The Hardest Thing I’ve Ever Done Is Climb A Volcano

4 Life Lessons From That Experience I Continue to Use to Tackle Unknown Territory

In June 2011, I decided to take on a new chapter in my career. After four years of success in finance and entrepreneurship, I decided to pause all of that and retool as an MBA candidate. But before embarking on a new environment and new lessons, I thought it would be a great opportunity to clear my business palate and comfort zone by working abroad the summer before I enrolled at Kellogg School of Management. So a month later I found myself in Antigua, Guatemala working with local entrepreneurs helping them sell essential products like flashlights, water filtration buckets, and eyeglasses to their greater community. It was a great experience because I was forced to improve my admittedly subpar Spanish skills and become a better listener to address the issues my entrepreneurs faced.

Early on I thought the “lost in translation” and unpredictable daily commutes on the “chicken bus” would be the things that lingered forever from the experience — But I was wrong. One night taught me so much about myself and how to take on uncharted territories. That was the night I and 7 other peers completed the Midnight hike of Mt. Tajumulco. Now a little context on Mt. Tajumulco. It’s a dormant volcano and the highest point in Central America at 13,845 feet high. I successfully reached the peak at dawn and made it back down safely (somehow at a slower rate) and acquired some 4 life lessons that stick with me (other than still being sore from that hike) whenever I look to take on a new experience in my professional life.

1. Always Do Your Prep Research

I understand if you are going into a new experience or unknown territory there may not be much information out there. But you can move at a faster pace on the learning curve if you solicit advice from colleagues, peers, and mentors who may have already tried this new market or skill. You do not want to be unprepared for the unknown. Looking for a prime example? Then just look at my attire. Do I look like I am prepared for a midnight hike with Jordan XII sneakers and two hoodies on? My experience on the hike could have gone a lot smoother if I simply asked the organizers what the suggested attire was.

The face of struggle.

2. Be comfortable with learning on the job

If my hiking outfit wasn’t a signal enough then I will tell you, I was not an experienced hiker. I had no experience hiking at that elevation. But fortunately, we had awesome hiking guides that showed us the path of least resistance to the peak. Since I was a novice and it was really dark, I had to depend on the guidance of my peers who were climbing ahead of me. They provided me with real-time assistance on the right and wrong steps they took on the hike. And every step increased my confidence that I could make to it the top. Also, I just didn’t have a choice because I didn’t want to be left in the woods by myself.

3. Enjoy the moment

New experiences provide ups and downs as you make your way to your desired goal. But the midnight hike reinforced something that I learned early in my career — you cannot simply focus on your end point because you will miss out on moments that can shape your perspective for the future. During my ascension and more importantly declension of Mt. Tajumulco I was able to see amazing views of our world that few are privy to see. So I would advise you, that even when your journey provides pain points don’t just focus on getting to your goal but have some time of reflection to observe how far you have come.

4. You learn a lot about yourself in new experiences

Once you reach your goal and have some time to reflect, you ultimately come away with insights on yourself that you wouldn’t have known. After the midnight hike, I learned I can complete an intense hike, that I can’t hike in sneakers and that I can push myself physically in various terrains and altitudes. The experience pushed me to be a better listener and understand how to follow advice from an expert in a field. Months later, I realized the midnight hike gave me a rubric that I applied almost every week in business school. Each time I face a new unfamiliar business situations, through a group exercise or case study, I remembered that I can get through this because I climbed a freaking volcano.

Earnest Sweat is an Entrepreneurial Engineer for Camelback Ventures and an Investor in Residence for Backstage Capital. If you have any questions or requests please connect with Earnest through LinkedIn or Twitter.

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