9 months of personal growth through climbing and the moments in-between
Nine months ago I quit my job. I guess it’s kind of a millennial thing to do: to buy a van or a plane ticket, or to join a startup. I went for a nine month climbing trip where I visited some of the best climbing and mountaineering venues in the Alps, Canada, western North America, and Patagonia. But in addition to a desire to explore the grandeur of these places, I had a stronger desire to explore myself. I quit, first and foremost, because I wanted space to think. I learned through the climbing we did, the routes we failed on, but also during the down-time. I discovered the power and freedom of doing something out of intrinsic desire, how to let go of doubt by embracing the process, and just a little about leading my own life, rather than just managing it. I want to share with you why these nine months were worth it.
So let’s start at the beginning, when I realized I needed a substantial break from the hustle to reflect. I was living in Seattle, and, looking back on it, I would call it the typical life of a metropolitan tech worker: a well-paying job, great roommates, and a comfortable schedule. I was biking to work, liked my colleagues, volunteering for something I felt to be important, and eating healthy meals. On the weekends I might sneak out early for outings with friends, do something “rad”, and Instagram about it later. These things had all slowly fallen into place, and each week was pretty fun, but the projects on which I spent my 9-to-5 didn’t feel like they had a lot of meaning to me. Don’t get me wrong, there was a great cadence to it, and this would be a great life for many people, but I wondered about the higher-order purpose of it all. Working in the city for a big salary, when most of that salary just goes to living in the city, and every weekend I tried to escape urban life for one far from the road, didn’t make a whole lot of sense. I started to ask myself a specific question: “if I look back ten years from now, will what I am spending my energy on be something I am proud of?” I just wasn’t sure this was it.
I realized, that in the words of Stephen Covey in his book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, I had figured out how to manage my life, but I wasn’t really leading it. And so it was time to shake things up. Now, change could have meant a new job, or even just a new team, but I wanted to take a bigger step back than that. I wanted to see what there was beyond the types of opportunities that I had been conditioned to recognize. I wanted to see what conversations developed in my mind when I left the noise behind. And so instead of leaving one job for another, I decided to leave without another paycheck in my future to see what happened when I opened myself up to a different set of experiences and people.
But leaving the stability of a Monday-Friday job was challenging for me as it probably is for many others. I am, admittedly, a left-brained individual and everything about the trip I was planning had to be quantified and valued. I wasn’t going to jump without knowing how deep the water was. But this is also where the conversation gets interesting. From an economic standpoint, it’s hard to balance stock options and a yearly salary with limited in-kind “sponsorship”. Even while living by the most frugal means to which I was willing to submit myself, my personal cash flow would be in the red for the next year. If not monetary, then what what would I take time off for? I wouldn’t be focusing on personal relationships. Life on the road meant time away from friends and family unless heavily prioritized during brief stops in-town. Most of the time it actually felt a little lonely. Even in an age where you can watch a social media feed from your phone halfway up El Capitan, or at the southern tip of the world, you’re still putting your relationships with most people on hold. In the same sense, I paused my career, too. The opportunity for part-time work wasn’t readily available, and I really wanted to be able to devote my attention to something else. I believed that what I might learn in a year of fully letting go of work as the basis for my week, and quite frankly, some of my relationships, would be much more valuable (not for my savings, but for my happiness) than anything I could do for another year in the same job or industry. I knew I couldn’t straddle both worlds: self-exploration through time away from it all, but still hold on to the things that made me feel secure (like a job). This process would require commitment. My full presence had to be dedicated to realizing something new and different. I quit work cold turkey to pursue personal growth.
