What Expert Mountaineers Can Teach You About Accomplishing Your Most Daunting Tasks

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In 1953, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first mountaineers to reach the summit of Mount Everest. Seventy years later, people travel from around the world to attempt the climb — even though the odds are against them. In fact, according to the Himalayan Database, the chances of perishing are about 1 in 100. Daunting only begins to describe the undertaking.

As National Geographic explains, at 29,032 feet, Everest’s summit has about one-third the air pressure that exists at sea level. This significantly reduces a climber’s ability to breathe in enough oxygen. And yet, each year, more people travel to Nepal to try. In 2021, the Nepal Ministry of Tourism issued a record-breaking 408 Everest climbing permits.

Reading about the ups and downs of mountaineers got me thinking about the entrepreneurial journey. Though the stakes are completely different, the odds of launching a successful business are probably comparable to successfully summiting Everest. But we do it anyway. And launching is just the first step. It’s the base camp of being an entrepreneur. The climb continues for as long as you have a business.

Seventeen years into my entrepreneurial journey, I still come up against projects that freeze me in my tracks — because they seem too arduous or because I fear that I lack the time, energy, bandwidth, resources, you name it. It’s remarkably easy to come up with a laundry list of reasons not to embark on a new venture.

Here, I’ve gathered some lessons from expert mountaineers for successfully summiting your next daunting project and continuing your entrepreneurial journey.

Accept risk as a reality

Writing a book was a mountain I’d wanted to climb for years. But every time I sat down to write a book proposal, my mind would be flooded with everything that could go wrong.

What if the market is too saturated?

What if readers don’t like my writing style?

What if I don’t have it in me to write the whole thing?

Once I started considering all the risks, I’d close the Google document and put it off for another day. But as anyone who’s climbed Everest or any 8,000-meter peak will tell you, you can’t eliminate risks.

Apa Sherpa, nicknamed Super Sherpa, climbed Everest 21 times and co-founded the Apa Sherpa Foundation to create more opportunities for Nepalese people. Asked about improving the safety of summiting Everest, he replied: “I don’t have any idea what safety on Everest would look like. Nobody knows when the avalanche is going to come down sweeping from the rocks. What rules can we make about the icefall? It is natural and is going to happen again and again. There is nothing like avoiding risk on Everest.”

If an undertaking is significant, there will always be risks. Not to sound cliché, but if there weren’t, everyone would do it. Accepting that risks are part of the game can help you overcome those initial fears and feelings of imposter syndrome and get started.

For me, it worked to stop forecasting what would happen in the future and focus more on the present. To ask myself questions like: Why do I want to write a book right now? Because I had a story to tell, and I enjoyed the writing process, as difficult as it is. (My first book, Automate Your Busywork, came out this summer.)

Accept risks as a reality and focus on what brought you to “basecamp” in the first place — the aspects of the project that bring you joy.

Adjust your inner narrative

Nirmal “Nims” Purja had a successful career in the British military when he decided to retire to complete all 14 of the 8,000-meter peaks in the world — in just seven months. He called it “Project Possible 14/7.” Purja accomplished his goal in six months and six days, a superhuman feat that became the subject of a Netflix documentary 14 Peaks: Nothing is Impossible.

For Purja, the first three summits were extremely challenging. In an interview with Climbing, he was asked if he began to have second thoughts about continuing his mission. (Spoiler alert: No.)

Purja said: “I was like, ‘Yeah, bring it on.’ That’s kind of the attitude I have. I love the challenges. For many people, when the weather is bad, they go down, but I go up… But it’s all calculated risks.”

This kind of challenge-embracing attitude seems to come naturally to Purja. But changing your inner narrative — saying “bring it on,” even if a project actually terrifies you — can be remarkably powerful. It’s a subtle psychological shift that can transform your experience of your emotions — similar to how actors overcome pre-performance jitters by viewing them as (positive) excitement rather than (negative) fear.

And if something does go wrong, as it inevitably will in any business venture, rather than catastrophizing, try saying to yourself, “Good.” Try to see setbacks as an opportunity to grow rather than a sign that you’re not on the right track.

Look back once in awhile

One of the most poetic metaphors I’ve heard in the mountaineering world — which can be applied to any area of life, including business — is to not forget to look back occasionally.

I once read a story about a man who was attempting a harrowing climb. He said he kept looking up at how far he had to go. Naturally, he felt overwhelmed. He recounted having to remind himself to look back every once in awhile to remember how far he’d already climbed.

We live in a world where everyone’s accomplishments and milestones are very public. It is all too easy to get caught up in comparing, to focus on how far you still want to go and be daunted by the path forward.

Whether you’re undertaking an important project or reflecting on the trajectory of your business or career, it’s essential to pause every so often and appreciate the progress you’ve made — the skills, the experience and the accomplishments you’ve already achieved, even the mistakes you’ve made and what you’ve taken away from them. Doing so will boost your confidence, your mood and your resilience. In my experience, it motivates me to keep climbing.

The peak might seem high, but you’ve already come so far.

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