Recently I’ve been asked to give a presentation to my colleagues about myself. I didn’t want this to be your usual presentation about my family, my previous career or an opportunity to show off my portfolio. Instead, I decided to give a talk that would hopefully inspire them. And if not, one where they could look at some amazing pictures of mountains.
In my everyday life I do many things. And one of those things is climbing. If you would like to know what kind of person I am, it’s easy to see by just looking at what climbing means to me.
It all started long ago with love for the outdoors and mountains in particular (even though I come from the coast of what is mainly a lowland country). I loved mountain biking and hiking. Eventually I decided to take this further. And then a disaster struck – a fear of heights. I never even suspected I may have had one (although I believe I never used to until after one serious incident in my life when I learned how fragile life is). Anxiety was standing between me and getting more out of life and also my career. So instead of saying goodbye to my dreams, I decided to learn to climb.
Climbing a mountain is like a journey we experience in our careers. It has many stages. Some of them happen more then once or never, or in different combinations.
You start with a great ambition. You look up at your goal, which may be clear or sometimes obscured by clouds. You’re unaware of the journey ahead. You start scrambling up.
Scrambling was my metaphor for education and gaining experience in order to become a designer I am today. A lot of people think it should be straightforward: you are an arty kid, you go to art school, you graduate and hey presto – you become a designer. And I’m sure there are many people for whom the scramble looked exactly like this. But mine was a bit more rocky. I didn’t go to art school at all. However, I have two degrees: one science-related and the other one a little bit more arty. None in design. After years of supporting myself as a design freelancer, I understood that design was where my heart was.
I’ve been made to feel worse for not having a design degree by some people, but through years of experience I learned it has no effect on the quality of my work. In fact, I have a large scope of knowledge that contributes to my projects in a way that makes me proud.
During your scramble you may come across two sections: a crux and a plateau. A Crux is a section that looks impossible to overcome. It’s steep, it’s challenging and it surely makes you feel like you will fall to your death if you attempt to climb it. But the key is to try and most importantly: believe in yourself. I encountered many cruxes in my career. Some worse than others that almost had me retreat entirely. But they also teach you valuable lessons and the next time you have to face them, you know how to deal with them.
A plateau is a flat ground and a complete opposite to a crux. It allows you to grab a breather, have some food and drink, which after a hard scramble, makes it tempting to just stay. But the problem is that the flat ground doesn’t exert or teach you anything. It gets boring quickly and before you know it, you lose your motivation. It often happens that we stick around our career plateaus because it’s convenient. It may be close to home, the money is ok and the job isn’t too demanding. But we’re losing on career prospects, trading happiness for convenience and not making the most of who we are. If you ever feel like you’ve hit a plateau, remember that there is a wonderful journey ahead of you – whether it’s moving roles within the same workplace or changing your job altogether. So eat, drink and leave.
Climbing is the most exciting part of the ascent. You can finally use everything you’ve learned so far. This is where I am at the moment. Going to work every day is never painful. The only pain I feel is muscle pain, which makes me feel like I’ve earned something. I am able to use my knowledge, skills and talent to its full potential and I want more. And all this means I finally feel happy.
What climbing and mountaineering taught me about goals is that the ultimate goal doesn’t exist. So don’t feel bad when you don’t know where you want to be in 5 years time. Don’t feel bad if you don’t even know where you want to be in a year’s time, while your colleagues have a plan drawn for the next decade. Chances are their plans will change significantly over that time. Once you’ve reached one peak there will always be another higher, more difficult, more enticing mountain to climb. This is why I never make my long term plans specific. Because at the end of the day, something may happen tomorrow that will change everything.
So did I ever defeat my fear of heights successfully? The short answer is: no. But knowledge is what gives me power to control the fear and grab it by its cojones before it gets out of control. And this is key – understand that fear is normal and learn the most about what it is that terrifies you. It will give you technical, scientific and practical knowledge to make the scary controllable.