April 22, 2020

Lessons from elite climbers for navigating challenging times

Before COVID-19 became a reality, I was chatting with someone about the challenges faced by busy professionals and the need to maintain a baseline of well-being to manage those challenges. The conversation took an interesting turn that I think has special relevance for leaders in an era of pandemic, grief and loss.

The direction our conversation took? The world of mountaineering.

I’m not a climber myself, nor is the person with whom I was chatting. But the adventures of those who aspire to ascend the highest peaks of our planet are well enough documented that we were aware of some of the basics. And the basics provide a pretty compelling lesson for those of us climbing our own metaphorical mountains.

And some of us are right now climbing the most challenging mountains of our lives.

The climb

The highest peaks on earth pose a singular challenge to humans whose bodies and minds are optimized for elevations much closer to sea level. I won’t get into the physiological effects on the human body as people move into increasingly thin air with low concentrations of oxygen (read an explanation from pioneering mountaineer and physician Tom Hornbein here). But suffice it to say, the body needs to adapt. (Read an interesting Q&A with a base camp physician here.)

In addition, the time it takes for this adaptation — along with the challenges of the climb itself — mean that for many of the highest-altitude expeditions, small mountains of equipment and small armies of support teams are needed for most climbers to reach the summit.

The way teams manage the perils and challenges of this climb is to use a series of camps (there’s an interesting animation of one such approach to Everest here.) The specifics vary, but in general, teams trek gradually to base camp, where they become accustomed to high altitudes, then they stage a series of increasingly higher trips up the mountain. Climbers move from base camp to camp 1 and back. Then they move toward camps 2, 3 and eventually 4 (with trips back down to various points each time) before finally attempting the summit.

Why go partly up the mountain only to go back down many times over before the final ascent?

To transport gear, yes. But this approach is important to the process of acclimatizing. Climbing to increasingly higher elevations stresses the body, but the body responds to acclimatizing in a way that ultimately enables it to go higher still. Dropping back down after climbing to new heights relieves that stress, enables the body to recover, and allows the climber to rest, sleep, recharge and prepare for the challenge ahead. It makes the next stage of the ascent easier and more productive. This is actually why mountaineers do it.

Why am I telling you this? It’s an approach to consider, even in the face of a crisis. Think of your work in this time of working from home, or being on the front lines, as a serious, high-level ascent. This may be the toughest thing you have ever had to do, both professionally and personally. Plan for it (even though planning time is limited) like you would a major mountain trek.

Staging your own climb

I’ve written about the importance of rest, the value of self-care and the importance of strategies to mitigate burnout. The mountaineering model is a slightly different way of thinking about these same things, but I think it’s useful.

Whatever goal you are tackling or challenge you are facing, you will be more effective and more likely to make it to the top if you build in periods of recovery. You could think about your own base camp as a real place — maybe a retreat within your home or in the natural world — or as simply as a time where you stop and step away from whatever you are working toward. Maybe you move back down the mountain, or maybe you stay put for a period of time, recharging and gathering strength for the next phase of your challenge.

It is also possible, and perhaps even beneficial, to think about this approach in the midst of your COVID-19 experience. Whatever you are being asked to do, think about ways to stage even a short retreat to your own base camp — a quiet zone or a safe space at home or work. Even five minutes, if you can grab it, with attention to your own acclimatization to the craziness around you, can help. If you are inundated with crisis, grief, loss, or fear — for yourself or others — this five minutes may help you reconnect with your own center and allow you to focus on taking a deep breath, getting a drink of water, or just taking a moment of quiet.

How can you create these moments of acclimatization if you are a front-line health care worker, running from crisis to crisis? Create a buddy system with someone, and let that person know what your own base camp looks like. Look at your buddy periodically and just say “base camp.” Then help that person get the five minutes (or three or even one) that they need. They will return the favor for you.

In calmer times, you could bring this thinking to projects with a series of milestones and deadlines, even those on which you collaborate with a team. After a big push through a phase of work, build in some time to reflect on what worked, what didn’t and how you might apply these lessons in the next stage.

You can even use the mountaineering idea to think about the trajectory of your career. When I work with clients who are navigating career transitions, uncertainty and planning, we talk about the life course of careers. We also talk a lot about seasonality in life inside and outside work, which serves as an important reminder that growth does not always look like growth. Sometimes we are moving forward at lightning speed, and sometimes we are moving more slowly or even feel we are moving backwards. But in those times, something important is happening. It is like the bleak weeks of late winter when beneath the ground, plants are preparing for the riot of growth to come. During periods of quiet, frustration or difficulty, we are navigating a natural process that prepares us for what’s next.

When the COVID-19 crisis is over, I think a lot of health care workers will be considering career changes as they reprioritize the things that matter most to them. Using the base camp approach as you think about your own recovery and how you want to move forward may be very helpful.

For those of you navigating the singular challenges posed by our current public health crisis, dropping back to base camp might sound like a luxury you don’t have time for. Especially those of you literally on the front lines of this war. But you will go farther, get more done and – it’s no exaggeration – save more lives, if you can rest, unplug or do something healing in the moments you can.

Your journey

I’m interested in what you think about these ideas. Does the mountaineering model have relevance to your own life? Have you tried anything like this before, and particularly during your experience of the pandemic? Please share your perspective in the comments, or take the conversation to LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter.

Last updated April 22, 2020

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