David Steed, OWLS Staff (Vice President of Business Development)
What does success really mean? At first, the answer depends on who you ask. For students: graduation and a diploma; for athletes: besting your previous record or winning; for professionals: career growth and achievements; for businesses: new clients and profit. But when I dig deeper, I think one’s own internal sense of personal success is more important than all these external achievements. In fact, many of us lose our way. Students are anxious about making the grade; Americans appear anxious about losing their status; and increasing complexity in the workplace is not a trusty source of calm.
On a recent trip to Colorado, I had the opportunity to climb a “14er” so to speak. To the uninitiated a “14er” is a Colorado mountain that exceeds, you guessed it, 14,000 feet. There are 48 or 50 or 52 of them depending on the person you ask. They have colorful names like Mount Harvard, Kit Carson’s Peak, Conundrum Peak and Mount Elbert. The opportunity to climb Mount Elbert presented itself and I decided to give it a try. Mind you, I’d never climbed so much as a “10er” or even a “9er” for that matter. I live in the pretty dry, sea-level, great state of Texas. I stay pretty much on the ground.
As the day for the climb approached, I spent a few days acclimating to the higher altitude. According to all medical advice and my physical condition, I was ready to go with a group of others. As a novice, rising at 3:45 am and starting the hike with headlamps was daunting. The idea was to summit Mount Elbert prior to the afternoon storms that arrive with regularity. When 6:15 arrived, we were treated to an incredible sunrise over another peak, which shall remain nameless, due to my inability to name it. I was less focused on these details simply because of the majesty of the scenery. I lost myself in the rhythm of hiking through the Aspen Forest which melted into the Evergreens which melted into the sky.
At around 11,000 feet we broke above the tree line and onto the bare mountain. And there was Mount Elbert. It’s hard to breathe at 11,000 feet. The Mount Elbert summit stands officially at 14,440 feet. As my breathing became labored and each segment of climbing became shorter and shorter, I began to doubt whether I could do it.
“One of the greatest problems people have with failure is that they are too quick to judge isolated situations in their lives and label them as failures. Instead, they need to keep the bigger picture in mind.” ― John C. Maxwell
We approached 13,000 feet – just 1.05 miles and 1,440 feet from the summit – and that is when the world began to spin, and I started to see double. I had been warned by others who have experienced altitude sickness. I knew what was happening. I’d succumbed to the mountain, the lack of oxygen and my human frailty. At exactly 13,001 feet up I found an outcropping of rock, stopped there, took in the situation and got “The Big Picture.” After a few minutes of dealing with my own frustration I turned around and began going back down. I was disappointed at having let both myself and fellow climbers down.
After about 500 feet of descent, I stopped to catch my breath and have a drink of water. I felt much better and could actually breathe. In that moment of clarity, I lifted my head and looked out at spectacular view that was spread out in front of me. In that moment I realized that I’d had my head down. At some point, I just started putting one foot in front of the other, trudging up the mountain. I had stopped looking around.
In the next moment, I paused and took it all in – what I had begun, what I had achieved, and what I was able to be part of – embrace – in the beauty of nature, the sun, the air, the clarity. A sense of accomplishment spread in my chest and my countenance brightened. Yes, I had not conquered the ‘14er’. I had conquered my ‘13er’. Each step on the way up, each rest stop to catch my breath, every straining muscle was a testament to resilience and accomplishment. I choose to see it that way. I decided that rather than wallow in what might have been that I’d exalt in what is true for me and the exhilarating memory of being in the moment.
Resilience: The Lesson of Personal Success
I will attempt to summit Mt. Elbert next year and will enjoy summiting my personal (internal) ‘13er’ for the rest of my life.
Personal success requires an inward knowing and acceptance of one’s own limits. We truly succeed when we accept who we are and stop striving—this, coupled with an enjoyment of the process: confidence in who we have become and a commitment to keep learning. I will attempt to summit Mt. Elbert next year and will enjoy summiting my ‘13er’ for the rest of my life.
Before my next try I will review what I did and prepare differently. And, more importantly, I have a renewed confidence in myself because I did not compare my achievement with the expected goal or with other’s expectation. I stopped to relish what was happening in the moment. This new energy has given me a commitment to try again.
Actually, our research on resilience at OWLS shows that confidence, commitment, and also compassion are each integral to resilience. And, as you can see in my story, compassion played a big part. I chose to focus on what I had accomplished – which was actually a big deal for me. I chose to let go of any negative thoughts about what I should have accomplished. I chose to be kind to myself and take in the good feelings that came from my own personal best.
Success is an inside job.