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August 9th, 2010
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Mountain Climbing, Motivations, and the Deep-Seated Fear of Failure

Chris Guillebeau
AC360° Contributor

When I first started doing media interviews in 2008, I noticed that one question would almost always come up: “Why are you so obsessed with travel?”

(I learned to call it the mountain-climbing question, because it’s the same one climbers are asked about Everest and K2: “Why?”)

The question bewildered me until I got used to it. For a long time, I didn’t know how to answer; the quest to see the whole world was just something that made sense to me intuitively. I like travel, I like goal-setting, so why not put the two together?

I was reminded of this while reading a review of a new mountain climbing book on the Lufthansa flight last week. The journalist complained, “None of these books ever clearly answer the reason why people feel the need to climb mountains.”

I don’t climb real mountains very often, but I understand the desire and appeal very well. I guess if I sat in an office somewhere and read about people climbing mountains, I might want to know more about their motivations too. But because I’m out there working on my own proverbial mountains, I can read about other climbers and think, “Good for them!”

Small Goals, Small Worries

A friend and I were talking about a related subject, and she said, “I think there’s a deep-seated, hidden fear of failure behind the travel quest.” My response: it’s probably deep-seated, but it’s not hidden at all!

Of course I’m worried about failure. It’s getting harder and harder with each country I go to. Crashing into Bangkok is easy; wandering around Baku is… a bit different. It’s not bad, but it’s definitely harder. I know how to overcome my fears, but I’m definitely not fearless.

As I see it, small goals produce only small worries. If something easy isn’t going well, you can suck it up and still get it done. The real challenge comes with a big goal, or a big mountain to use the climbing analogy.


Photo by moragcasey

With a big mountain, you know you’re going to need more than just stubbornness. You may get wildly off track. You may encounter unforeseen difficulties. You may even have to come back down the mountain at some point before resuming the climb. Thus, you’re going to need some form of internal motivation.

I doubt that I’m going to get tired of my crazy adventures anytime soon, but even if I did, I’d keep going anyway. I don’t expect that mountain climbers enjoy every moment of the climb, and I bet there are plenty of times they think about giving up. The best ones, however, find a way to keep going even when it’s hard.

Do Your Part, Don’t Worry About the Rest

My theory is: Some things are out of our control, so don’t worry about what you can’t change. But if it’s within the realm of your control, do your part. I can fly over to Azerbaijan and figure out how to take the 15-hour midnight train to Georgia. I can’t control whether the train arrives on time or what happens next, but I can get my ass to the station. I think the universe is cool like that most of the time – show up, do your part, and trust the rest to be OK.

By the way, I’m not saying this perspective is 100% right for everyone. I’m just saying that in my worldview, the concept of an alternative doesn’t exist. Why bother with nuance? Let’s leave that to the people who wonder why mountain climbers are willing to sacrifice so much for what they believe in. I’d rather be climbing.

How about you? Been climbing any mountains lately?

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Editor’s Note: Chris Guillebeau writes for a small army of remarkable people at ChrisGuillebeau.com. Follow Chris's live updates from every country in the world at @chrisguillebeau.


Filed under: Chris Guillebeau • Travel
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