We’ve all been conditioned to think about our careers and our lives as a mountain to climb. And, as you can imagine, there are some unintended consequences to seeing our lives as one big mass to surmount. Because what happens when you find yourself stalled in your climb? You’re hanging there, suspended only by a support harness and some carabineers, wondering how you’re going to find the motivation, the energy, or the path to go higher.
For most of my adult life, I have been climbing a mountain. Especially when it comes to my career. I have worked tirelessly—sometimes insanely—to move up. Degrees, promotions, more money, you name it. The goal was to go up. To where? Who knows. But this is how we have all been taught to think about ourselves, our careers, and our lives. Linear ascents to great heights.
A year ago, I found myself at a weird moment in my life (in all our lives) that I could only describe as hanging out in my harness, propelling off the middle of a mountain, too afraid to look down, and too exhausted to care what’s at the top.
It was the start of the pandemic and suddenly my career came to a screeching halt. Classes moved online. More than 20 keynotes I was scheduled to deliver were cancelled overnight. Pitching my next book idea to editors was put on pause. On top of that, I was handed 1st and 4th grade math books and told “good luck.”
The climb was suddenly halted, and I couldn’t do anything about it but dangle. Hold still and survive.
But when all you’ve ever been told to do with your career, with your life, is to climb, hanging out feels uncomfortable. So as I dangled, at a standstill, desperate to move, my eyes shifted toward the mountain. And I wondered: why has the emphasis always been on what’s at the top of the mountain; why have we never stopped to wonder instead, what’s inside?
I’d wager it’s because we’ve always prioritized moving fast. And moving up. But we’ve never prioritized moving deep.
So as I stared at the side of the mountain, I began to wonder what would happen if I stopped my ascent, and focused on the horizontal. That is to say, what if instead of up, I went in?
What if, instead of climbing, I dug?
And dug I did.
I worked to pump the breaks instead of hit the gas
You’d be surprised how much the pressure of time can make you do weird things. Like when you have a plumbing issue in the middle of the night that, of course, needs to be solved quickly, you react in ways that aren’t like your typical self. For instance, when this happened to us, I believed the sound of gushing water was just the wind (denial) and Jim believed he had somehow magically become a plumber (delusion). Time brings pressure and with it, we bend into unusual shapes.
But often, we don’t realize we are operating in panic mode—being pushed by the pressure of time—in our career and life decisions. The number of people who’ve reached out to me certain they need a new job, right now, is endless. And I’m not talking about unemployed people. I’m talking about gainfully employed people who are certain that moving up (or moving on) is always the solution to their problem, and, therefore, as quickly as possible is always the timeline.
Now, to be clear, I’m the Queen of moving fast. My sister constantly reminds me of the time I decided in one day I wanted another dog for our family, and three days later, we had a puppy named Daisy, vaccinated, micro-chipped, and sleeping at our feet. So, as you can imagine, when I’m dangling in my harness at the side of the mountain, my natural instinct is to work against the slowness.
To climb up and to climb fast.
Yet, this past year I was forced to stare at that side of the mountain until I felt strong enough to go into it. And can you guess what I found down deep?
That speed is never the answer.
Well, speed is part of the answer during plumbing issues. But otherwise, speed is not a solution, merely a response. And for so long, swiftness was my go-to method. And just like a strong foot on the gas pedal of a stuck car, all it did was spin up mud.
But this past year, speed wasn’t an option. All I could do was go slow. At the university, and with my keynotes, I could no longer rely on high energy pacing around the classroom or the stage to keep students and audiences engaged and energized. Instead, I had to sit down in front of a screen, hold still, and talk slowly. I found that slowing down a course can bring out more interesting questions and give space for quieter students. Slowing down during a keynote means that reflective questions could pop up in the Zoom chat during my delivery, allowing for more customized and relevant content.
And, instead of rushing from six in the morning until ten o’clock at night, we suddenly found ourselves at home all the time, going to bed when we were tired and waking up when we were rested. Without the rush to activities, we were free to fill our time in different ways—reading, walking, spending time together doing absolutely nothing—that we were never afforded when we were rushing. The slowness of our life let me see my kids up close. I was able to clearly see their learning styles, their sleeping patterns, the things that make them worry, the things that bring them joy. It allowed me to watch my husband work. Tasks or meetings he used to come home and tell me about were playing out in front of me. All these beautiful bits of information about my daughters, my husband, and myself had been hiding in plain sight. I had just been too busy climbing the mountain so fast I hadn’t slowed down long enough to go deep within it.
Perhaps you’re feeling like you don’t know what to do next. Unsure what your next move should entail. Unclear what your next haircut might be (hint: it is not bangs). At the very moment you feel yourself pressured by time, when you feel the intense desire to get moving on something, that’s the very moment you need to slow down—maybe even stop—look around, and dig in.
Because when you aren’t going fast, you’re able to go deep.
I realized knowledge isn’t to own; it is to experience
We’ve been taught to prioritize the accumulation of knowledge. We go to conferences to expand our understanding. We are sent to trainings to improve our skills. We go to college to earn degrees. And yet, in that, the emphasis is on the proof that we have the knowledge. We earned it. We own it.
