Rambling #8 – My 10 Lessons from Mountaineering To The Corporate Me

My boss asked “So what did you learn from your mountaineering course?” A very good question… What did I learn besides all the theories & techniques which would be too much & too complicated to explain? I think the stark contrast between mountaineering & business is life & death vs profit & loss. So this is how I would translate them into what I do at work as a project manager & in life everyday:-

1.Courageous Leadership – Destroying My Fears, Self Doubts, Self Limiting Beliefs 

“Courage doesn’t mean you don’t get afraid. Courage means you don’t let fear stop you.”

Just because I signed up for mountaineering course or Nepal 3 Peaks on my own, it doesn’t mean I have no fear. It’s a lot of my time, money & effort. What if I don’t make it? What if I can’t? What if…. what if… what if… If the outcome is negative, everything is down the drain. Or worse, I died. Have I been close to death? Yes at Mera High Camp (5800m). Have I been afraid? Yes many times especially on the moutaineering course where I was confronting my devils everyday until I was intensely overwhelmed. What’s the scariest part? Leading an ice climb for the first time where I couldn’t even see my buddy belaying me from down below. But like Jamie says “Fear is what keeps you alive but at the same time, don’t let it hold you back!” Fear is as big as what you make out of it & let it haunt you mentally. It is uncomfortable indeed. Snow, ice, rocks, altitude… a place where I’ve never played until a few years ago. But I should really be focusing my thoughts on the challenges/issues & the solutions than the emotion of fear itself. Up there, I have no choice. It’s not so easy to come down nor go up once fear HITS. Panic doesn’t help. The more I let fear take over my head, the more futile energy I’m wasting because I’m all tensed up for no reason. Even if you call the helicopter, it would take at least a few hours if not a day & requires a safe landing spot to get to you. So just face it! Find a solution 1 step at a time is the only way. It’s my dream so let’s do it because if I make it, its all worth it!

That’s Lacie coming up & I’m belaying her from a long way down (Photo Credit: Jamie R.)

In business, I face issues everyday. That’s where I add & create value right? The issues & stress are as big as what you let them become because you have to face your clients, bosses etc. I believe the bigger the fear & more uncomfortable something is brewing, the more we should be digging deeper & confront them head on. Worry causes sleepless nights & saps all the energy, too. So let’s just have that tough conversion so that there is a decision be it a gain or a loss & let’s move on! Be bold, confident & courageous to correct the course. It’s money at the end of the day, not life & death. So what is the worst that could happen when I am OK to face life & death challenges right? Lose my job? Ok… too bad I made a BIG mistake… Just get a new one! ๐Ÿ™‚

“If it’s easy, everyone would be doing it.”

Jamie R. (Feb 2019)

2. Risk Profiling & Assessment

It’s the same as what I do everyday at work. It’s all about the subject matter, risk level, probability & impact depending on the landscape of the project. I was questioning Jamie while we were on the ridge of Hochstetter Dome why didn’t we need to clip on from anchor to anchor given it is pretty steep while we did that at an earlier stretch? Here’s his explanation while making me look at the landscape & assess the situation myself:-

Subject Matter: Me & my buddy, Lacie
Risk Level – Medium – Terrain is snow & ice but we have about >3m width at 30 degrees angle to walk in a straight line.
Probability – Low probability of falling over.
Impact – High – Because it’s all the way down the mountain if someone trips & fall.
Therefore, the recommendation is… For the sake of speed, roping up to one another will do because even if someone falls, the other one can still stop the fall, setup an anchor & pull each other up.

Besides that, it’s also about the micro & macro assessment including glacier travel. Viola! So this is the thought process I use everyday at work just with a different landscape! However, sometimes I do find it difficult to rightly quantify the risks & articulate them.

How would you risk assess this? On the ridge of Hochstetter Dome (Photo Credit: Jamie R.)

3. Team Work

You are as fast or as skillful as the fastest or most skillful person in your team. Similar to sailing, team work in mountaineering requires many sequential activities that has to be in sync. You’re roped up to your team or at least another person. A small mistake could mean a matter of life & death! For instance, not observing &/or “feeling” how your buddy is climbing in terms of speed, direction & terrain while you’re belaying could literally pull your buddy off the mountain or worse still snag the rope! Or if your buddy starts climbing without realizing that you are still in process of putting him/her on belay but not yet ready could mean serious injury or death if he or she falls. Also, you never say “It’s not my job!”. Recall me saying in my journal on how Lacie, my buddy was told off by our instructor because I was a tripping hazard & she didn’t correct me?? Safety is everyone’s duty & responsibility.

