A Time to Creep, A Time to Soar:

Earliest Insights from Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro

One can never consent to creep when one feels an impulse to soar. — Helen Keller

“That’s like doing a Ph.D. before graduating high school!”

“No matter how much you prepare, it won’t be enough!”

“Is this something you’ve wanted to do all your life–a bucket-list thing? If so, I can support this, but if it’s just a whim, I don’t know…”

These are the “best” naysayer declarations I deflected when I heralded the news I planned to climb Mt. Kilimanjarin January 2011.

To the first, about “a Ph.D. before graduating high school”, I joyfully replied: “Well, I always say, go big or go home!”

To the second, about never being properly ready for Kili no matter how hard I prepared? I didn’t reply at all. I pursed my lips. Why? Truth was, I got scared. For a couple of days after hearing this arrogant comment, my nerve slipped. Now I was between a rock and a hard place (no pun intended), for I’d handed over a non-refundable deposit. However, a couple of days later my “buyer’s remorse” waned and I positively retorted (to myself), “How does she know how much I’m going to train? How can she tell if my efforts over the next seven months will or won’t be enough?” It was my, “I’ll show her!” feisty spirit rising. Although I never saw this woman again (it was just a chance meeting), I credit her for the “yeah butt-kick” that moved me into overdrive for the next seven months, researching climbing Kilimanjaro, interviewing 14 people who’d done the climb, walking 20 to 30 kilometers weekly, hiking 10 to 15 kilometers every weekend, weightlifting and core-strengthening with my personal trainer and buying the best hiking gear I could afford. As well as showing her (this woman I’d never see again), I’d show myself, too, that I could do this, no sweat. Well, maybe some sweat, as it turned out.

And to the third “Doubting Thomas” comment, “Is this something you’ve wanted to do all your life…?”, my reply was: “Nope! It isn’t. As a matter of fact, this time last week I didn’t know I’d agree to climb. I’ll concede it’s a whim, but it rings true for me.” To which my friend retorted, “Are you kidding? Why are you doing this? Have you thought this through? It could be really dangerous. I’ve heard people die on that mountain every year! What’s happened to you???”

What happened to me? Hmmm. That was a good question–one that deserved my reflection, for my friend’s sake as well as my own. I have a long version answer (and it’s currently being captured in my book-in-progress, on my insights from climbing Kili), but, for now, I’m going to cut-to-the chase and share the condensed version of what I learned, that may be useful to you, for both work and private life:

1. Listen to your inner voice (about what you want to do).

There will always be worry-warts and/or naysayers who want to hold you back, for various and sometimes valid reasons, but you “get to say” about your own life. In the true story captured in the movie October Sky, Miss Riley (a teacher in a 1957 West Virginia mining town, played by Laura Dern), says to Homer Hickam, her teenaged student, who is an enthusiastic but stifled amateur rocket maker, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, “Sometimes you really can’t listen to what anybody else says. You just gotta listen inside. You’re not supposed to end up in those mines. You know why? ‘Cause I think you made other plans.”

Whether you climb a mountain, change a job, retire early, move to another city or whatever, although you may take people and circumstances into consideration when making your life’s choices, it is your life, and you get to say.

Lessons Learned:

  • expect negative feedback
  • consider negative feedback, too, but make your own decisions regarding what’s right, and what rings true, for you
  • grow, listen to, and act on your intuition more often
  • remember we’re much more likely to regret those we didn’t do in life, than the things we did

I believe in intuition and inspiration…at times I feel certain I am right
while not knowing the reason.
— Albert Einstein

2. Whether it’s a physical, emotional or mental challenge, clearly identify and understand your ultimate goal and the tasks required to achieve it. Envision your end result from the start and work “backwards” from there.

Do your homework. Prepare. Research, rehearse and simulate essential “pre-climb” activities as best you can. I knew having the easiest, most confident climb possible depended on doing months of pre-work. Despite the challenges of each day’s climb, thanks to all my prep work, I was physically, emotionally and mentally fit to go the literal and metaphoric distance.

Lesson Learned:

  • embrace, “The Law of the Harvest”–sow your goal “seeds” in a timely fashion (use a logical timeline approach) to later reap the satisfying “crop”/results you want

What we plant in the soil of contemplation, we shall reap in the harvest of action. — Meister Eckhart

3. Expect figurative stumbling blocks.

On January 18th at 4:11 a.m. Toronto-time I emailed loved ones the following message from our Kili-bound bus:

“OMG!!! I see Kili!!! Just saw it for the first time!!! HUGE excitement on our bus right now, followed by tremendous quiet. Ha ha ha.”

I was the last one on the bus to finally see Kili. Frustrated, I couldn’t see what the others were pointing out. And then, to my excitement (and relief), I saw.

Why did I express laughter at the end of my email? Because I realized that actually seeing Kilimanjaro–even though still far off–was the first mental stumbling block and I’d best learn to have both reverence and lightheartedness for the task. All those months of preparation and Little Engine That Could, “I think I can, I think I can” mantras were momentarily stalled at the immensity at what we saw on that bus. The quick group silence following our burst of glee at seeing for the first time, with our eyes (not our minds), our ultimate goal, freaked us out. My first stumbling block was a mind one/a mental one–the limitation of my own eyes and mind to “see” where I was going. Physical ones would follow.

