I climb high mountains. I’d like to offer you three lessons I’ve learned in the mountains; climbing lessons if you will.
I’ve discovered over the years that there are many “mountains” in life. These lessons can be applied liberally. Each is entirely relevant to writing books.
Lesson 1: There are many paths that lead to the top
As you set off up any of these mountain of life, you’ll discover that there are thousands of possible footpaths: That twisty little trail over scree; up along the boulders just past the ravine; the well-marked fire road littered with empties. There’s no one “right” way.
Don’t let the fear of the unknown, the unseeable, paralyze you. You can choose any one of them. Just be sure the choice is yours alone.
When I first came out of college, I hadn’t the faintest clue who I was. I’d taken up the study of chemistry simply to impress some guy. I failed to take into account that I possessed no scientific curiosity and that I hated math. Poised to go out into the work world, to take a laboratory job I knew I’d hate, I was desperate to find an out, an alternative.
I believed then that there was only one correct path and that I didn’t have the capacity to find it. Worse, I was convinced that I had no map. And would never find one. One false move and I’d pitch over some ledge. I needed to latch onto someone—anyone, other than me— who would lead me through the fog. I wanted someone to rescue me.
My older, Iranian boyfriend seemed to know exactly where to go. He impressed me as a knowledgeable guide, one who could show a lost girl like me around. So sure of himself, so comfortable in his own skin, so confident in his opinions; his essence seemed an elixir to the rudderless girl I was. I saw him as my personal North Star.
Shortly after he conceded to marrying me, we moved to Iran. What started off as the perfect escape for an aimless girl—living in a place where no one expected much from her because she could barely speak the language, or navigate the culture, a place where she could act like a baby with very few responsibilities— turned into a bad Middle Eastern sitcom. I discovered that the price I had to pay for a tour guide was way too steep. If I wanted to end up in a crevasse on a distant mountainside, I could have found it on my own.
Choose your own path up the mountain of your life. There are so many exciting possibilities, so many ways to express your own true self. Each of us is born with our own GPS unit. Trust your instincts. Someone else’s map—I promise—may be all wrong for you.
Lesson 2: The hardest route is usually not the right one
There’s a saying in mountain climbing that I really love: If it’s too hard, you’re off route. And while I believe there are no mistakes in life, only lessons to be learned, you’ve likely made a wrong turn when things are just too damn hard.
I got off course when I married my Iranian boyfriend. Not only did I end up in the wrong place, living in the Islamic Republic of Iran, I lost myself. I’d allowed my overwhelming desire to be rescued by him, to evade all adult responsibility, to cloud my judgment. I lost the ability to be selective, to recognize what I required in a mate.
When he’d expressed reservations about marrying an American, not a virgin from the village, I vowed that I would win him over, prove his reluctance unfounded. A great relationship, after all, wasn’t so much about finding the right person as it was about being the right person. I decided to change everything I could about myself— the way I dressed, interacted with men, and how I thought. I tossed out my shorts and bathing suits. I knocked off the flirting and joking and treated men like Ebola carriers. After a while, I’d hoped, he’d see how perfect we were for each other.
Not surprisingly, life in Iran was untenable. I was lonely and frustrated and isolated. I had a difficult time making friends with Iranians. I could never reveal who I really was, an American who’d lost her virginity at fifteen in the backseat of a car.
I’d shoved my BS degree in a drawer and abandoned everything that I’d known. Instead of leading that fantasized life of high adventure—camping with Bedouins, exploring the tombs of Alexander the Great and Darius III— I spent my days alone, in a dumpy dorm room, with a baby and Frank, a six-inch cockroach that regularly crawled out of my toilet.
My mistakes were made in the romantic arena, but the same concept holds in the career world. If it’s too hard, you’ve made the wrong choice. If the real, authentic you has no business being in the job you’ve wrangled, you will never be happy. Ever lied on a resume? Ever, in all your cleverness, altered the results of a personality test to ensure that you get the job? Well, I’m talking to you.
When I’m on route on a high mountain, there’s a rhythm, a flow. When I’m lost, there’s frustration and struggle. It’s true in all of life. Find what flows for you in life. And if there’s too much struggle, stop and reassess. Get back on the path. You can find the way.
The one thing that you don’t get when you’re young? When the right person, or situation, or job comes along, you won’t have to pretend to be someone that you’re not.
Lesson 3: To persist to the summit is the key to self-worth
There’s a reason people climb mountains, and it’s not because they’re there. People climb mountains to reach higher, to test their mettle, to prove something to themselves.
Find a summit in your life – something audacious, something grand, like writing a book – and go for it.
I love what Dr. Laura Schlesinger says in her book 10 Stupid Things That Women Do to Mess Up Their Lives (if you haven’t read it, you really should):
Go make yourself feel like you have purpose on this earth. Go feel like your existence makes the world different. Go do something that gives your life meaning. Your choice in men will improve. We only go after, and we only accept, what we think we deserve. Go back to school—go become yourself. Dream, reach….When you dare to dream, dare to follow that dream, dare to suffer through the pain, sacrifice, self-doubts, and friction from the world—when you show courage and tenacity—you will genuinely impress yourself.
At the age of 35, fresh after returning to the States after five years of struggling in Iran, still stinging from my divorce, I had to unearth my authentic self. More important, to keep from repeating the same mistakes that took me way, way off course, I had to WOW myself.
I began this journey with running. What started as a weight loss gimmick, evolved into a spiritual transformation. Running gave me, for the very first time, confidence, pride, space, and the ability to cope. I discovered the joy of the job well done. I learned, in the words of author George Sheehan, how to handle pain and give an improbable effort, and do it all alone.
At 38, I went back to school and rediscovered my passion for writing. I began exploring all the fears I had about myself, about my own worth. The things I read inspired me to share my secrets, thereby releasing me from their hold. Somewhere among those pages, I got the permission I needed to get real. Three years and a lot of miles later, me, myself, and I earned a writing degree from Harvard.
Every year I try something daring because facing down fear is how great things start.
Now I climb big mountains. And run ultra-marathons. I married an astounding, loving man who values me. I write books. I finally figured out what I never could when I was young: to be an adult, a whole integral person, you have to make mistakes, get off course, endure discomfort, and doubt yourself. You have to endure. The knowledge that you can reach the summit despite the setbacks is what puts the strut in your step.