I’m a lifelong climber and at my “peak,” lived to have my hands and feet on vertical rock. I still love putting on my harness and finding time to climb. Even when I’m indoors and doing business, I’m repeatedly reminded how my career in startup software companies has strong parallels to my favorite sport. Here are just a few of the ways:
- There’s no shortcut to the top – There’s no faster way to get to the top of a climb than to gut it out, move by move. In daily work, my moves might include calls, meetings, spreadsheets and creative work, but each every one is a key part of making my work as successful as my climbs. We have to remind ourselves that each move counts, whether complex or simple, hard or easy. Success is the culmination of everything required to get there, not just something flashy, quick or easy.
- Nothing substitutes for experience – My experience builds with every attempt at something great, climb or business, and that experience is what will make anything possible. I didn’t start as an expert climber or as a senior leader. It came with time and practice—hours spent doing the things only the less experienced can manage. With each chimney, arête, and crack that I faced and conquered, I became better at spotting those patterns and knowing what to expect the next time around. My climbing skills are a combination of everything I’ve seen and re-seen until they were part of my portfolio, available as muscle memory.
- Risk isn’t random – There are those that think that executives and climbers take big risks, but that’s not the case. To be great involves knowing the risks and making careful choices based on skill and experience. I wouldn’t lead my team through an initiative that I didn’t feel I could manage well, nor would I climb something I’m not ready for. That doesn’t mean I won’t stretch myself to work hard and be more creative than ever before, just not if the bad consequences aren’t worth the risks. I always climbed with a fallback plan that included a harness, ropes and, most of all, people I could trust. I’m no different in my work life.
- Trusting your partner(s) – Pictures of climbers often show a single individual clinging to an impossible crack. In reality, that climber has a partner, rope in hand, belaying carefully as they go higher. They trade out, taking turns taking the riskier lead and the safer belay. There’s a trust that has to be there for measured risks to be taken, just as in business, where the team is what makes it possible to go above and beyond. My team at Alation is the reason I’m willing to shoot for something bigger than I would do by myself. They belay me and I belay them.
- Cuts and scrapes – Few climbers can end a day without leaving behind some amount of skin. Rock is unforgiving and knuckles get bloody, knees get cut and muscles can get very sore. If my work isn’t leaving me a little banged up, I’m simply not giving it my best. I can expect arguments, complaints, disagreements and maybe even a hurt feeling or two. But I know that our achievements will mend the fences and build strong trust that the outcome is worth the struggle. We get better after every struggle.
- The peaks are awesome – Halfway up the pitch, with legs shaking and after three attempts at a move, it isn’t hard to wonder why we keep trying. A short time later, after defeating yet another crux move, the peak makes us forget all about the difficulty getting there. My business successes often came after moments where the outcome was in doubt but I pushed through. A great achievement induces a thrill and amnesia that gets me to push through the next time I’m in a tough spot. Each peak makes the next peak more possible.
I have a passion for life that overrides all other factors, and that’s probably what makes anything I do for fun similar to my work. Even so, rock climbing’s parallels are unmistakable, even when it comes to success. Climbing is very personal–each person’s goals are different and all climbers know that a mountain’s majesty and difficulty is humbling to us mere mortals. What one person calls success on the rock likely has nothing in common with another’s.
We each worship at the climbing altar in a different way, just as we judge our personal career success and ourselves very differently. And that’s perfectly fine because career’s can’t be judged against the success of others. I may never be Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk, but I’ve climbing my own mountain with my own choices of route and goal. I alone own that.