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Success at the top: what climbing taught me about myself and the workplace

When I first started bouldering, I was incredibly self-conscious. I didn’t want the “good” climbers to see me slip or struggle with an easier route, or "problem" in climbing terms. I didn’t want people to see my moments of weakness. It was emblematic of an insecurity that had, over the course of years, permeated many facets of my life—especially professionally.

When I graduated from American University’s School of Communication in 2012, I immediately entered the active duty Air Force as a lieutenant and watched from afar as my film school friends entered the realm of entertainment and media art. I found myself envious and occasionally self-loathing, despite the fulfilling and dynamic nature of my own job and position. Both inside and outside of my Air Force realm, I internally and subconsciously competed with my professional peers; I compared and contrasted our roles and hierarchical importance, ascribing weird metrics steeped in jealousy. It wasn’t a debilitating insecurity, nor a severe one; it was a subtle fear, a gnawing timidity that asked, “are you good enough?”

As I progressed down my career path, my personal growth increasingly became about keeping pace with others rather than about bettering myself. But then I walked into a bouldering gym and it was a turning point. I immediately fell in love with the sport of climbing and began to crave it. Engaging my whole body in a challenging physical pursuit and the sweet rush of endorphin signaling victory at the top kept me motivated and tested. At first, the insecurity remained; I kept to myself and felt uncomfortable and vulnerable when people watched me tackle a new problem. Even as I progressed in my climbing and started tackling harder and harder problems, the comparisons continued.

Much to my dismay, an increased confidence did not correlate to a decreased reflex to compare myself to others and I continued to, internally, foster a competitive environment. I congratulated myself on being better than some climbers and bummed myself out when there was someone better. Then, by happenstance, I heard a maxim that really resonated with me: “Losers focus on the winners, winners focus on winning.” I’m sure I’d heard similar sayings during my high school athletic career or in contrived sports movies, but this time, I’d really heard it—it really landed and it fundamentally changed the way I approached climbing and my career. It reaffirmed two things I knew but had not cemented into my life:

- There is always someone better than you

- There is not a limited amount of success to go around

You cannot base your goals on someone else’s achievements.

Recognize your own challenges and objectives and realize what you want to do. If you climb Mt. Everest there is no point in envying the man on K2’s peak—you met your goal, they met theirs. The rest is subjective. Everyone climbing is trying to accomplish their route, and one's ascent of an allegedly difficult route does not diminish the novice climber’s success on an easier, shorter one—provided the novice has challenged themselves. What matters is climbing farther and harder than you did last time.

Outdoing yourself is incredibly rewarding and the effects are tangible. You grow, you learn, difficult things become easy things and the impossible becomes possible. This attitude’s efficacy is not limited to the wall or mountain; apply it to the boardroom and the office. Don’t worry about the other department’s metrics, focus on improving your own. Don’t compare your team to another, focus on meeting your boss’ intent and moving the company forward. Definitely don’t worry about your peers at other companies or organizations--their successes or failures have no bearing on your own as long as you bring your best and seek to move yourself and your own organization forward. If you allow another’s success to deter your efforts, you’ve allowed their efforts to impact you—that’s obviously not productive. Even if you’re directly competing for market share, basing your strategy on your competitors’ only ensures you remain behind the curve. While you are focused on emulation, they’ve got their eyes on progression.

As individuals, it’s also important to remember that second perspective: there is not a quantifiably limited amount of success. There is no tangible, earthly limit on accomplishment and fulfillment. The success of a peer does not mean there is suddenly less success available for you. The success is there if you focus on it, put forth the effort, and earn it. Free yourself of the notion that another's victory lessens your own.

When you climb to the top of the wall, you’ll find there is room for more than one at the top. Do not let others’ success demoralize you. Victory’s only limitation is to those who do not try. Triumph is not a finite resource—there’s always more to earn and it can only be stolen by self-doubt. There is so much to gain by exceeding your own expectations and focusing on your own development. Focus on winning, not on the "winners."

(This originally appeared on my LinkedIn here)

Photo: The author bouldering in the Atlas Mountains, Morocco.

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