Imagine setting a goal of seeing the world in all its splendor. You decide to climb a really tall mountain to get the best view. You know it’s going to be an arduous journey, but hey, you only live life once.
But how to get to the top? There’s a tangle of paths before you, and signs pointing every which way, including opposite directions.
You don’t have much to go on, so you choose a path that looks well trekked and offers a gentle slope. You see some people up ahead of you, smile and wave. How exciting to finally be under way!
The hike isn’t always so happy-go-lucky. Sometimes you stumble, and there are times you have your doubts. People on other paths occasionally whiz past or laugh uproariously and give you a wink. You wonder if you should switch paths and join them.
But you stick to the path you’re on, because you’re loyal and you’re already invested so much time and sweat.
And then you reach a plateau.
It’s not unpleasant really, it’s just a dead end. You try to focus on the warmth of the rock, the pretty lichen growing between the cracks. The view is … nice.
Still, it’s not where you wanted to go. It’s not what you wanted to experience.
As you look over your shoulder to the paths behind you, so much becomes clear. You’ve come a long way, yes. But it’s obvious a little more scouting at the base could have helped a lot. You didn’t have to go far to see that many of the paths combine, and more than a few lead right off the edge of a cliff.
The peak is still somewhere above you, beyond a layer of fog. There’s no guarantee that any of the other paths will take you there. There’s not even a guarantee of a better view if you arrive.
You have a choice.
You can either accept where you are as good enough or you can walk back down the mountain, pick another trail based on the new information you have, and try for the summit.
To go higher, try lighter
The trick is to not let your past decisions influence the one in front of you.
Seth Godin, that master of psychology and marketing, recently wrote about the distractions that keep people from following through on the things they want:
People are in pain. Often of their own making, they tell themselves a story that obsesses/distracts and compels them. “I’ll never get a movie gig again,” “I can’t believe they didn’t like what I offered,” […]
If we go back to our mountain climbing analogy, it’s like berating yourself for picking the wrong path, degrading your confidence in your own navigation, while still being unsatisfied with your current location.
If you decide you’re truly happy with the plateau, then enjoy it. Being wrong about your destination can sometimes be a happy accident.
But if you’re still yearning for what could be, then you have to be willing to let go of where you’ve been and how you got there.
All that hiking means you’ll be faster and more sure on your feet. Now you have a map of the alternate routes, so you can make more informed decisions than you did before. You might even convince someone to go along with you, providing companionship and fresh ideas.
Too many people get caught up in their past failures, whether it’s changing careers, losing weight, writing a book, or getting out of debt. Without realizing it, they pace the same path over and over again, promising “this time things will be different,” and then are disappointed to circle back to the same, familiar plateau.
There’s nothing wrong with looking over your shoulder now and then. In fact, in the Harvard Business Review, Art Markman suggests we view the past best from the future
Instead, base your [decisions] (at least in part) on what you hope to say when you look back on your life. You may not always succeed, but are unlikely to look back with regret on those decisions that gave you the opportunity to reach your aspirations. And statistically you are much more likely to look back with regret on the roads not taken.
The biggest challenge most face is lightening their pack.
Learn from your mistakes? Absolutely. But don’t dwell on them.
Toss out your assumptions about what you are or aren’t capable of. Lose the weight of other’s expectations. Untie yourself from the emotion of past events.
When you do that, you might just be surprised to discover what you’ve been carrying with you all along: a rope for scaling to new heights, a hang-glider that introduces you to challenges and vistas you couldn’t have imagined previously.
And if you do that, you won’t just be thankful for the crazy, winding journey you’ve taken to achieve your goals. You’ll be proud.
After all, how else were you to discover what was hiding, unused, in your pack?
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