In project management, if you’re not sequential or in sync, you could be putting the entire project at risk in terms of investments or timelines. However, if you & your buddy/team are so used to working/climbing together in a certain manner, you would fully understand each other’s working/climbing style with trust & confidence that you’ve got each other’s back & its a lot easier to work together with synchronicity, pushing limits & taking risks together. Team work should be seamlesss, playing to each other’s strengths, accepting each other’s mistakes, correct them & constantly communicating.

Nevertheless, I have also learned to be more patient with myself & others, more empathy & kind, more understanding & encouraging than criticizing. Through sailing & mountaineering, I have met so many amazing people who have treated me this way even when I was struggling which has been a key enabler for me to grow. Therefore, I will continue to treat others the same way I’ve been treated & pass on the positive karma.

4. Language & Communication

At the beginning of the course, each team has to agree on the 3 very basic commands that we would use before climbing each pitch. Keep the communication LOUD, CLEAR & CONCISE. For instance, always shout your buddy’s name, followed by 1 of the commands we agreed to:-

  • Give / take / lower
  • Slack / tight / lower

Even the weather update was CLEAR & CONCISE… 1 location, 1 hut at a time except for an Italian dude in another hut who didn’t realize its a weather update for everyone in the mountain range & not just his hut. LOL.

Weather Update on Kelman Hut (Photo Credit: Karina W.)

Of course, I won’t be shouting in the office but you get what I mean about effective communication between all the different functions especially between business & technical teams. Always translate technical jargons & issues into layman terms & business = dollars & time! Again, in climbing, it is a matter of life & death but in business, its unnecessary lost of time caused by ineffective communication, wasted money & probably a lot of my frustration!

5. Discovering My Own Style 

Life becomes much more simpler & effortless when you’re working with your own style. It creates capacity to do more & tackle more complex challenges. Everyone is wired differently & has different strengths & weaknesses. In mountaineering, we come in different shapes & sizes, different levels of fitness & flexibility, different strengths & weaknesses in different climates, terrains etc. I was getting very frustrated with myself after 2 days on the glacier. Ironically, I was feeling at my lowest on summit day. I kept facing this 1 most annoying situation. It was the dangly bits going beyond my knee & getting yelled by the instructors for being a tripping hazard. My buddy, Lacie, got told off, too for not being thorough with safety checks, looking out for me & adhering to safety standards. I couldn’t understand why, when I did exactly what I was taught & did the same as everyone else. We would set off OK and somewhere during the travel, things came lose & here we go again! One evening, I decided to troubleshoot & test everything on me, my harness & my pack. I figured that I shouldn’t follow what everyone else were doing because it’s just not working. I’m shorter meaning when bits come lose, there was no margin of error in the safe zone above my knee despite everything was still tightly fastened to my karabiners.

Solution:-
1. Tie up prusiks & slings differently on my harness instead of using twists.
2. Clip my ice screws & ice stake on my pack vs harness.
3. Lock ice axe & ice hammer to the front of my pack on the bungee vs hanging on my harness

Problem solved – From that day onwards, Team Hunny Bun with lots of fun were happily hopping from peak to peak. Obviously, I had little experience about ALPINE & GLACIER travel. Karma Sherpa did most things for me in Nepal and so I was oblivious. But now I know, what to do & what not to do. Everything became a lot simpler, less effort & purely focused on tackling the real challenges of climbing walls, peaks & summits vs stupid dangling bits!

Same thing at work or in life, when I sorted out all the trivial matters (like my major toothache that put life to a halt) & de-clutter (my phone, inbox & closet), I seem to be able to dance to my own rhythm better & more focused on my goals, dreams & destinations. It feels great to be able to tackle only what matters & things seem to fall in place eventually. It feels as if the Universe is trying to grant me my wishes and all I have to do is keep working hard & stay focused. Truthfully, I’m still working on this one. It’s a big discipline to adopt. So let’s see!

“Always climb a level up, find your own style, learn & be prepared to fail but never give up because when you make it, you’re already there & ready for more!”

