Climbing Mount Everest

This year my university picked Jon Krakauer’s 1997 best seller Into Thin Air as the common reading for first year students. Despite being an endurance athlete who likes mountains, I’ve never had any interest in mountain climbing. So two weeks ago I half-heartedly began reading about the infamous failed ascent of Everest in May,1996.

I enjoyed thinking about what it would be like to try to climb any 8,000 meter peak more than I expected, but I have no plans to scale Mount Rainier or any other mountain. I’m content scaling Tumwater Hill every now and then.

I dig when people have deep-seated passions which give their lives extra meaning. When they’re compelled to throw pottery, write novels, grow roses, brew beer, race bicycles, tie fly fishing knots, follow the Chicago Cubs, or climb over 29,000′ above sea level.

Krakauer’s fellow climbers caused me to reflect on human nature. One of the guides, an internationally renowned climber who survived only to die a year later atop another mountain once said, “Mountains are not stadiums where I satisfy my ambition to achieve, they are the cathedrals where I practice my religion.”

This quote fascinated me because the feel you get from Into Thin Air is that for most everyone on the mountain it was most certainly about ambition to achieve. Ego, reputation, bragging rights upon returning, and avarice were all more evident than Zen-like notions of self discovery and improvement.

I didn’t understand the willingness of the climbers to attempt the ascent with people they knew next to nothing about. Even if one were to go by themself with the help of a world class guide and small group of Sherpas, it would be a life and death gambit, but add in inexperienced climbers in less than peak fitness, and the risks increased exponentially. Why enter into a co-dependent relationship with other people who left to their own devices would fare much, much worse on the mountain.

Similarly confusing was partnering with some character-challenged people who clearly prioritized their own individual success and survival above anyone else’s.

If you see the film, let me know if I should.

A New Approach to a New Year

I’m a monogamous reader. When I commit to a book, I commit. No late night flirting with other authors that I might regret in the morning. Another idiosyncrasy, I can be slow to ditch flawed books. I was on a nice reading roll during the first half of 2012, but got totally stalled in a cook book somewhere during the summer. Yes, you read correctly, a cook book! You’re forgiven for wondering what kind of imbecile sets out to read a cookbook cover to cover. The same kind that set out to read the bible from cover to cover in the sixth grade. Wasn’t able to check that one off either. Damn Leviticus.

But, I’m happy to report, my reading self is back. In fact, I may read more in January and February than all of 2012 combined, but more on why in a future post. At present, I’m wedded to Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. Although it’s clearly written, Burkeman’s ideas are so provocative and contrary to conventional wisdom, The Antidote will probably require a re-reading, making it my last book of 2012 and first of 2013.

If like me, you enjoy holding up common assumptions to the light of day, I especially recommend Chapter Four, “Goal Crazy: When Trying to Control the Future Doesn’t Work”. In short, Burkeman convincingly argues that most everything you and I have been taught about goal setting is flawed. In part, his argument rests on what went wrong on Mount Everest in 1996 when many climbers died because they didn’t turn around in time to survive the descent. In his view, Krakauer’s Into Thin Air analysis is “ultimately dissatisfying” as an explanation.

He finds Chris Kayes’ interpretation more persuasive. Kayes, a former stockbroker turned business professor and expert on organizational behavior, suspects the climbers were “lured into destruction by their passion for goals”. Burkeman writes of Hayes, “His hypothesis was that the more they fixated on the endpoint—a successful summiting of the mountain—the more that goal became not just an external target but a part of their own identities, of their senses of themselves as accomplished guides or high-achieving amateurs.”

“If his hunch about the climbers was right,” Burkeman adds, “it would have become progressively more difficult for them to sacrifice their goal, despite accumulating evidence that it was becoming a suicidal one. Indeed, that accumulating evidence. . . would have hardened the climbers’ determination not to turn back. The climb would have become a struggle not merely to reach the summit, but to preserve their sense of identity.”

One take-away from the chapter is that there are often unintended consequences when people focus intensely on especially lofty goals. Kayes points out that the mountaineers who died climbing Everest in 1996 did successfully reach their goal: they ascended to the summit. The tragic unintended consequence was that they didn’t make it back down.

Burkeman also offers up a  challenge—to become more comfortable with uncertainty, to turn towards it, to exploit the potential hidden within it, both to feel better in the present and to achieve more success in the future. Burkeman sites a person who says the key to this approach is to think more like a frog. “You should sun yourself on a lily-pad until you get bored; then, when the time is right, you should jump to a new lily-pad and hang out there for awhile. Continue this over and over, moving in whatever direction feels right.” The imagery of sunbathing on lily-pads isn’t mean to imply laziness, the emphasis is on enjoying one’s work in the present rather than postponing happiness based upon endless five year plans.

Burkeman’s thinking challenges my default tendencies to plan and set goals. My goal for 2013? Have fewer goals and turn towards uncertainty.

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