The Competition is Irrelevant: Your Summit Experience

"Watch me!" I yelled down to my belayer as I stepped out for the umpteenth time on dime thin edges for my feet and razor sharp incuts for my fingers. I had a mantra as I began the crux of the climb: focus on the goal, soft eyes, full breath, and commit to each move. I was climbing above my limit. And I was falling; a lot! "Argghh!" The sound of falling escapes my lips and I descend with gravity twenty-five feet to a soft catch on the rope. Another fall, and a little bit of new terrain experienced. I was "working" the climb - learning it bit by bit and teaching myself how to climb harder, faster, and smoother. It wasn't elegant or beautiful - it was work.

The difficulty scale in rock climbing is open ended - there is no hardest climb in the world or a hard stop to the difficulty, only the hardest climb at the moment. Climbers, like leaders, are always pushing their limits and testing new ideas; open to possibility. How is it that elite performers stay sharp? Pressure and planning: elite performers engage themselves fully emotionally.

Learn to Love the Pressure
You can't stay in the game if you aren't comfortable with the stress. Managing a multi-day ascent of a high-altitude mountain demands thoughtful and precise action and response while under duress and the unique ability to decrease the pressure during opportune moments. The maxim in climbing is that when you are "on" you're "on"! And when you are "off" you are "off"! Sounds simple - this translates to hard work, with efficiency and hustle, when it is time and to turning it off completely and recover when it isn't. Knowing the difference is what allows performance and recovery to cycle toward success.

As leaders, we must be able to respond in a similar way or burn out is all too real and too close. Recognizing the rejuvenation and recuperation that comes from recovery is an essential skill that pays dividends.

The Long Term
See the forest through the trees. As climbers we look at the whole experience and break it into manageable chunks of time and exertion. Without the ability to switch our focus back and forth between the macro and the micro perspective we are left with the overwhelming and daunting view of solely the mountain - and that is far too large and menacing to experience as one view.

Instead, focusing on the long term and managing it in bits and pieces allows us to rebound from defeat and celebrate small achievements and short-term successes. The challenge is to stack the odds in our favor with enough short-term goals spread out over the whole experience so that we stay mentally sharp and engaged throughout. Utilizing project management to support sharp engagement and creating team and personal milestones that are unique and honest successes creates long-term commitment and full engagement.

You are The Competition
With an open ended grading scale climbing there is no end to the challenge or innovation. Literally, no end. Instead climbing, like business and leadership, demands that we define and give meaning to it in ways that are unique to our world view. This is the beauty of the experience: we can create and engage in a way that is honest and true to ourselves. What drives you: the rewards, the innovation, the connection to others, the solutions to large scale challenges? You are the competition and defining ourselves in any other way is a panacea that leaves us burnt out and without direction. It is both a gift and a unique challenge - you are the competition.

Be Willing to Win
Self-sabotage is ubiquitous. It's everywhere and its insidious. Be willing to win - set yourself up for success on your terms, not at all costs. This may involve giving yourself a longer time line (or a shorter time line to keep procrastination at bay), sharing the workload with others or seeking the support of others. Define and visualize your own success and be willing to win and sacrifice to achieve it. This can be a slippery slope that leads to defining yourself but the competition - remember, it is your climb, your adventure, and subsequently your summit - you define how to achieve it.

Alex Lowe, one of America's premiere climbers, famously said, "The best climber in the world is the one that has the most fun." Defining the climb, the adventure, your leadership, your experiences in the world through this lens strips away the distractions and gives focus on what is key and meaningful to your success. Disregard the competition and engage your summit experience.

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  • Lisa Tinley Ryan

    Matt, thank you so much for this beautifully written article. I have been thrashing for the last few weeks about my new digital marketing business, worried about the fact that there are so many businesses in this space and questioning my ability to compete. I realize, as you noted so eloquently, that this is an battle with myself, not with other businesses. I took stock of my unique capabilities and today invited everyone I knew to support me in my new endeavor. Whew! It's summit climbing alright. Happy journeying! Lisa, CEO, syncdigitalmedia.com