Jamie R. (Feb 2019)

7. The Danger of Illusion

Just because you’ve been doing something for the past 10 years does not mean that you are right nor does it mean it’s the best way or you’re safe. It’s because perhaps you don’t realize you’re doing it wrong or there’s a better way or the environment has changed! Did you know that the glaciers can move up to 30m per week or even more? The weather changes by the minutes & hours. Climbing styles evolve with technology over the years enabling climbers climb longer distances, surviving in more extreme climates etc. So how well do you adapt, evolve & anticipate? Roy was telling us a story that a former student he taught did not realize he had been using his harness dangerously for the past 15 years because he was shown the incorrect way of using his double locking loop! He was caught in his own safety illusion thinking he was safe but in fact he was not! I think this guy must be a very lucky man to not have fallen off at any point in time!

Similarly, in business, the environment is dynamic & always changing. If you don’t change, how do you stay relevant? How do you beat your competitors & be ahead of the game? For instance, if I have a breakthrough product say a new kind of laundry detergent (just making stuff up) & it takes X amount of time to do it. If I don’t challenge conventions to drive breakthrough then we will never be ahead of the game. Similarly, if I overestimated my schedule for acceleration, it’s just a dream that will not come true within the planned timeframe anyway! So best advice to myself – I must not be caught in my own illusion or just because someone says so! I know I’m always dreaming but I’m also always thinking on how to deliver my dreams with faster, better & bigger with my ever inquisitive mind!

8. Fun & Celebration

Peaks & summits are like key milestones & goals. In mountaineering or any competitive sport per se – its blood, sweat & tears. Nothing that dramatic in business… just dollars, sweat & stress I guess. But if there’s no fun & celebration in playing the game you enjoy – the team, the journey, the company towards a common goal… then why bother?? Life is too short to be miserable & meaningless. Someone once asked me “Why is your team always giggling?”. Because we enjoy each other’s company, facing challenges together, playing games against others & giggling about our issues while tackling them head on. Just because we’re having fun doesn’t mean we’re not serious about our business. We overdelivered double digit growth year on year & delivered 2x the number of projects we managed!!

Celebrating the day & done with the dishes! (Photo credit: Mike H.)

9. Don’t forget to Rest!

“If you’re tired, you rest! You DON’T GIVE UP because you CAN DO IT!”

Matt who wouldn’t let me down the ice wall!

Pace yourself & schedule time to rest. On the mountains, I start counting when the going gets though & sometimes lost count but its OK, just start again because counting helps me to pace myself. This is what I did on 2 occassions:-

  • 3 Peaks – 1 Peak, 1 Day, 1 Step, 1 Breath & 1 Heartbeat at a time.. Pause & repeat
  • Ice Climbing – 1 Pick, 1 Kick, 1 Breath & 1 Heartbeat at a time… Pause & repeat
Day 18 – View from Island Peak (6189m), my final peak in Nepal Oct 2018
Tasman Glacier for Ice Wall Climbing in NZ Feb 2019

At work, in my head its 1 Project, 1 Key Milestone, 1 Issue, 1 Conference Call, 1 Day at a time… Sleep & repeat. I realized that sports & training actually helps me recover from my corporate job. This is something that I have to constantly remind myself. Even during my competitive tennis days, I was so obsessed with the sport that Coach Francis used to regulate my non-tennis days to ensure peak performance for the next tournament.

“Resting is part of training… Go & play something else except tennis!”

Tennis Coach, Francis S.

10. Life as 1 Big Project

The amazing thing is after each adventurous endeavor, it actually makes me stronger, fitter & healthier in all aspects mentally, physically & emotionally… that I look forward to my job. Like all things I do, I want to do well & excel… Then, as I tire out, I would set my eyes on the next adventure. And, because I’m committed, it forces me to make time to rejuvenate through training (which includes eat, sleep, exercise well), dreaming & preparing for the next adventure & then repeat. It also gives my bank account a break when I alternate between the work & adventures… Adventures ain’t cheap & I’m self sponsored!

That face when I finished my last peak on Island Peak (6189m) (Photo Credit: Karma Sherpa)
That face when I finished my mountaineering school – Sailing is my resting โค

I guess at this stage I found my happiness wheel. And since I am happy & contented at heart in general, I am also making everyone else around me happy & fun like a Fun Shine Bear โค …. Team Mighty Mouse & Team Hunny Bun… Team PGP, too I hope… I shall ask them since I’ve spent 4 months in my current job. Someone told me last week, “I signed up to you because you’re fun, committed & you make things happen!” Alright… Let’s game on! So it has taken me this long to realize but I think found it. I’m on a journey not a race. Peace out โค

“What you get by achieving your goals is not as important as what you become by achieving your goals.

Henry D. Thoreau

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