Nina Spencer

A Time to Creep, A Time to Soar:

More Work and Life Lessons Learned From Climbing Kilimanjaro


The bear went over the mountain,
The bear went over the mountain,
The bear went over the mountain,
To see what he could see.

And all that he could see,
And all that he could see,
Was the other side of the mountain,
The other side of the mountain,
The other side of the mountain,
Was all that he could see.

This good ole childhood song (that seems to have belonged to the public domain forever), suggests it's futile to go over the mountain. Why bother? All you're going to see is the other side of the mountain, right? Why go all the way up there, to come all the way back down here??? To see what you can see? What a waste of time and energy, right? Maybe. Maybe not.

Consider the following quote, which argues why bothering to climb your real or personal/metaphoric mountain can be incredibly valuable for your future life's work and perspectives:

You cannot stay on the summit forever; you have to come down again.
So why bother in the first place? Just this: What is above knows what is below,
but what is below does not know what is above. One climbs, one sees.
One descends, one sees no longer, but one has seen. There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up. When one can no longer see, one can at least still know.

-- Rene Daumal

It's now been 16 weeks since I returned from climbing Kili and life has pretty much returned to the normal "chop wood and carry water" rhythms of my speaking schedule, writing and living. Yet not a day goes by that doesn't have at least one moment of reflection about life on the mountain for those nine simple, singularly-focused days in January. Not one day (now I'm back home at 380 feet above sea level) where I can't think of some similarity between the mini-dramas of any given workday and a corresponding climbing incident that parallels, teaches and reminds me of what I experienced at 19,341 feet. And so the work and life lessons continue, and probably will all the rest of my days.

Here is another of the many I'll share in my upcoming book: A Time To Creep, A Time to Soar: Lessons learned, for work and life, from climbing Kilimanjaro

Click here to read: Lessons 1 - 8.

Click here to see my video at the top of Mount Kilimanjaro.

9. Protect your sense of humour. I'm blessed to live in a fun house, with a family filled with humour. Every day we laugh. Laughing heartily at least once a day over some thing or another is the norm for me. Many a visitor to my home likens it to a frat house. I'm never sure if that's a compliment, but I choose to take it as such. So jovial and noisy and silly it is. Even when I want to be angry over something, my tribe knows how to wriggle out of the dog house by appealing to my funny-bone. I've been told that I'm funny, too, and also a good audience for receiving humour and very forgiving. So what happened to me, then, on the mountain? I wasn't laughing. At all. I was so intent on the goal, on doing everything technically and physically right, on doing as I was told and staying safe, etc., that I forgot to protect my sense of humour. I forgot to walk my talk. Not only was I not finding others funny, I wasn't generating any humour, either. I didn't notice that truth for many days, but I did secretly notice I was falling into an emotional hole of social isolation of my own doing. I felt my fellow climbers (none of whom I knew before I started into all this) just weren't my tribe. It wasn't their fault; it was mine. I got homesick and felt dreadfully lonely. Too bad, tough bananas. I was in the middle of something that would take another six days to complete. Had to "suck it up", as the expression goes. Couldn't go under it. Couldn't go over it. Had to go through it.

By day three I felt emotionally lost and low, despite still feeling quite physically fit for the challenge. By this point there were still four more days up and two more days down. And through it all I never really did regain my usual jolly, positive disposition and sense of humour. I tried, but it just wasn't where my head was at. I over-thought what was going on for me. Fretted about it. Then realized that much of the time in my professional work I'm "on". Here, on Kilimanjaro, just focusing on the task at hand was physically and mentally exhausting enough. I realized I'd subconsciously given myself permission not to be "on"/the "entertainment", so I could conserve my energy for completing the primary task. And that was both odd and a big-deal step for me--to let go and let others be on...be the entertainment. Caused me to not know myself so well up there. And that rattled my cage.

You've heard people say, "The older I get the more I realize how little I know"? Well, on Kilimanjaro, I discovered, the higher I got (in altitude, that is!), the less I felt I knew who I was. I was so out of my emotional and social element, but my body kept going forth fine enough. In that trance-like state I earlier describe, in which we took one methodic step after another all hiking-day long, I found myself thinking of the words to, Amazing Grace, "I once was lost, but now I'm found, was blind, but now I see." And I knew this would be the case for me, too. So I held on to those words and to that truth--that all would sort itself out and I'd be fine and found. Altitude, hiking seven hours a day for nine days (and 15 hours on summit day), sleeping in a tent in temperatures ranging from 30 degrees above to 10 degrees below (zero) Celsius, 50% oxygen deprivation and all, can surely play games with one's mind. I never did feel the classic physical symptoms of altitude sickness, but as I reflect on my emotional state while on the mountain, I just have to wonder... maybe I got some form of "altitude sickness" after all. Emotional Altitude Sickness. Now I just made that up--you won't find this condition in the Canadian or New England Journals of Medicine--but maybe that's what happened to me. Sometimes when you're in the middle of a challenge, you just can't see the truth of it.

