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Success Lessons from a Sled Dog

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”Life is like a dog sled team. If you ain’t the lead dog, the scenery never changes." - Lewis Grizzard

Although it had long been in my bucket list to visit Alaska, my high expectations were still exceeded on my recent visit. I spent ten days in that chilly atmosphere. I hiked, explored, met locals and soaked up some fascinating history about the great wilderness.

What amazed me was one common thread -- a most singular focus that most locals and natives had no matter where they were from. From Ketchikan, Icy Straits, Hoonah and Juneau to Skagway, Seward, Anchorage, Fairbanks and everywhere in between, you can’t escape an Alaskan's love and respect for sled dogs.

Sled dogs are integral to their tradition, livelihood and culture. Just about every guide in every city has a great story about a brave and beloved sled dog - Granite or Rottier or the most famous one we know, Balto and so many others.

Balto as in the animated dog. True story. Pretty damn fascinating.

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Contrary to popular belief, Siberian huskies or Alaskan malamutes are not the most popular sled dog breed. The #1 spot belongs to the Alaskan Husky, an unofficial breed with a hodge-podge heritage that’s custom-made for the rigors of racing or hauling.

While they don’t look all that strong, these dogs are bred for their spirit more than their musculature. During our travels, we met a David Monson, a sled dog breeder. He's married to Susan Butcher, who was the first woman to compete in and win the Iditarod .

The Iditarod and the Yukon Quest are two of the most popular dog sled races in the world. Each race is a grueling 1,000 mile journey through the unrelenting conditions of the Alaskan winter. These races put the will of man and dog through tests of determination, fortitude and endurance.

In speaking with David, who now breeds these dogs, he spoke about the important characteristics they look for in breeding sled dogs. From where I stand, these characteristics apply as much to successful dogs in a sled competition as they do to those of us looking to succeed in life.

First thing: a healthy appetite. A healthy appetite is essential for long-distance sled dogs or freight hauling dogs. They need energy-producing caloric intake to get them through the rigors of the trail and if they get finicky about their food choices, they can have digestive issues. Whether on a race or on a rescue mission, time is of the essence. A beloved dog with a digestive issue can annihilate your chances of winning.

For us to succeed in life, we, too, must be hungry. We've got to know what we want and fight for it with voracious hunger. Chasing our dreams with hunger give us the tenacity to overcome obstacles. When we're truly hungry, the obstacles don't even matter to us. We just want the nourishment!

We've got to know what we want and fight for it with voracious hunger.

Sled dogs must have tough feet to withstand the grueling cold and the long miles and hours of mushing through treacherous snow. For these long races they must wear special socks to keep their feet from freezing.

We need to have tough feet as well in order to succeed. Above all else, we must stand our ground.

Christopher Markus said “Compromise where you can. Where you can’t, don’t. Even if everyone is telling you that something wrong is something right. Even if the whole world is telling you to move, it is your duty to plant yourself like a tree, look them in the eye and say ‘no, you move.”

Sled dogs work as a team. If you attach a pack of ‘normal’ dogs to a sled, it would be a maelstrom of barking and play and confusion. But sled dogs have a mission. They know what the goal is, they know how to achieve it, and they can only accomplish that by working well as a team.

Isn’t that so much like life? The greatest minds and greatest success stories we’ve ever heard - the humble ones anyway - will admit that they were only able to succeed because they were part of a team. They needed people beside them that had the same vision and determination and goal.

I refer to our teams as our "tribes." They are an indispensable part of our advancement.

One of my favorite African proverbs says “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.

An army may be greater than a single warrior, but every dog sled team must have a good lead dog. This lead dog must be able to think for itself. The human musher may be in command, but in times of trouble, the lead dog has to take care of its entire team, including the musher.

That is the hallmark of leadership. Good leaders know how to lead. Part of leadership is knowing how to bring out the best of everyone in the team.

Finally, sled dogs must be willing to work. Their work ethic is impeccable. I've seen first-hand the training they go through. Their zest for work is in their DNA. Like us, these sled dogs may be committed to the mission, committed to finishing the race first, committed to the rescue or committed to the task at hand. But none of that matters if they're not willing to work.

It’s of no use to us to dream, to plan, to create vision boards or to attend seminars and workshops if we are not going to take action. All that does is give us a dopamine rush and then dig us deeper when we realize we haven't actually done anything.

Taking action means putting in the work. Putting in the work is where you manifest... it’s what makes the prize of achievement worth it. The prize is always in the journey, not the destination. When you earn something, you know it.

"Mush," is the go command in dog sledding.

Stay hungry, stand your ground, be mindful of your tribe, and be a humble and ethical leader. Like those dogs, mush confidently in the direction of your dreams by embracing the discomfort that comes from putting in the work. In the work you’ll find the strength to achieve.

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