3 Lessons from the 7 Summits

At 4:35am on May 25, 2017, I was on top of the world.

At 29,029 feet tall, Everest is earth’s highest mountain. After standing in the frigid (and very thin) air at its peak, I have to say it’s a place that humans have no business being. My team had set out to reach the summit at 10:15 pm the night before, but really, my journey began long before that, as climbing Mount Everest fulfilled my fourteen-year dream of conquering the Seven Summits — reaching the highest point on all seven continents.

Big mountains have a way of letting us know how small and insignificant we are, and that’s a big reason I love them. The view from the top of Mount Everest puts a lot of things in perspective, and it’s that perspective I want to share with you through three lessons from the seven summits.

Lesson # 1: All success is borne out of failure.

We’ve all met with failure before and can expect to do so again. It’s not a question ifwe’ll fail in life. It’s a question of when, and what we should do about it.

For me, the road to Everest was paved with failure. The first time I climbed Denali in Alaska, I failed. The first time I attempted Mount Hood and Mount Rainier, I failed at each. The first time I attempted Everest was the year of an avalanche that almost killed me and did kill almost three dozen people. So why did I keep going back? Because failure was something I’d learned to deal with years earlier. There were scholarships I failed to win, promotions I didn’t get, and schools that rejected me… I could go on. Very rarely have I ever hit the mark on the first try, but life is like a dartboard. I know that if I take careful aim and throw enough darts, some of those darts will be bullseyes. So, I keep throwing — and occasionally missing — until I hit the target. In the words of Michael Jordan, “I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

Failure is a pre-requisite for success. It’s a teacher. A trainer. A coach that can push you to achieve your goals, as long as you refuse to let it stop you. Looking back, I am as proud of my failures as I am of summiting Everest, because every one of them helped make that climb possible. But, I didn’t do it alone, which brings me to lesson number two.

Lesson # 2: Nobody does it alone.

On Everest, you don’t go up the mountain without a Sherpa, and you never go off on your own. You want to summit? You need a team. A group of like-minded individuals committed to one common goal — and each other.

This is true both on and off the mountain. We all need people to support us in our individual quests, whether directly or indirectly. Whatever “it” is for you, don’t make the mistake of thinking you have to do it alone, or that there’s any special prize awarded for reaching your goal without any help. Not only will your journey be lonelier, slower, riskier, and less enjoyable, but chances are, you’re simply failing to recognize the help you’ve already received.

For example, I’m grateful for the support I received from my employer. BCG’s “Time for You” program extended my health benefits while allowing me to take two months off to attempt Everest, and a delayed start date when I joined the firm allowed me to climb the tallest mountain in Antarctica, Vinson Massif.

I’m also grateful for the BCG’ers I met on the Seven Summits — people like Andrew Clark, who introduced me to BCG on Mount Aconcagua in Argentina (quite possibly the world’s least likely place to get a job referral), and another BCGer, who requested to remain anonymous but climbed Everest ahead of me and took part in an extremely dangerous rescue in the “death-zone” on summit day. These people, and others like them, have had an enormous impact on me and my life.

Great achievements start with people who teach us and inspire us. They hinge on people who push us when we struggle, and catch us when we fall. That’s a good thing. It’s okay to be vulnerable. It’s okay to need, and ask for help. That doesn’t cheapen the win when it finally comes. Sharing the moment of victory, and the battle to achieve it, enhances the experience. I’ve been there. I’ve been the guy who was able to help a teammate summit Denali, and I’ve been the guy who desperately needed help on Aconcagua. I cannot overstate the power a team member has to alter the course of another person’s life just by saying, “I believe in you. Trust me.”

Surround yourself with people that you admire. People who share your goals. Take a chance and reach out to someone who has done the things that you want to do. Together, you can take each other places you never dreamed possible, and hopefully, have a little fun along the way.

Lesson # 3: The most important thing is having fun (i.e. following the path that’s right for you).

My college roommates laughed me out of our dorm the first time I told them that the key to life was “having fun, or preparing to have fun.” But I still believe those words.

Think about what makes you happy. What do you have fun doing? Isn’t your life better when you’re doing it? Even when I’ve got my head down, just working toward a long-term goal, I feel better. Even if the payoff for all the work is light years away, it doesn’t matter. I want something and I’m doing something about it. And, I know that however small any given step might be, I’m taking that step — and I’ll take the next one too.

On summit day on Everest, I had to stop and take two deep breaths between every single step. I was hiking up glaciers at glacial speed, but I was doing what I could in each individual moment and my pace was sustainable. My hands and feet were warm, and the hood of my jacket was blocking the little bit of wind that might have otherwise frostbitten the patch of skin between my goggles and my oxygen mask. I knew as long as I kept putting one foot in front of the other, eventually I would run out of mountain.

I’ll understand if it sounds crazy to you, but I really did have “fun” climbing all those mountains through the blizzards, crevasse falls, and hypoxia. In those moments, and the moments leading up to them, I was fully present in myself and my surroundings, devoted to living the life I imagined. I didn’t find fulfillment at the summit. I found it every step of the way, because when you’re following the path that’s right for you, the journey itself becomes the reward.

I latched onto this idea of diligently pursuing “fun” early in life, and I learned that the best path for me involved a combination of serving others and pushing my physical and mental limits. My experience climbing the seven summits while raising over $50,000 for teenage intercultural exchange confirmed these lessons for me. We have to find a way to do what we love. Life’s too short to live other people’s dreams.

I admit, Everest was a risky place to go looking for a good time, but life is full of risk. We all have a fixed number of years, weeks, and hours, along with some risk that our time will run out before we’re ready to let go. To make the most of my time, I think about serving others and pushing my limits, and I refine my choices to spend more of my time doing those things, or preparing to do those things. What I won’t risk is waiting too long and missing the chance to try. We all own our own fate. We choose, every hour of every day, what our lives will be. So, if you’re not choosing what’s right for you now, please, take a moment to reflect.

What is it you want to do? What’s the crazy dream you’ve always wanted to pursue, but for whatever reason, never have? What’s the big idea you’re afraid to say out loud? This is the open road of life. Where you drive is up to you. Tell someone about your idea. Make it real. Start there. That’s one step. Commit to doing it. That’s another. Put together a plan. That’s where the “fun” begins. It doesn’t matter what it is. Anything is possible with time and energy.

You can do it. I believe in you. Trust me.

By: Andrew Towne, Consultant

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