As someone who enjoys strategic thinking, I weighed the options for sharpening the saw while away from work. What would keep me engaged and expand my mind? I’ve always been captivated by people who are fanatic in their desire to achieve mastery in a particular field (art, music, mathematics, athletics, etc). This respect for the pursuit of excellence, along with the opinions presented in books like Flow (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi) and Man’s Search for Meaning (Viktor Frankl) motivated me to seek purpose through dedicating myself to a hobby or craft that was important to me. Well, there was definitely one thing that I knew would keep my attention for months on end: rock climbing and alpinism. I’ve been climbing consistently for four or five years now, depending on how you count them. The mixed set of skills and possibilities in the sport have taken me to many places and introduced me to an amazing community of people. Just as activities like biking, golf, team sports, chess, wood-working, or maybe even ‘being an entrepreneur’ can entertain scores of others for eternity, climbing provides sufficient depth to keep me curious, and psyched, day-in and day-out. Even better, there is monastic element to climbing that requires immense soul-searching and trade-offs: certain subdisciplines (like mountaineering at a high-level) often require that you relinquish other goals in life to achieve the greatest feats. It definitely takes 10,000 uncomfortable hours ones away from family and loved ones (I’m no where close). These huge sacrifices are hard to understand, and most of my friends or family members who don’t climb often misunderstand what I did for the last nine months. Many would ask me: “How have all your hiking adventures been?!” Anyway, climbing became my reason to travel and a platform for growth. It became a vehicle for understanding the idea of “doing what you love”. A week after I walked out of the office for the last time, I was on a flight to Chamonix in the French Alps, the birthplace of modern alpine climbing.
At the sacrifice of cultural engagement and potentially a more diversified world view, I did A LOT of climbing. After a personal trip to Chamonix, my climbing partner, Jimmy, and I visited among other places the Bugaboos and Squamish in Canada; Yosemite in California; Zion National Park, Utah; Hyalite Canyon in Bozeman, Montana, and finally, Patagonia in Argentina. We set ambitious goals in these places and focused on progression from small simple outings followed by beers, to multi-day pushes miles from the road. We accomplished several things we had dreamt about, like climbing the Nose on El Capitan in a day, and tried our hardest on others, like Fitz Roy in Patagonia. In the process we learned about motivating ourselves, goal-setting, and teamwork. The challenges we chose to tackle when compared to our skill level, enforced us to be disciplined, to do our research, to seek expert opinion, to communicate with each other, and to practice. Sometimes our ambition got the best of us though, and to paint the picture that everything was rosy would be dishonest. In addition to some great days, we also had some miserable ones where I personally felt inadequately prepared, or in too deep. On a route called Super Domo in Patagonia, we literally crawled on our hands and knees down an soft glacier in a white-out storm, wondering when one of us might disappear quietly into a crevasse. More locally in the states, we spent an extra night out in Zion National Park when we drastically underestimated how much food we needed and drank all of our water as coffee (oops!). The hike out wasn’t fun. Fortunately, we trusted in each other immensely, and we had the right set of skills to both return and learn from the failures.
Reflecting now, I see now that we grew a lot during our time on the road. I attribute most of what we were able to accomplish to our love for (almost) every moment. The daily “tasks” aligned with our intrinsic interests and deeper down, our value systems. There was no money contingent on our performance, no one to judge whether we succeeded or failed; we were just there for the joy of it. Waking up everyday, earlier many times than most people do for work, with a plan that we were truly excited about, never become more than a test of remembering to set our alarms. It was liberating. Writing emails to ask for advice was fun and we found pleasure in re-reading guidebooks for the fifth time to get the details right. Comparing this to the angst I get when I “network” with people I don’t really care to meet, or research a subject matter that doesn’t interest me, and the difference between my engagement level is quite clear. I was reminded of that constant lesson that we do our best when we are pursuing things we truly care about, rather than those we have been conditioned to believe are important.
Now because it’s not physically possible to climb every single day between weather, travel, and the need to rest and recover, I had a lot of time to think. The quiet time, ironically, provided what I was really looking for during my nine months off. I had the chance to journal and read more than I ever have before. This introspective exploration became as invigorating as anything we did outside. This says a lot considering that at many points we were dangling thousands of feet off the ground by rusty pitons, or rappelled at night through a storm, by headlamp, on the edge of hypothermia. It is the conclusions during the moments in between our adventures that I want to talk about, partly because I want to hold myself to them as I re-enter this busy world and figure out what is next. Let me dive into one example.
After a long road trip in the states, my climbing partner and I traveled to Patagonia with two large goals in mind. These objectives would require good weather, luck with crowds, technical skill, and fitness. They would be the culmination of our trip together. Unfortunately, when we got to the little mountain town in Argentina that would be our home base for the next month and then some, it was pouring. Rain in town meant snow in the mountains and a no-go for climbing. Every week or so the weather would improve marginally, we would venture into the range, and then inevitably get hammered by wind so strong that it sandblasted our faces and made it hard walk. Between our trips out, we sat around a lot. At first, the slow days waiting out weather were hard – often passed consecutively indoors checking the weather forecast on an hourly basis, even though it is updated only four times a day. Demoralizing would be the right word to use to describe the situation: we surely didn’t travel to Patagonia to sit inside. We were there to “climb to the summits of our dreams”, as Jimmy would say. But as these wet days added up, we were forced to face the fact that we might not achieve either of our biggest goals.
