Chattooga River, Mountain Rest, South Carolina (NOC photo)

In the early stages of Sunday Morning Joe, I would expand upon ideas that I never imagined that I would share publicly. This was, and continues to be, a cathartic process for me.

As the writing found its rhythm, people would respond.

Perhaps they relate the weekly topic to events happening in their own lives. Or to acknowledge a different side of me they didn’t know had existed during my time working inside the Olympic movement… a side of me that I didn’t know existed during those days.

More than six years after starting this project and an inbox filled with replies every Sunday, one response in the spring of 2015 brought me to my roots. It was unexpected in so many ways:

Joe,

I’ve just become aware of what you are doing in this column and I wanted to let you know I admire your courage in doing this. I’ve gone through periods in my life where I made a decision to seek such goals as seeking wisdom or attaining greater fitness and worked on them consistently but it never occurred to me to share my thoughts as I went through the process. I think your sharing your own thoughts and progress may be helpful to others.

Payson

The letter’s author is Payson Kennedy, a legend in the outdoor industry.

Payson, along with his wife, Aurelia, and his college friend, Horace Holden, founded the Nantahala Outdoor Center.

Based in western North Caralina in the Smoky Mountains, where the Appalachian Trail intersects the Nantahala River, the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) is one of the world’s top outdoor outfitters and connecting points to nature and adventure.

During my initial period living close to NOC (three years leading up to the 1992 Olympic Games), I knew less about Payson than its other two founders. I knew Horace well since I raced and trained with his son on the U.S. National Team. And my first job at NOC was washing dishes at the NOC restaurant that Aurelia managed and bore her name.

But, my path didn’t cross Payson’s too often. To receive this response from Payson to a Sunday Morning Joe post was both surprising and humbling.

Payson’s suggestion that he could have done something similar as he was building NOC made me curious as to what was on Payson’s mind when he launched what would become one of the world’s most iconic rafting destinations. What kind of life lessons, challenges, and insights did we miss from Payson during this period of his life?

In 2015, through my work as NOC’s Global Media Ambassador, I read the transcript of a video interview that Payson did with the NOC marketing team in which he reflects upon the earliest days of the company.

When one thinks of launching a raft company, perhaps you are like me and would imagine that its founder, or founders, are young and passionate outdoors people.

Here “young” implies less-established and less to lose if the company fails. Why risk a good and solid job to embark upon a very challenging start-up?

Payson Kennedy didn’t fit my model of the founder of such a start-up. In 1972, Payson was 40 years old, married, and had middle school-aged children. He was a successful and established librarian at Georgia Tech in Atlanta.

While at Georgia Tech, he noticed he would deeply engage in his research in the library. Sometimes, this immersion made three hours pass by in what felt like a few minutes.

Also during this time, Payson volunteered with scouting programs on weekends, helping young people to explore the outdoors.

Payson started to align the similar states of flow he felt while conducting research in the library and the outdoor experiences with young people.

When Horace Holden approached Payson about the concept of starting an outdoor center alongside the Nantahala River, there was not a fancy business plan with projected revenue, guests, and profits.

No, instead, there was a question Payson wanted to answer:

If I can put myself into a state of flow, can I influence the likelihood that others around me will achieve the same?

This was the life experiment that Payson needed to run… and started to run in 1972.

Now in its 50th year, NOC has led almost seven million guests through river and mountain experiences throughout the southeastern United States and beyond.

What built NOC’s game-changing gateway to nature did not only begin with a relationship bound by water but also its relationship with water.

When we evolve our relationship with nature from a static space in which to disconnect and towards a moving, changing, and uncertain force — like any other important relationship — we deepen our connection with nature.

Which leads to higher quality states of flow that not only serves us but others with whom we choose to collaborate.

Payson’s experiment utilized holistic and peaceful values to build one of the greatest outdoor outfitters in the world that continues to bring people together from all over the world.

Not bad for a fiercely competitive man whose personal pursuit of excellence facilitated, supported, and inspired some America’s most prolific river performances on the world’s biggest competitive stages.

(Just in case the closing paragraph catches you by surprise, stay tuned for the follow-up post coming in two weeks.)

With gratitude, — Joe

Payson’s Flow is a part of my continuing Sunday Morning Joe series, The Pursuit Of Contentment On The River Of Uncertainty.

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