THIS IS THE 2ND OF A SERIES OF POSTS FROM MY CLIMB UP MT. KILIMANJARO, AND the TRANSFORMATIVE PERSPECTIVE THAT CAME IN THOSE DAYS ABOVE THE CLOUDLINE. WHILE DIFFERENT THAN MY TYPICAL POSTS, I’M EAGER TO SHARE THESE WITH YOU, AS THESE LESSONS ABSOLUTELY TRANSLATE TO AN ELEVATED LIFE DOWN HERE.
Check out these ^ four photos I took of Mt. Kilimanjaro. These different views of that mountain represent both the biggest challenge and the biggest revelations I got while climbing it. They also illustrate a few of the most profound shifts high achievers might need to make, to realize true impact every day.
Set to conquer a mountain(?)
As someone who runs best with a focal point on the horizon, likes being physically pushed to my limit, and is most motivated when I have a significant challenge to overcome… I knew I had the right mental ingredients for climbing one of the 7 summits like Mt. Kilimanjaro, right? Yes, partly.
Yes, because the few people on the planet who actually climb Kili (the tallest freestanding mountain in the world), are people wired to conquer things. Like me, they venture to Kili to accomplish it, to crush it– not just go on a hiking trip. The months of training, the challenge of strength over elements, the mindgame of staying motivated through the long, slow trek… is all fueled by a goal: to say afterward, “I climbed that mountain.”
In that way, I was mentally set.
I took this photo of Kili, her summit clear and inspiring, the day before the climb from an hour’s drive away. It matched part of the imagined picture I’d had for years of climbing a mountain: tiny little me, looking up to that gleaming, snowcapped summit, pushing myself, digging deep, motivated by the focal point of the ultimate peak. I just needed to get myself onto that edge between mountain and sky, scaling right up.
Yeah, no. Within the first five minutes of the 6-day climb, that simplistic image I’d carried for so long was quashed. There was no focal point. Once we were actually on Kili, that view of the top disappeared; the trail up the mountain actually weaves around it as it snakes up, and the first glimpse of the summit doesn’t even appear until you’re almost finished, five days into it, 17,000 vertical feet up. My operating view and mental plan for how I conquer anything was busted, five minutes in.
Yet, it still took climbing that whole mountain for me to literally turn my perspective around. Here’s how…
Phase One shift: Right here.
Surrounded by rainforest at the start, we reoriented to the immediate path ahead vs. the destination. Without a visible goal (or even horizon) for 90% of the ascent, our leaders redirected us continuously to stay present; our daily briefings and constant team huddles focused on that day only, never how much more there was to go. The journey was segmented into one and two-hour pushes on our way to each night’s new camp, every one a separate feat in itself as our self-monitoring shifted into high gear to adapt to the changing microclimates, diminishing oxygen, altitude reactions in our bodies, and steepening terrain.
From dense rainforest to moon-like, rocky terrain of that ancient volcano crater, plus 70 degree temperature swings within hours, plus elevation increasing continually… success meant we had to pay attention to small details in our bodies; breathing patterns, water intake, pulse ox levels, body temperature, hot spots on our feet which could turn into blisters… any of which could be gamechangers without vigilant attention and constant adjustment. We took in that giant, ever-changing mountain in micro-decisions, yards, and inches at a time, our only consistent focal point being one another. Our attention was moving, from future to present. Internally, while we each started up that mountain with our own purpose, new realizations and reflections surfaced daily as we climbed with new self-awareness. Nightly team debriefs were rich and with layers of those emerging insights, as we shared what each day’s journey sparked.
Each day, by reflex, I often went to the front of our line in the team, fired up to help lead the pace, a familiar and energizing spot for me. Yet after hours and hours of that forward-focus, I sensed that I was somehow missing something. I tried other spots in our line, and a cool thing happened… I started paying more attention to everything around me instead of ahead of me. Moment by moment, fully absorbing, I became blown away by every detail I would’ve normally powered right past. I called things out to my team, like, “Guys- do you smell that- the air just changed!” and “Do you see this flower? It doesn’t exist down at ground level!” I started connecting differently, too– with myself and with teammates; deeply personal conversations unfolded even with oxygen depleting, mixed with intensely self-reflective quiet stretches as we climbed in rhythm, pushed ourselves from the inside out, removed from the rest of the world, our presence in the moment. Time seemed suspended, about being in it, rather than getting through it to get to the next thing. Our focus had completely shifted– from out there to right here.
