Choosing the Right Mountain

In April 2011, a group of friends from Britain decided to climb Britain’s 3 highest mountains to raise money for Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research in memory of their friend, Wayne Wilson, who died from leukemia in January, aged just 26. They started the trek with a noble cause and great cheer, took a wrong turn and happily carried on oblivious to their mistake. They did start having misgivings soon enough when the climb turned out to be much steeper than they had anticipated. But, they carried on. They were British after all; stiff upper lip and all that! They finally reached the peak, realized their mistake, proceeded to get injured and then get lost, and finally had to be rescued. This adventure of mishaps got so much media attention that they ended up making more than 10,000 pounds for charity, way more than they hoped for. Later, Damien Davis, the leader of the expedition, was also selected to carry the Olympic torch next year.

When I read that story for the first time, I laughed for 5 minutes straight. I sobered up pretty quickly though when I thought about how it would have felt. The sense of waste, the sense of frustration our misguided heroes must have felt at the mountain peak. And sure, they got a happy ending and a great story to tell their grandkids someday, but not all of us are that lucky. Sometimes, we spend decades scaling a treacherous mountain and finally realize that it was a fruitless exercise. In fact, we probably never even admit to ourselves that we climbed the wrong mountain. It takes self-awareness and courage to even acknowledge this to our own self. We learn to live with the sense of disquiet.

I watched a podcast recently where Tucker Max talked about how empty he felt as a best selling author of multiple books about “fratire” and raunchy stories. He got a movie made on his life. That is a successful as it gets in that genre. His success got him money and fame but he still felt empty. He was on the peak of the mountain. He had climbed it giving it his all for years but, he didn’t want to be there anymore. Fortunately for him, he was only in his 30s and had more money than he could burn. He proceeded on the long and arduous journey down the mountain, spent some time doing therapy and self-reflection to figure out what the right mountain was for him and to his credit, he has been climbing it ever since. He went from a person I used to despise a few years ago to someone I admire.

A lot of us are stuck on a wrong path. Sometimes we realize this but more often, we don’t. We just swat away at this feeling whenever it tries to rise and double down at whatever we are engaged in. Nothing wrong with this. Climbing any mountain has a lot of benefits. It brings comfort, security, status, a feeling of fitting it. What it doesn’t bring is a sense of meaning in our lives.

So, what makes a mountain wrong or right for us? I think that’s deeply personal and subjective. If my purpose is to be rich, the mountain should give me more riches as the climb gets tougher. If it’s comfort, it should be one that’s easy to climb. If it’s company, there should be a lot many climbers and the journey is the point rather than the destination. But if my aim is to find meaning in my life, I first of all need to know what is it that gives that meaning. The lucky ones already know this as a child. But some of us have to go on a long quest in pursuit of this answer. The quest to find what is meaningful for me and then the quest to scale that mountain.

I met a girl once on a flight to Bangalore. She was super sweet and super smart and we got along like a house on fire. She told me how after being a software engineer for a few years, she just changed her trajectory, quit her job and started working with a non-profit organization working with at-risk youths. It’s been a few years since that chance encounter. I don’t even remember her name anymore. But I vividly remember that conversation. I remember how her eyes shone when she talked about her work. I remember how envious I felt and how inspired. She had found her mountain. In a job that paid less than her previous one, in a society where people are judged by the size of their bank balance, she had found her north star and had the courage and the conviction to follow it.

Ever since India got independence in 1947, people have been under tremendous stress. After centuries of being looted and plundered by the British, we were struggling to stand back on our feet. In that environment, our parents prioritized our physical and financial wellbeing. They did their best and truly centered their lives around ensuring stability and security for ours, comfort was next and dreams didn’t feature on the list. Can we really blame them though? That was the correct value system for those days and had it not been our parents, we would have been influenced by our friends, teachers, the media. It wasn’t a conducive environments for breaking out of the mold.

But what about now? The world is in a different place today. We can afford to be braver, bolder, crazier. The internet has democratized opportunities. A lot of things including knowledge is at our fingertips. It’s easier to learn, make and sell. It’s up to us to have the courage to do so. And even more important, is to allow our kids to follow their own unique paths. Don’t kill their dreams. Allow them to be thinkers, creators, artists, leaders… If a country is only churning out doctors and engineers and aspiring to fill the outsourcing requirements of American companies, isn’t it a time to step back and ask some hard questions?

We all love looking at butterflies. They are uniquely, hauntingly beautiful. They only live for a few days, but make us feel alive. A brick on the other hand is sturdy, it conforms and you can’t tell one brick from another. It’s also dead. What would you rather dream of?

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