Lessons Learned:

  • seeing is believing/things only become “real” when they’re right in front of you…everything before is a fantasy; everything afterwards, a memory
  • sometimes it’s hard to see what’s in front of your face (if you’ve never experienced it before)…even if it’s as big as a mountain!
  • first experiences can be daunting and even down right intimidating, when consumed “whole” but, up close and personal, literally and figuratively one-step-at-a-time, are quite doable
  • have respect and reverence for challenging tasks, balanced with a good sense of humor to fortify your journey (cause you’re “gonna need it!”)
  • if you can’t see your way at first, try again–as they used to say in the old 1990’s X-Files tv show, “The truth is out there”

Keep on going and the chances are you will stumble on something, perhaps when you are least expecting it. I have never heard of anyone stumbling on something sitting down. — Charles Kettering

4. Expect literal stumbling blocks, too.

No matter how good you are at a skill or task, no matter how much you’ve prepared for “the big moment”, expect glitches; there will be stumbles and there “will be blood”. Count on it. As for me, although any given day I had the odd elbow bump, knocked knee, misstep or slip on a rock, etc., my biggest literal injuring “stumbles”, funnily enough, framed my nine-day climbing experience. On day one (on hour one, no less), during our first rest stop, I placed my walking poles down…in the middle of a patch of African Fire Plants! A mere touch of these plants anesthetized my whole left hand for 24 hours. I feigned being a ‘big girl” but, really, it cursedly hurt! What a way to start out. On our last day, on the flattest, widest, most civilized part of the entire nine-day route (and, on the last hour, no less, too), I took a proper stumble. And this time there really was blood! Nine days without seeing signs of civilization all of a sudden were shocked away at the site of a truck barreling at us as we walked along the road to the sign-out station. We scurried down the embankment to clear the way and while climbing up (a silly little slope–heck, I’d just summitted Kilimanjaro without incident, for goodness sake!!!), I fell, cutting my hand and shin.

Lessons Learned:

  • sometimes you’re so intent on performing well on, and paying particularly close attention to, the most difficult parts of a task, you neglect the “easy” parts and stumble
  • ultimate and complete success requires mindfulness from start to finish
  • get lazy, go on auto-pilot or think you’re done before you actually are, and you just might stumble
  • hold your intention until completion

Concentration can be cultivated. One can learn to exercise willpower,
discipline one’s body and train one’s mind.
— Anil Ambani

5. Be a good follower.

Whether or not you are an official leader in your workplace or elsewhere, there’s a time for humility–for letting go and letting others. There’s a time for leading and a time for following. Climbing Kili was a time for being a good follower. Those that surrendered to this realization early fared best. One of our group railed against most everything that was asked of us. Didn’t work out well for that individual. Our guides knew what they were doing. They were wise from dozens of climbs and medically trained. I quickly and willing learned to “do as I was told”, out of respect for their expertise and also out of fear (not of our guides’ demeanor but, rather, out of not making it to the top or having something go dreadfully wrong along the way). Although I’m usually “miss positivity”, while on the mountain I constantly struggled to rise above negative “what if” thoughts. So when dear Gaudance and Kombe said, eat, I ate. Drink? I drank. Rest? I rested. Take an Advil now? I took it, tout de suite and extra strength, no further questions asked.

Lessons Learned:

  • sometimes the best way to get where you want to go is surrender the lead
  • go with the flow and play your designated slot well
  • in some situations in work or life, it doesn’t matter who’s first–who gets the leader “glory”–as long as you all “get there” safe and sound
  • the experience and willingness to earnestly be a good follower when appropriate, informs your leadership skills later

He who has never learned to obey cannot be a good commander. — Aristotle

6. Leaders have “feet of clay” and stumble, too.

We trekked up the entire mountain single-file, always with one guide at the helm, another mid-line and the last at the rear. Each day we took spontaneous turns being first behind the leader (which wasn’t always a coveted position for, in that spot, you’d walk a faster pace than if at the middle or back of the pack). No matter who we followed, all we really saw most of the hiking day was the boots of the person in front (looking up and observing the beauty of our surroundings was relegated to breaks and end-of-day camp). So fixed on those feet in front, they often put me in a trance-like state. When it was my turn to follow Gaudance, I occasionally noticed that even he stumbled over an occasional rock. Being right behind him was the best of trekking teachable moments for, if I stayed mindful and watched my leader’s steps and stumbles, I was able to learn from his mistakes–his daring to go forth first–and spare myself the error. And most of the time observing and staying in the moment allowed me that salvation. Funny, though, every now and then I’d watch Gaudance trip and, even though I’d consciously thought to do something different, e.g. around a particular piece of uneven ground or whatever, I’d trip over the exact same obstacle in the exact same way three seconds later!

