Goal Setting and Mountain Climbing
Learning from Failures
300 meters had never felt so far away.
Looking up, I could see the triangular peak that announced how close we were to the top. The blue sky around the summit seemed to whisper “just a little bit further” but it was already 1:30pm. I was climbing with my husband, Adrián, and we had already agreed 2pm was our ascending time limit to make sure we would be able to descend with daylight and beat the inclement weather.
“How much longer do you think we’ll need to reach the summit?” I asked, hopeful.
“At least 2 more hours, maybe more,” was his reply.
With that answer, definitively, I realized that today would not be the day that we reached the summit of Pico de Orizaba, the third tallest mountain in North America.
Today would be a day of defeat.
“Ok, well let’s just make it to that tall rock, and then start down.” I began moving forward, right arm, left leg, left arm, right leg. Repeat. For over 6 hours, this had been my steady rhythm. Slow and steady, consistently moving, little rest, drink, keep climbing.
But the hours of physical movement weren’t what left me exhausted now. The mental effort of working towards a goal is what really tired me.
Not just in mountain climbing — but in life — the ability to NOT meet a goal with grace can be difficult.
In fact, the ability to fail while maintaining a positive outlook is not often taught or encouraged.
Instead, goal-setting and goal-reaching seminars regularly sell out. Personal development books are also top sellers.
No one wants to aspire to defeat.
But sometimes the best lessons are learned in not reaching our goals.
Our climb up Pico de Orizaba was one of the most challenging climbs I’ve ever done. It’s solitary. Most of the entire six hours of climbing up, you feel alone in the world. Wherever you look, you rarely see another human. And at 5000 meters (16,400 ft) birds don’t even fly that high, so the only other sign of life is the occasional black beetle.
On that particular day, we climbed atop freshly fallen snow, which made the landscape even more surreal amidst the silence of sky above, clouds below.
And when we made the decision to start our downwards descent, neither of us felt despair. We hadn’t reached the top, but why weren’t we upset?
The exhilaration of reaching our highest elevation of 5,300 meters (17,390 ft) bouyeyed our spirits as we slid through the downhill drifts, making our way to base camp.
The amazing physical effort and shared challenge with my climbing partner left the memory of that day engraved in my mind as a positive experience.
Because the experience far outweighed any sense of failure.
And so, the disappointment from not reaching the summit never came.
If you’ve never climbed a mountain, maybe you can relate to other missed goals.
Maybe you never finished college? Never got the dream job? Never had a perfect marriage? Never learned another language? Never traveled to Europe? Never had children? Never ran that marathon? Never wrote your book? Never made a million dollars?
Instead of looking at the failures as lack of ability or deficits in our lives, what if we instead changed the narrative?
What if we were able to look at all that was gained in the experience?
What if the final end point was not really the purpose of it all?
What if turning back and “quitting” brought you to exactly the place you needed to be?
Instead of thinking about the places you have never been or the things you never gained, remember the experiences that life has brought you.
Maybe 300 meters is easy to walk on level ground, but not at 5,000 meters above sea level.
The closer we get to an end point, the more difficult our goals become.
So the failures may, in fact, be a signal that your goals have become more challenging and that you are, indeed, growing.
So keep placing one foot in front of the other — if you are going up, down, or to the side, you are still moving.
And while you are moving, you are not failing.