Lessons from the Outdoors for Data Science and Innovation


Michael Fowler

Date Published:
June 6, 2024

The Foundation of My Career

As a kid I was lucky to have the opportunity to spend a lot of time outdoors, which became an escape from home. Those experiences instilled in me a way of life that continues to this day and is the foundation of my career in research and development (R&D).

I learned from an early age that spending a single day to multiple weeks in the wild requires a systematic approach to preparation, teamwork to execute, and the ability to “work the problem and not have the problem work you” through innovation and creativity. This is also how I’ve come to approach R&D in the ever-changing world of artificial intelligence and machine learning.

Overcoming Adversity

Accomplishment in the face of adversity is the fuel that drives a researcher to push the boundaries of innovation despite all the obstacles and failures they experience.

This is illustrated in the stories you hear every outdoorsman tell about their greatest adventures. It’s never about how easy it was or how everything went perfectly. The stories they tell are about what went wrong and how they made it through the adventure with a new lesson learned.

It’s the forgetting to pack your raincoat because the weather looks so nice but ends up pouring hours later; forgetting to bring the sauce for spaghetti night while hiking the Appalachian Trail; or creating a shelter from natural materials because someone didn’t secure the tent in the canoe well, and you helplessly watched it float down river when your canoe flipped on a rock.

These stories are passed on as fun anecdotes but also as important lessons learned for the next adventurer, a culture often missing from the realm of research. You can read thousands of articles posted in conferences and journals about researchers’ accomplishments, but they rarely, if ever, talk about the thousand failures they overcame to get there—an important piece of knowledge that is not being passed on to the next generation.

The Path to Success

Our path to success against adversity is found through preparation, creativity, perseverance, and teamwork.

Preparation can be as simple as training and knowledge of what to do when things go wrong and hopefully some basic tools to get you there—a knife, a first aid kit.

When a group experiences obstacles that were unplanned, a solution that maximizes comfort and minimizes effort is obtained by an open and constructive group discussion of options and a plan were everyone pitches in according to their strengths and weaknesses.

It rarely occurs were you have the perfect person for every task, so at some point everyone has to step outside their comfort zone and learn new things with a group of friends or coworkers encouraging and supporting their efforts.

With every research project, you are pushing yourself and others outside the comfort zone to accomplish something brand new. That mentality comes with experience, which the outdoors is more than willing to provide, and support, which your team and managers should also freely give.

The Awe of Innovation

The outdoors and developing something new can provide a great sense of accomplishment but more importantly awe. Research in psychology and neuroscience have shown how beneficial experiencing awe can be to someone’s mental health.

Everyone was in awe at what large language models could do (by replicating us with all our flaws) across a large swath of domains from programming to travel. But the great outdoors provides the greatest quantity of experiences that generate true soulful awe (along with fresh air) that are easily available to everyone everywhere. Everything nature can teach you will make you a better researcher.

Join Us on the Journey

At Elder Research, we believe in the power of life’s lessons to drive innovation. We encourage our team members to draw inspiration from their experiences and apply these insights to their work. Whether you’re a seasoned data scientist or just starting your journey, we invite you to explore the intersection of nature and technology.