Lessons Learned:

  • sometimes you learn from watching your leader make mistakes and, thanks to them, are spared the “injury”
  • sometimes you watch your leader err and still do the very same thing yourself!
  • sometimes another–a leader, mentor, loved-one, or other respected or wise one in your life–just can’t teach you what you need to learn yourself, firsthand, stumbles and all

Learning, for yourself, is experience. Everything else is just information. — Albert Einstein

7. Pole, Pole (and even three Poles!) is your best bet for achieving goals.

“Pole” (po-lee) is Swahili for slowly. Slowly, slowly wins the race. Turns out Aesop (Fables) was right. My piano teacher used to instruct (when I was learning a new piece), “Slow, slower, slowest.” And so it was on Kili. Slowly, slowly. At first painfully slow! “Are you kidding us??? This is the pace at which we’ll “Conquer Kilimanjaro???” Yup. The whole way up. No faster than a wedding march. That which, at first, seemed ridiculously slow, later–with higher altitude and 60% less oxygen!–seemed all too fast. By the time we reached 12,000 feet even packing up our duffle bags and tents to set out for the next camp, was a winding experience. And all this exhaustion before breakfast! As Aesop reminds, the tortoise wins over the hare every time. In our case, our guides teased that we took their advice all to seriously for, rather than embracing a “Pole, Pole” strategy at summiting, apparently our group demonstrated a, “Pole, Pole, Pole!” approach. Ah, three times the charm! We took 12 hours to reach the peak on Summit Day (where most groups arrive in 6 to 8). Never-the-less, we all made it and danced on the rooftop of Africa basking in both our glory and the late afternoon sunshine.

Lessons Learned:

  • when it comes to achieving results on workplace project teams, or reaching personal goals at work or life, cut yourself some slack; results takes time
  • as cliché as it sounds, to get where you want to go, keep putting one foot in front of the other
  • believe in yourself and your ability (what you know you can do now) and your capability (your understanding of the range of what you can do if given a chance and put to the test)
  • keep your momentum, however “pole” and pokey it seems

Slow and steady wins the race. — Aesop, The Hare and the Tortoise

8. “Don’t let the sound of your own wheels drive you crazy.” So advises the old Eagles song from the 1970s, Take it Easy. And it can so easily happen if you loose focus and heart. About an hour before the ultimate summit of Kibo volcanic cone/Uhuru Peak, we reached the sub-summit of Stella Point. Even this achievement is worthy of an official certificate of completion however, everyone’s dream and ultimate goal is to reach Uhuru Peak. That’s what you really climb days and days for…to get your picture taken at the “real” top. To give up at Stella is a pity. One of our members was about to do just that. She began crying and confessing she had no more to give. No more energy to spend. That she was “licked”. And while it’s important to know when this is the truth for yourself (whether at your workplace or on Kili), it’s also important to know if that’s your body talking or your mind. Perhaps tricky to discern, but if you can sort that out, and if you determine it’s your mind playing tricks on you, reach deep inside and yank out your fortitude. She was about to give up and ask to go back. I took her aside and reminded her of our first climb of Centennial Ridges in Ontario’s Algonquin Park, last summer. I reminded her of how exhausted and surrendered she’d been then, and THAT was only a climb to 2000 feet! “Look how far you are NOW! This is 18.000 feet! You’ve climbed to 18,00 feet and just a few months back you could barely climb 2000! Only one more hour. Pole, pole. Only one more thousand feet to go. I know you can do this. I know you can.” And so she dried her eyes and carried on…to the summit and back. She made it. Kilimanjaro isn’t a technical climb–not a mountaineering feat—but it sure ain’t no, “basic hike”, as some celebrities have purported, either. It’s a big deal and it’s a mind game just as much as it is a physical challenge.

Lessons Learned:

  • learn to listen to your body and to your mind, and develop your expertise at distinguishing the difference when one or the other is asking you to “give up”
  • give yourself a peptalk every now and then, reminding yourself how far you’ve already come on your “journey”, in your career, in your life–so many of us too often forget to give ourselves credit for the wonderful things we’ve accomplished thus far

Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up. — Thomas Edison

Many of the great achievements of the world were accomplished by the tired and discouraged who kept on going. — Unknown

Perseverance is not a long race; it is many short races one after the other. — Walter Elliot

I’ve still so much more to share, that I hope is of use in your work and private lives (hence my forth coming book!), but this is a good place to plateau and take a rest. So, dear Working Wisdom reader, I close by saying:

“Jambo!” (Good Day/Hello, in Swahili) to you, and reminding you that, in the overall scheme of things, “Hakuna Matata” is a great, uplifting expression and philosophy to get you through the rough patches of any workday (and by the way, this phrase is far more than a Disney song and sentiment from the children’s movie, The Lion King! It’s an age-old Swahili expression that literally translates as, “There are no worries”).

P. S. To see a brief clip of video from my summit day on January 26th, 2011 (and accompanying blog entries and pics covering my climb experience) I welcome you to visit my YouTube Channel: http://www.youtube.com/ninalspencer.

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