How going up a mountain really can make you believe you can do anything by Liz Hill-Smith (Guest Author)

Approaching the summit at dawn – photo by Sam Hill-Smith

Approaching the summit at dawn – photo by Sam Hill-Smith

In March, following hot on the heels of a failed attempt to summit Mont Blanc last summer, my husband, son and I joined a party of adventurous people to climb Kilimanjaro.  I’m not quite sure why this phase of our lives is so characterised by these challenges, but hey, those of you who know me well will understand that I like this kind of thing.

What hit me as we summitted was an incredible sense not only of achievement, but that I had achieved something I didn’t think I would be able to do.  And it had seemed actually fairly easy. As we walked down, a hell of a lot more quickly than we walked up, I found myself thinking about this, and discussing it with some of our fellow travellers.

I also reflected on it in the context of coaching and learning – in the sense of helping others on a journey, and also in the way of how such life experiences can initiate powerful personal change in our belief systems.

What I concluded was that I do now really believe that I can achieve anything I set my mind to – and that I now know how to do that.  It’s a bit like when I discovered the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow (another subject for another time – but it really is there!).  There are a few things you have to take care of to make these big goals happen.  And I think these lessons are really valuable and worth sharing.  The first three are quite obvious, but the last three hold rich and important lessons.

  1. Know what you are trying to achieve. With a mountain, it is quite simple, you are trying to get to the top, and get down safely. With many other types of goals, being really clear about what it is you are actually trying to achieve is still so important. It often gets lost in translation along the way. Keep it in focus.

  2. Plan and prepare realistically and well. Lots of planning, discussions and research took place in the months leading up to our ascent. Will that jacket be warm enough? Will that sleeping bag be OK? Do we need to take Diamox, malarials, Hep B? How many snacks? How will we access non-frozen water at the top? Etc.. Really thinking through how summit night would be, without ever having experienced anything like it, helped get those decisions right, as well as talking to those who had been before. When I think of big successful projects I have been involved with in my life, it is where this planning and thinking through has been done well. Where it has been skimped or over optimistic, things have rarely worked out so well.

  3. Have a great team – our support team were amazing. Their guidance and support was perfect and the culture and atmosphere they created enabled us all to feel well cared for and capable.

Now those things are fairly obvious, but are still really important.  Often when coaching, I find one of these three is missing.  The coaching often serves to clarify the goal, seek out a better understanding of the challenges of the journey, perhaps by finding new mentors who have done parts of that journey before, by strengthening the team in some way, or by identifying support or resources that are needed.  

But in my heart, I know that the second three were really key to our success.

  1. Know and take care of your body – we were encouraged to become very tuned to our bodies, our breathing, our diet, our water intake, basic hygiene, our toileting, our headaches etc. Being aware of our bodies and able to slow down and breathe when the thin air seemed just a bit too thin was really important. Being really in tune with your body is something we don’t do enough of in modern life. Lack of sleep, poor diet and fitness show up in how we are and how we think. Yet it makes a big difference. That awareness continues and I am enjoying its benefits now I am back in normal life.

  2. Step by step – our speed was slow. Our guide prided himself on being the slowest guide on the mountain, but he also had the highest success rate. Our carefully measured ascent at times resembled a shuffling post office queue, but those in other parties who rushed ahead were too often caught by the altitude and had to stop or descend. As each step was in the right direction, we got there in the end – all of us – even the older members of the group, and those with medical conditions. This metaphor works too for other real world challenges – sometimes, short cuts just aren’t worth it. Patience is key. The patience required by step by step is also a real lesson for me. I am a fast rushy kind of person. I don’t like to take things slow, but now I find myself asking “is this step taking me closer to where I am trying to get to?” And if it is, I am more able to be patient. Again, I am reaping the benefits of this.

  3. Enjoy the journey! At the summit, although it was amazing views and a great sense of achievement, most of us actually felt pretty rubbish. Nauseous mainly, a bit cold, and pretty tired. The whole experience though, the laughter and friendships in camp, the rituals of our days, popcorn and afternoon tea, the moonlit views, the ice on the tents, and the often hilarious discussions of bodily functions, these were all part of the amazing experience that made up the whole journey. So cherish the journey, savour the moments and surprises along the way. Look for joy in the unexpected. As is so often true, this incredible journey really was about being in each moment.

It is these last three that we and our coachees can so easily miss, and if we do we can burn ourselves out, or miss the real learnings and joy in the journey.  Checking in with how am I feeling?  Where is the energy?  What really takes me in that direction?  Is faster better?  How can I work smarter?  And how can I make sure I cherish the journey and the learning it brings along the way.  

To connect with Liz Hill-Smith

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Liz is an APECS certified executive coach and organisational leadership and change consultant.  She creates the mental space for her clients to open new perspectives, flourish and succeed.  Having been a specialist in leadership, change, organisation development and strategic thinking for over 20 years, Liz is passionate about enabling leaders to develop empowering and transformative mindsets, often using constellations based approaches to create transformations in thinking and insight.