Phase Two: Look Down. (the reality of climbing a mountain)
Even if it were possible, my naive image of visually focusing up and out isn’t even safe on a climb like Kili’s. The path changes all the time– usually steep and rocky, then tricky, then slippery, and physically challenging (sometimes walking, sometimes rock climbing)… so the higher we got, the more we needed to look down to accurately choose each step.
One bad foot placement could mean an injury that slows the whole team down (and changes the whole trip for you), and extraneous steps wasted precious, limited energy, needed as each effort became more difficult as altitude increased. As the trail intensified and the exertion required of every step increased, that image I’d carried for months of looking up to the peak was replaced with intent micro-focus down on what I was doing inch by inch, step by step; scanning for the next solid rock, watching my teammate’s boots in front of me, following their lead. For hours. And days… Conquering this mountain had taken another shift; focus from up to down, on every next step.
Phase Three: Looking back.
Our brains need to see progress to register accomplishment. We’re conditioned to measure it physically in distance, miles or steps with our fitness tracking watches and devices, yet normal metrics didn’t really apply up there. Every step we took was uphill, even though our motion was mostly “walking.” Walking seems like a linear activity, yet our progress was not. Think of climbing a giant staircase, but measuring the accomplishment of it only in the distance of the few feet it would take if you laid the staircase out flat. That’s what our brains were trying to do as we walked (climbed) and walked (climbed). It felt like barely any advancement as we trekked, our brains so focused on forward vs vertical progress. Yet our linear feet and steps were actually irrelevant. The vertical feet we climbed each day, however were staggering. We were actually rising quickly, yet with focus down on the path itself and choosing individual steps, it was imperceptible, and could’ve been really easy to miss. At breaks we’d pause, and see our progress in the height we were gaining above the clouds behind us. I was surprised every time.
So, I started turning around, to look back over my shoulder...
I was blown away. That simple pivot from looking forward to looking back changed it all; like Powers of 10, the vantage point from the rest of Earth that we were embodying was expanding, seemingly exponentially. Every view back over my shoulder clarified our progress and accomplishment instantly, capturing how high we’d ascended even in an hour.
So, yet again, my entire orientation for motivation was altered… watching our progression grow exponentially as we climbed, my focus of inspiration behind us.
I kept yelling, “Guys!!! Look behind us- check out what we just did!!!”…and we’d revel in awe of what we were accomplishing with each push. I started placing myself intentionally in the back of the line more often, eager to look over my shoulder at our quickly-changing progress.
This was an epiphany for me… leaning into the climb, progress felt incremental, yet in turning around it seemed accelerated. Those pauses to get mental snapshots of everchanging perspective of the world we’d climbed, increasingly spread out below us, were moments of exhilarating pride and true wonderment I’ll carry with me forever.
By 17,500 feet on day 6, just 2 hours before reaching the summit, the altitude sickness I’d been battling worsened, making it dangerous for me to go any further (punctuated by a guy dying on that same trail a week earlier with the same symptoms I had). Yet, because my perspective had shifted so radically, when my leaders turned me back so close to summiting, I was weirdly okay with it. With six days and 17,500 vertical feet of epiphanic pinnacles above the world at that point, to somehow define the success of the whole journey by a single 2 hour, 1500 ft segment of it to a sign planted at the top, seemed that it would be missing the point. I’d already gotten what mattered. Climbing to that otherworld reality, truly perched above the world on my own power, fully absorbing every step and nuance of living in that sky more vast than anything I’d experienced on the planet before… I got it. I climbed Kili, I got her epic gift of perspective. I was transformed, and I was complete.
Kili Lesson #3: (lessons 1 & 2 here): Progress is only visible with a shift in perspective.
I never would’ve believed that I, the most forward-looking person I know, would come away from Mt. Kilimanjaro with wins defined by shifting my perspective from future to present, up to down, forward to back.
