoyed the TED talk. I agree with you that scientists have many whys – I think the key is to ensure that we collectively do a better job of sharing all of them with the wider world.

  3. David Thomson says:

    Wonderfully said Karen! As you so eloquently point out we have been told to leave our passions and beliefs at home as they are not valid things for a scientist to speak from. I taught for 20 years in the graduate school at a major university and was constantly pushing up against that wall. Fortunately there were some more enlightened leaders there. I have been encouraged even in recent days by more scientists speaking out and taking stands, the most recent being the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) report on climate change. Keep the wisdom and stories coming Karen!

    • Karen McLeod says:

      Thanks, David. It’s heartening to see how many more scientists are willing to let their passion for their work shine through, and as many have pointed out to me since this posted yesterday, those we most admire as leaders (whether they’re scientists or not) ARE those who lead from their why.

  4. Jack Larson says:

    Thank you for passing this on. To begin at the end, you are no loser. Your team lost, but there is a vast difference between losing and being a loser. Often those who lose are in reality the greatest winners.

    Mentioning Gretsky, my favorite Gretsky quote is, “You miss 100% of the shots that you never take.”

    The why is almost always the most central question. It is the “why” that the Bible primarily addresses. It almost never is concerned about how, and not nearly as much about what as many think.

    Joy was a great place to begin. I am reminded of the famous Nietzsche quote, “Those who hear not the music think the dancers mad!” And when it comes to tenacity, it was Helen Keller who reminded us, ” One can never consent to creep when one feels the impulse to soar!”

    Ons senses that as the result of those three weeks, you will never be the same. Bravo!

    • Karen McLeod says:

      You’re welcome. That Gretsky quote is a OOMPASS favorite, too – we often use it in our trainings. The Helen Keller one is new to me, but one I’ll happily adopt. And speaking of soaring, this leadership training has been truly transformative – I didn’t appreciate just how far my wings could stretch :).

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