Navigating failure... Successfully

On May 16th, 2013 at 2:37AM I was one-thousand vertical feet away from achieving my life-long goal.  I could taste it. I had visualized this moment countless times over my two years of training and preparation.  It was summit night on Mt. Everest, and I was in a zen-like state of focus. So focused in fact that I didn’t realize, or wouldn’t admit to myself, that the weather conditions around me had quickly shifted from unfavorable to flat-out dangerous.

The cry of an anguished prayer broke my summit-fever. It was the voice of Kancha, my Nepali climbing partner.  Looking at him, I realized that we had entered a cloud of Rime Ice that was beginning to freeze our oxygen masks and corneas.  With winds gusting to 85mph and the temperature hovering around -30F, it felt like we were strapped to the wing of a 747 aircraft.  And just like that I knew our summit attempt was over.  I was crushed. 

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Moments before my summit push at Camp 4. 

In my four years of high-altitude climbing and guiding I had never once been turned around due to weather.  And to be perfectly honest, the thought of not reaching the summit of Mt. Everest had never crossed my mind.  It was a forgone conclusion, I had put in the work and nothing was going to stop me.  Until it did. 

Dealing with this defeat has been one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done; far more trying than any day on Mt. Everest.  Now would be a good moment for me to string together a score of motivational cliches telling you  to deny human emotion and push through the pain.  Fortunately for you, thats not what I’m going to do because the fact remains that failure is inevitable and inevitably painful.  If you are truly willing to chase after your dreams, to lay it all on the line, and give it everything you got, you have opened yourself up to the possibility of failure.  And, when it comes, it’s going to hurt. 

Here are five things I’ve found helpful in dealing with disappointment as a result of athletic endeavors or otherwise. 

1. Allow yourself time.

Whether you dropped-out during your first trail race or injured yourself while training, you need to allow yourself time to digest the disappointment.  Allow yourself to feel it.  Sit with it.  Acquaint yourself with disappointment; the evil step-sister of success. 

2. Don’t make any major decisions.

Your not thinking clearly.  You’re questioning everything.  Decisions at this stage in the game will be made from a point of raw emotion and not rational thought. 

3. Take care of your body.

This is the most important step along the way.  Stay away from the extremes.   Don’t try to jump back into a training routine and certainly don’t stop exercising and eating right.  Listen to your body and give it what it needs. 

4. Talk to people.

It can be a dark world listening to your own thoughts day-in and day-out.  Seek out a training partner or climbing buddy and talk about your experience.  You’ll be surprised what you’ll hear yourself say. 

5. Answer the question.

The most beautiful thing about not achieving your goal is that despite everything else you’re always left with a choice; are you going to call it quits or are you going to use the failure as fuel?

It’s never a true failure until you stop trying. 

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Peter Hillary, son of Edmund Hillary, knows a thing or two about disappointment.