Stop overthinking, start doing. There’s value in climbing the wrong mountains

We often tell ourselves to spend as much of our time doing things that push us towards our goals, and as little time as possible on things that don’t. In other words, we should always make sure we’re climbing the right mountain.

The problem is: We don’t really know which mountain is the right one until we’re halfway up, or even right at the top. The cost of climbing the wrong mountain always seems too high, and so we spend most of our time trying to figure out which mountains are which to avoid wasting our time climbing the wrong ones. 

The irony, however, is that by being so cautious to not climb the wrong mountain, we hesitate to climb any mountains at all.

Put less metaphorically: By trying our hardest to avoid doing the wrong things, or having the wrong goals, we spend most of our time thinking about doing things, and not actually doing them. My argument is that inaction — as opposed to climbing the wrong mountain — is what prevents us from achieving the things we strive for.

What I hope you get out of this post:

  • Climbing the wrong mountain can be useful if you make learning the goal
  • Sometimes, climbing the wrong mountain is necessary to know which mountain is the right one at all

Note: This post is a little less actionable than some of my others. It was more of a peripheral reflection on a previous post I wrote, and my goal was to unpack some of my meta-thinking around goals and goal-setting. That said, I do share a couple real life examples around how I approach this in my everyday life, which I hope ground this meta-thinking in something a little more tangible.

So: What are ‘mountains’ anyway?

Your mountains are your goals in life. I understand mountains as the things I strive to achieve, the stuff that gets me out of bed in the morning. These goals can be finishing a project by the end of the week, all the way to what kind of house I want to live in one day.

But to make this concept of mountains more accessible, I wanted to start with a story I found online. It’s about climbing actual mountains:

Scotti Lechuga is a competitive cyclist. She has a blog, and she cycles up mountains… Like, real mountains. She’s raced on 6 continents, competed in world tour UCI races, and some of the most difficult ultra-endurance races like the Silk Road Mountain Race.

In an article she wrote, she talked about how, at one point, she had to step off her bike to reassess why she was cycling at all. Her motivators felt ‘off’. She told herself that being a mother-of-two and cycling the toughest races while doing so would fulfill her… But it didn’t. Even though, physically, she was scaling mountains like it was no one’s business, mentally, she realised that she was on the wrong mountain

She drew this realisation, and her journey/vision thereafter, in the picture below:

Image credit to Scotti Lechuga, 2019

What I really like about this story is:

  • Sometimes, you only see the goals you really want after having ‘climbed’ or pursued a few others
  • Even the best goals you strive to achieve have setbacks

I’d like to explore both of these in a little more detail, and give some insight into how I’m trying to turn them into concrete things in my own day-to-day.

Every mountain is the right one — until it’s not

This one’s a little contentious, but here’s a quote I disagree with: 

“The most important question — far more important than the pace at which you reached the summit — is whether or not you climbed the right mountain.” (originally from this blog post)

The article was talking about business goals, and that you always need to make 100% sure you’re on the right mountain and not working towards the wrong thing. Although I see the point they’re making, I would argue that the most important question — far more important than both the pace at which you climb a mountain, or even which mountain you climb at all! — is how long you spend wondering which mountain to climb.

In fewer words and in simpler English: The only thing worse than doing the wrong thing, is not doing anything at all.

Remember, it took climbing the first mountain for Scotti to see the mountain she actually wanted to be on. Had she sat at her desk, or on her bed, wondering which mountain she should be on, she might never have known that mountain existed at all.

When I read her story for the first time, and realised what she was saying, this idea hit me like ton of bricks:

The mountain you climb is only ever going to feel like the ‘right’ one until you see another, more exciting mountain in the distance. Then, all of a sudden, the mountain you’re on becomes the ‘wrong’ one, and you start your journey towards the next.

Maybe just read that once more, because I think it’s really powerful when you realise it.

The reason I think that spending all our energy desperately trying to be on the right mountain is so detrimental to our progress, our motivation, and our resilience, is that every mountain is the right one, until it’s not. If there’s always another mountain to climb, then there’s nothing ‘wrong’ or ‘right’ about the mountain you’re on. In fact, the mountain you’re on is a really great way to gain perspective, and see the next one.

“What does that look like practically, though?”

Great question. Short answer: I’m still figuring it out. Long(-ish) answer: Set goals that focus on learning, as opposed to achieving a finite thing. Learning is something I can do no matter the mountain, but a finite goal only has one peak.

So, if the goal is simply to learn enough to see the next mountain, being on the ‘wrong’ one is not an immediate fail. I spend less time stressing about whether this mountain is the ‘right’ one or not, and actually get to the climbing a lot sooner. Action versus inaction. It’s really hard to lose if my goal was always only ever to learn.

Let’s bring this into some examples from real life. For instance, instead of setting a goal like “Earn enough money to buy a house”, I would rather make the goal “Find a career where ‘what I enjoy’, ‘what I’m good at’, and ‘what the world needs’ align.” That way, I don’t have to worry about a high-paying salary right off the bat. Getting a lower salary first is OK if it means that I’m going to learn something about where those three aspects align.

Even if all I achieve from each goal is that I learn something new about that goal, that’s still progress.

Editor’s note: I added this last bit in after a comment on a previous post that read: “How do you set goals that you can consistently feel confident in? I’m specifically talking about avoiding the imposter syndrome that brings up doubts about whether those goals are the ‘right’ goals for me.” I hope this answers that to some degree! 🙂

Every mountain will have its setbacks

That being said, life happens. We’re all vulnerable to its ebbs and flows. Scotti’s picture above shows this really nicely: Along the way, as you get closer to that goal of yours, you’ll go through things like doubt, a bad day, needing to deal with something else that takes up all your mental and emotional capacity, you’ll get sick, you’ll need to spend most of your money on an unforeseen expense… These are all inevitable (and, in fact, most of the suffering you experience with these is caused by you wishing so desperately they weren’t there, and not the experience itself).  

This is probably the part where I have the most to learn, and the part that I really can only get better at by going through the motions.

The way I see it is: Facing setbacks on any mountain I climb should not discourage me from the mountain I’m on. Although it is one part resilience (you can read my post on building ‘grit’ here!), if I’ve really committed to learning as I climb this goal, then it’s easier for me to turn setbacks into lessons. 

Now, I know that ‘just see it as an opportunity to learn!’ sounds a little too woo-woo-happy-happy, because — ye, sometimes it sucks… really hard… and just turning that rejection letter into a positive thing feels like a dumb bandaid to make you feel a little less shit. But that’s not what I’m saying.

What I try to tell myself in these situations (and here’s the part that I don’t really have nailed yet) is: Yes, a rejection letter sucks, but so what? Your mountain hasn’t moved. It’s still there. What if this is part of the way up? I’m not saying look for the lesson right now, I’m just saying be open to the possibility of there being a lesson down the line. You don’t have to figure it out now. Rather than sitting and waiting for something to happen on your mountain, get back on the trail and keep climbing. Or, alternatively, look out around you: Is there another mountain you can see from this height? How does that mountain make you feel?

The pep talk I give myself can be something different for everyone — a friend, a colleague, a book, a TED Talk… I just am realising more and more that:

The more time I spend sitting around, thinking about the mountains I should climb or the setbacks I should get over, the less time I spend in this state of learning as I go, seeing more as I climb higher, and caring less about which mountain I’m on as I keep on trying.

Like I said, more of a post on meta-thinking, but I hope this sparked some thoughts in you. Let me know whether anything resonated, and let’s chat.


Featured image by Patrick Carr

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