Imagine how that influences our climb. If we earn knowledge—a class, a degree, or a certification—it serves as a rock we can put our foot on and push up. Therefore, the owning of knowledge is our priority. I see this up close every day in my role as a college educator. Naturally, students pursue a degree because they believe it will turn into a better future (and for any students reading this, don’t worry, it will!). But to focus on owning knowledge (a class, a certification, a degree) is to focus on the climb up the mountain. It is not, however, focused on the mountain itself.
When it comes to learning, the worst thing to focus on is the achievement of it. When a student asks to meet with me in the middle of a semester, I often assume it will be for a better understanding of the course material, or to get assistance with an upcoming assignment. But the meeting is almost always about what courses they should take next year. Or how to speed up their graduation date. Or what they should do after graduation. Now, to be clear, I love these conversations. And that is part of my role in their lives—career planning. However, I often find myself pushing students to think about what they learned about themselves during the current semester. Or asking them to reflect on what they are most curious about right now. Essentially, I’m pushing them to slow down and focus on what’s in front of them.
Which is to say, when you stop worrying about the top of the mountain, you can truly see the side you are currently facing.
This happens well before college, mind you. My elementary-aged children, who have been virtual schooling for more than a year, quickly figured out only certain assignments were worth points. That is, if there were 20 posted assignments for the week, only five were graded. Guess what their strategy became? And, as you might guess, to focus solely on those five assignments was not a successful approach. My children quickly figured out that, without doing the previous 15 lessons, they had no idea what was going on in the graded assignments. They would then become defeated, often feeling ashamed and worried about their grade, which derailed any hope of ever understanding the material.
Imagine how we feel about our knowledge when we think of it as something we earn and keep? There is nothing more humbling than having advanced degrees but still needing to rely on Google to help my fourth grader with her math homework. Didn’t I already earn fourth grade knowledge? Nope. I simply experienced it. And when I had to test that knowledge, during one unfortunate night of tears next to a frustrated 9-year-old, I realized I never really did have it. Or if I did, I lost it somewhere along the way. And obviously I felt so critical of myself, betrayed even, that I couldn’t remember the best way to multiply fractions without giving it some thought (and some Googling).
That’s because on the climb, in our quest to ascend, we look for footing to hoist us up—accomplishments, degrees, titles. And yet, that’s not how knowledge works. It isn’t meant to be owned, it’s meant to be experienced. Tested. Used. So the idea that my children are spending most of their weeks working on assignments that count for absolutely nothing—not a single point—thrills me. Because they’ve been forced this year to let go of the climb (my gosh, think about how much we talk about children either being ahead or behind!) and they’ve embraced the dig.
I worried more about how it felt than how it looked
During the past year, the way I think about my career has shifted. Before this year, I would have said my career was being seen, standing in front of a classroom facilitating a discussion, or standing in front of an audience delivering a keynote. Now, I would say the bulk of my work happens in private—one-on-one meetings with students, coaching sessions with clients, and writing alone in my office. The most important work I do is the work no crowd sees.
In truth, nothing has changed about how my career looks. I’m still in front of audiences and classes, and my writing is still regularly published. But what I work the hardest on are those moments only experienced by me, and, at most, one other person. Which is to say, I invest more in a single session with a client, or a single advisory meeting with a student, or a single piece of writing, than I do in an hour keynote in front of hundreds. You know why? Because while I care very deeply about the public-facing aspects of my career, I love the way the work I do when no one is watching makes me feel.
Simply changing my focus—from how my career might look, to how my career makes me feel—changed everything. For one, it made me focus deeply on how I do my work, not what my work looks like. I thought more about how writing makes me feel, not how many copies of my books have sold. I focused more on each student’s needs, and less on our program recruitment numbers. I worked harder on joining a client when they were in a moment of specific distress, rather than talking in generalities to large groups.
What other people see me do—titles I hold, books I write, keynotes I give—is great, of course. I still value my time on stage, and in the classroom, and on a bookshelf. But where I feel my work is most important—most impactful—is in a private room writing or listening.
Can you imagine how you might think about your own career if you focused more on how it made you feel rather than how it looked? You might focus less on titles, or prestige, or praise (though all are wonderful) and more on the way you feel. You might notice when you come alive. The way your energy changes when you do something at which you are truly skilled.
As you dangle on the side of the mountain, you might worry that people below are watching how high you’ve climbed. You might worry that those higher than you are critical you haven’t reached their heights yet. But to face the mountain, and dig in, you might begin to see that, as you go deeper, you may flourish most when you are no longer visible to those above and below you.
There will always be the desire to climb. The breeze on our face as we lift. Our muscles getting stronger as we ascend. And a good change of scenery—and a better view—are always worth the struggle. But remember, there is nothing inherently better about the top of a mountain than the side of it. The mountain is still the mountain, no matter where you are on it.
And this past year, I think I finally internalized this. That what’s deep inside the mountain is far more important—and a far better journey—than what’s outside and on top.
And that, sometimes, the best way to reach great heights is to go deep within.
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