To Climb or Not to Climb: Lessons from a Mountain

July 13, 2022 By

“You should write about this”, said my cousin as we were halfway up one of the rather steep mountains situated on the island my grandfather was born on more than 120 years ago and which I now bring my kids to as often as I can.  My cousin knows about my fear of heights. “About facing the fear and doing it anyway and how the support of others makes it easier.”  

“Funnily enough,” I said, “I have just written about the advantages of staying within your comfort zone.” (You can read that here.) “But, yes, maybe I will.”

Turns out that’s not exactly how it panned out. As we finished that section of the climb, I looked around me and realised how high up we were. I also realised I was terrified.

“I can’t do this,” I said. So while the rest of them, including my kids and my 79-year-old dad continued onwards (or upwards, rather) to the top, I gingerly made my way down the track we had come up clutching rocks and tufts of grass and trying not to lose my footing until I made it to a part where I felt comfortable again.

I have to say that the support of others did make that bit easier, as I was carefully guided and reassured until I got there. Never underestimate it. But it was never going to get me to the top. My fear of heights is too strong for that.

“I wonder could you work on it,” said my cousin’s husband afterwards. “Exposing yourself to heights bit by bit until you got more used to it, perhaps”. He wasn’t really suggesting it. More curious about the concept.

I’ve no plans to do so. But so often we do feel a need to improve on things we aren’t good at. Work on our weaknesses. Focus on finding room for improvement – or whatever we choose to call it (spoiler alert, it doesn’t really matter). It is so ingrained in us.   

Feedback loops, 360s, performance reviews, psychometric assessments – they all provide useful information about how we perform, how we function and how we are perceived by others. They are rightly used much in coaching and organisational development. They are great at providing a holistic overview of where we are at – and, yes, of our strengths and weaknesses. But so often it is the weaknesses that get the attention.  We go through an assessment, through the feedback provided, and more often than not be drawn to where we feel we fall short. “My time management needs improvement.” “I know I need to work on my organisational skills.” If the perceived weakness is imbued with a particular value, it can sometimes lead to disappointment, embarrassment or even defiance. “Innovation a weak point? I don’t think so!”

It is of course useful to take in the whole aspect of any assessment we undertake or feedback we receive. It is also useful to question things that don’t feel accurate and to explore them further if that feels right.

But there’s also normally a whole set of things which we are good at, which motivate us, which we excel at and which drives us and sometimes everyone around us forward as a result of it, that get overlooked when we get caught up in the negative. Additionally, our strengths tend to be associated with joy, motivation, a feeling of competency – unlike the guilt and negative emotions that often accompany our weaknesses. And focusing on those positives is often so much more productive.

I once worked with a school leader who scored low on time optimisation. “I should probably work on that”, he said. “Let’s leave it for now”, I said, “and spend some time looking at your strengths first.” After what turned out to be a very fruitful and constructive session which he left with plenty of action points and a renewed sense of energy and motivation, he realised that not only had we not touched upon his weaknesses, there had been no need to. In fact, it probably would have been a lot less constructive if we had.

Sometimes we can just park those things we are not that good at. It serves us much better.

I have no desire to tackle my fear of heights. I’ll just avoid steep mountains (and rollercoasters) from now on and instead focus on things I actually enjoy. Like when I finally made it down from the climb and continued on a much more leisurely walk around the island, one where I truly appreciated the joys of being in nature instead of being petrified in it. There’s no question of which served me better.