When the excitement of just being in Patagonia wore off, and we finished our second or third books, the anxiety and the boredom really hit us. At this point, as I began to consider my own impatience, I stumbled across an enlightening thought process. First, I decided to take responsibility for being there. I had known what the weather could be like when we booked the trip, and thus of the risk that we be twiddling our thumbs for weeks on end. More importantly though, examining these frustrations was a supreme opportunity for the self-reflection and personal growth that I was chasing in the first place. Like a sunrise revealing the mountains beyond the border of town, it dawned on me that happiness and fulfillment are states of mind we earn by finding or creating meaning in our existence and actions. I was not “happier” in Patagonia than I was at my desk, simply because I was breathing different air, neither could I just pump myself up via some kind superficial excitement about the crappy weather forecast. I only became truly comfortable with being there, staring out the window at the steady drip of rain, when I re-framed the situation to have meaning for me. The frustration with weather and other complications that kept us from our climbing goals were integral parts of the full experience, and I could learn something from them.
And so after shifting my perspective, I refocused my attention and tried to understand what my real frustrations were. Was it truly just the weather and missing out on a few cool climbs? One of several books I finished during the rainy days was Eckart Etoll’s, The Power of Now. This book, along with a bit of journaling and some deep conversations, enabled me to ask that question sincerely. His discussion of “psychological time” helped me to realize that I was spinning in circles in my head, and thus I wasn’t appreciating the chance to be where I was. I was projecting over and over again the same mental images because there wasn’t anything to distract me. “What if I can’t find a job when I get back?”,”What will people think of me taking time off?”, “What kind of cool stuff are my friends doing back at home without me”? It sounds silly to write about these concerns now, but I doubt I am alone in having circular thoughts like this when bored or lonely. I tried my hardest to pull myself into the now and an amazing thing happened. The more I pursued the day-to-day, the chance to write, and to be present, the more I forgot about the urge to check my email or Facebook, and the less I worried about flying back empty handed, or returning to the States without a job. There was an abundance to do and to occupy me right in front of me. I felt great about being where I was, even if it wasn’t ‘perfect’.
The change in myself I’ve found, which stems from this ability to see the meaning within situations and to embrace the chance to be present, is the most powerful part of it all: I have grown more confident in knowing that I can handle tough times, and I feel comfortable in accepting the paths that might include them. Whereas before I left my job I was stressed about how things might work out (my relationships, my career trajectory, my financial situation), now the feeling is largely one of enthusiasm. I am excited about engaging my creative brain to imagine futures for myself that I would have immediately disregarded before. As I choose between what to do next, I just need to remember that as long as the path I take forward is meaningful to me, the setbacks encountered can be instructive rather than defeating. This personal confidence is something I have never felt before, and has allowed me to feel much more free than the day I quit my job. It has helped me to feel as though I have the full power to architect my own future.
Now that I have arrived back in Seattle, I am actually faced with this great task of figuring out what my future looks like. I’ve got the same obligations (e.g. life) to deal with, but I’ve seen I can lead my life in a whole new way by seeking purpose, appreciating the challenging moments, and leaving negative language behind. My goal is to take these lessons and this personal power with me as I pursue the things I find to be meaningful. I also see that many of the friends I’ve reconnected with since traveling have all matured in their own beautiful ways. I guess we are all presented with challenges we can grow from all the time. What seems to continue to resonate with me after returning to a steadier life, however, is the importance of disconnecting and turning inwards to take advantage of each learning opportunities in front of us. Whether I’ll personally disconnect through big adventures in majestic places, or by simply turning off my gadgets and opening a journal goes to be seen, but I see the quiet process of self-reflection to be the most powerful tool for managing what we all like to refer to as the giant rat-race. It is what allowed me to turn frustrating thoughts about bad weather and punted goals into valuable lessons. It is how I will stay focused on leading the life I want, rather than just managing its complexities.