I coach leaders to expand their ability to influence by tapping into their team’s core motivation as they lead. Research shows us that our #1 motivator is mastery, our internal sense of “I’m making progress forward.” We crave and revel in the mastery of accomplishment or expertise, yet the more we achieve, the less time it takes for the satisfaction of accomplishment to give way to restlessness, then a resetting of focus forward on the next “mountain” to conquer. One of the biggest challenges for driven achievers (as it was for me on Kili) is becoming so focused on what has yet to be conquered that they miss (or dismiss) the progress of impact they and their teams are actually making on the way. Turning around to see it feels like losing momentum, yet it’s the only thing that gets our human brains to actually register the vertical distance we’ve come, the progress the team has made.
Down Here: Many of the “climbs” that you and your team are on every day are actually more like Kili than they aren’t– the destination is far and often not visible from where you are, the trek can feel slow and laborious. And we’re often thinking about linear distance instead of vertical. For high achievers like us, you know that your instinct (like mine) might always be to look ahead to the horizon and goal. That’s awesome, and part of what makes us great trailblazers and leaders. Yet it also means that this vital practice of pausing, turning around to see and call out your progress is less intuitive, and needs prompting.
So, try this:
- Huddle the team together regularly to call out wins, steps forward, and progress. (“what we can say/do/activate now which we couldn’t do a month ago?” “What/who have we impacted in the last week/month? What are the signs?”) Bonus: have each person capture their callout on a post-it note. Those notes can be kept in their space as boosts of motivation, or…
- Get a progress wall up in your shared space, and chart those ^ callouts of progress regularly (weekly, monthly, quarterly).
- Meet with your team individually and often, and have them finish prompts like these:
- 1 moment that’s occurred recently, which tells me we’re making impact…
- Since we’ve started, we now have the ability to…
- We’ve made progress by…
Every single time I push a leader to counterintuitively do this pausing-to-turn-around-and-see-progress for themselves or with their team, they report significant results; people become inspired, proud, and usually surprised by how far they’ve come in progress from where they began, ultimately re-energized, refocused and motivated anew to take on the climb from there.
Kili Lesson #4: With total focus on the final destination, we can miss the best, most meaningful parts.
It turns out that “It’s the journey, not the destination.” isn’t just a cliche. Looking forward accelerates us, yet we can easily miss both the progress and the full, layered experience on the way by doing so.
We focus on the summit as it, because it’s the benchmark that’s most obvious, visible and measurable. Research now shows us that in many cases, this very finish-line focus actually helps us to outperform others who are less focused on the goal. There’s a cost, however. If I’d have kept that summit-only focus, I’d have not only been crushed by having to turn around, but even worse- I’d have missed the awe of the singular moments, challenges, feats and meaning only possible in looking around, and being fully present throughout the journey. Those moments are vivid to me even now, 18 months later, and what created the most profound impressions of the whole journey– in my thinking, my connection, my self-concept, and my orientation to the world.
This happens all the time- we are so busy focusing on one aspect, that we miss something which could’ve changed everything, if only we’d have shifted our gaze a bit. This It’s a key to what makes most high-achieving leaders so successful, but there’s a cost. Left to those instincts alone, they and their teams miss a lot: insights of growth, the small wins that make all the difference in the team’s momentum and confidence, key learnings that could shift everything for bigger impact, moments of meaning which bring teams together or make it all worth it in the end.
Down Here: What if, in your intently high-achieving, visionary focus, you’re actually looking at the wrong thing in a key moment for your team and for you? Check yourself as a leader. What are you defining as the summit, and how singularly focused on it are you? What would happen if your focus shifted from out there to right here, from up to down to the next step’s footing a bit more… and stayed there long enough to get the insights available only from that shift perspective?
As counterintuitive as this may feel, I guarantee you’ll catch a detail, a view, an insight, a moment that’s critical and maybe even gamechanging to the success of your journey, which you’d have missed otherwise.
While few of us ever focus only in one place permanently, we know that effectiveness means being able to accurately assess the whole picture, toggling between long-range goal, in-the-moment experience, and so-far progress. Kili clearly exaggerates this point. This isn’t about changing who you are. Keep that eye-on-the-prize focus; it’s what makes you a gamechanger, yet… expand your range. It took a mountain to truly expand mine, yet you can create intentional moments to purposefully shift your gaze and awareness to here, the next step, and the nuances of meaning… right now.