VNelsonPicThe outdoors has served as an important and unexpected backdrop for my life. For the past eight years or so, I have found it necessary for my body and mind to spend some time outdoors, exploring the natural wonders around me. In some cases, these journeys have taken me far from my home. But others take me only as far as my backyard, despite being from the predominantly flat state of Wisconsin.

From the outdoors, I have gained confidence. By learning how to navigate mountains and rivers, I have realized that I need to believe in myself, whether I’m fighting the elements or navigating my social and academic life. I’ve found leadership in the outdoors as well. Often when outside, I find myself among a small group where it becomes absolutely necessary to regulate group dynamics and cooperation. In this setting, everyone has their strengths…and their weaknesses. As a leader, I have learned where I shine and where to allow others to take the lead.

But most of all, I believe that the wilderness fosters self-reflection. Being among the incredible beauty of the outdoors forces me to evaluate myself and my actions and see the bigger picture of life. In the past few years, however, I’ve wondered why the great outdoors is necessary for this. What about being in nature pushes me to be my best self, and why is it so much harder for me to find that self when I’m immersed in the chaos of society?
With much reflection, I’ve realized that the outdoors, more than anything, eliminates the distractions of society. There are no screens, no midterm papers, no Netflix and no social anxiety. Without these, which I admit are constantly present in my everyday life, I’m better able to focus on the more important aspects of my life. I get enough sleep. I journal. I set goals and work to achieve them. I have healthy, productive and interesting

Nothing I just listed is possible only in the outdoors, yet something about being outside fosters all of the above. Without the daily distractions, which are so unimportant in the long run, I can prioritize these aspects of my life. But nothing is stopping me from doing it everyday. I’ve been learning how to make small changes in my everyday life to find my best self while I’m integrated in society. Putting my phone in airplane mode, taking time by myself to think, and journaling everyday to reflect are only a few of the mechanisms that have brought me success.

I recognize that the outdoors has become a space of privilege, and only people of middle and upper socioeconomic classes really have the opportunity to go outside. This truly saddens me, as I believe everyone should have an equal opportunity to share that space. But again, you don’t need to go far to find the beauty of nature; traces of this beauty are alive in every falling autumn leaf, unwanted dandelion and overgrown shrub.

Get outside. Get your friends outside. And help others to find the resources to get outside as well. But remember, you don’t need to travel far or see grand landscapes to gain insight from the great outdoors. The same self-reflection, self-discovery and empowerment can be found in your very own backyard. The small beauties are everywhere—all we need to do is turn off our screens and find them.