When I got home and shared all this with a dear friend, she asked, "Nina, it doesn't sound like you had any fun at all. Did you have fun???" I gave her question serious consideration and took painfully long seconds to respond, "No. Can't say that I did", I had to confess. "But, what I did have was an adventure! And would I do it all over again, exactly as it was? In a heartbeat." Truth is, if I really did ever do this climb again--and I just might--I'd do it with loved ones/family and friends, for I believe going on such a mission with those with whom you already share a solid history can make such an experience all the richer, more memorable and bonding.

Because of my friend's question about "fun", I started informal surveys asking my circle, "How do you define, 'fun"". The plethora of definitions and perspectives on what constitutes fun has astounded me. Try it yourself and see. Ask your colleagues what constitutes fun at work or elsewhere. I suspect your results will be similar to my own. Although a bit silly and not quite business-focused, this whole idea of having fun without having laughing, reminded me of a line spoken by Woody Allen's Character, Alvy Singer, (to Annie) in the classic 1977 movie, Annie Hall: "That sex was the most fun I've ever had without laughing." So maybe, just because I wasn't laughing, I was still having fun and didn't know it. (Not that there was any of Alvy's kind of fun happening on the mountain!).

And the lessons for work and life from this insight:

  • protecting your sense of humour at work or elsewhere can keep you sane, balanced, patient and forgiving, especially when there's not much "oxygen" in the workplace
  • humour gives that daily dose of dopamine that helps through work's/life's difficult and challenging moments
  • you can technically get through your business days, and even make the finish line, all the way until retirement, without laughing--ever; but laughter will make the journey, as well as the destination, all the more joyous and worthwhile
  • it's okay not to be on all the time while at work--cut yourself some slack and give yourself permission every now and then to let go and let others lead the fun
  • sometimes the way out is up!; soldier on if the going is tough. If you're going through hell, keep going
  • cherish the funny people and times in your life; the world needs more fun; life's short and laughter is free and if you can't or don't want to be "the funny one, be a decidedly good audience for one who is
  • if you succumb to isolating yourself from others for too long, a kind of metaphoric altitude sickness can catch you, even when you don't have presenting physical symptoms and even when you're not really 19,000 feet above sea level
  • swaddle yourself with good people who get you/who love you/are fond of you, at work and elsewhere, every chance you get, for they're the ones who'll catch you when you fall into a funk or despair; they are the ones who will recognize your symptoms
  • even when you feel a little lost and low, or out-of-step with your work team or colleagues, there are great insights to be gained and lessons to be learned; even feelings of separateness and isolation can make for profound positive personal teachable moments; make lemonade out of the lemons handed you
  • not all groups perceived as "teams", necessarily are "teams" (based on the classic definition of a team); and it's okay if some groups don't "gel"--sometimes that's just the way it goes, but, despite this possibility, the success of a shared project can still be achieved
  • a state of being "lost" is so often just a state of being in between/in transition, but when one is in such a spot it's hard to see that truth; trust that you will see, in time; consider the metaphor of the trapeze artist, who lets go of one swing, and is flying through the air, but hasn't yet arced over to the next; knowing that he/she is a master of the skill, they know the next swing will be there if they keep their arms (and mind) ready and, in the meantime, allow themselves the joy of the sensation of sailing through the air as best they can while in between.

You don't always get the people you want, you get you the people you need...
to make you into the person you were meant to be. - Unknown

You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes,
you might find, you get what you need.
- Lyric from the Rolling Stones Song You Can't Always Get What You Want

And so to capture, once again, the last two lines of the quote by Rene Daumal, which opened this Working Wisdom, "There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up. When one can no longer see, one can at least still know." This not-so-funny experience of climbing Kilimanjaro reminded me to "still know", in a most powerful way, the value and importance of accessing (tasteful, timely and appropriate) humour through a most challenging and difficult situation. As it was on the mountain, so it is also in the workplace. Work hard, every day, to find something humourous about (workplace) tasks and situations. Even if you find you cannot find the humour at the moment of a challenging occurrence, search for it afterwards. It will be there. It's all in the reframing of perspective. When the going gets tough at work, try your hand at finding something light about your "dark moment of the soul". It's a great way to move and process yourself through tough times, once, indeed, you've decided you've been in pain long enough and want to move forward. Humour, and laughter particularly, makes you figuratively and literally breathe easier. And better breathing is a good thing, especially when you're climbing your mountain!

Of all the days, the day on which one has not laughed
is the one most surely wasted.

-- Sabastien-Roch Nicolas de Chamfort

What a wonderful life I've had...I only wish I'd realized it sooner. -- Colette