As someone who’s wired to achieve, I’m usually focused on the outcome or impact of whatever I’m doing. I want it to matter. I want it to be significant.
Because of this, I can find myself wishing the process or journey would just hurry up already, so I could arrive at the goal and be rewarded for my efforts. Yet, even when I get there, I rarely do a good job of celebrating what I’ve accomplished. I up the ante and focus on whatever the next mountain is that I want to climb, quickly moving on. I’m often in a state of forward movement and rarely in a state of grateful reflection.
This tendency was challenged this weekend when my husband and I were hiking in the Adirondack Mountains of Upstate New York. To give you some context, Adirondack Park is the largest state park within the contiguous U.S., covering about six million acres of land. It’s larger than Yosemite, Yellowstone, Glacier, Grand Canyon, and the Great Smokies National Parks combined. My mom spent her summers in Upstate New York as a child, and it has become my family’s slice of heaven on earth.
My husband and I spend at least a week there each year, and part of each trip includes a hike. This year we opted to climb the 13th highest peak, a 13.4-mile round trip. We always check the weather forecast a few days prior to deciding which day we will hike and try to pick the clearest day, so we can guarantee the best views at the summit.
Many of these hikes can be quite grueling, filled with open rock scrambles and relentlessly steep grades. We’ve climbed dozens of mountains in the region and about ten High Peaks, so we know what to expect. We pack plenty of water and snacks, and enjoy being surrounded by the smell of cedar and the beauty of ponds, evergreens, and views of other mountains along the way.
The ultimate prize is reaching the summit, where we typically eat our lunch, remove our boots and let our scrunched toes breathe, and take in the breath-taking views of the Adirondack Park. No matter how long or difficult the hike is, the summit views are always worth it and the promise of their respite motivates us to keep moving.
When you’re with someone for an entire day and disconnected from technology, as is the case during hikes like these, you end up with hours of time for conversation. As we hiked, my husband, Bill, and I brainstormed ideas for a couples’ communication series we want to bring to our community. We talked about our vision, our experiences, and what we want to teach as a result of what we’ve learned.
In the 12 years we’ve been together, we’ve learned a lot about how to create a psychologically safe space in our relationship for the other person to feel seen, heard, supported and validated. We’ve been taught skills and given tools to help us communicate and connect deeply, authentically and meaningfully. Each of us has been open to growing and becoming more fully ourselves in the process. We’ve chosen to invest in our marriage because we believe it is the bedrock of all good things to come in each of our lives. We believe we have more to offer the world as a unit than either of us ever could individually.
Distracted by our conversation, a couple of miles into the hike we noticed clouds rolling in, as a fog settled in around us on our ascent.
The forecast said partly cloudy and promised to be a pleasant day. What was happening?
As we continued to climb, we stopped at lookout points and glanced behind us, only to be met with more fog and clouds. When we were about a mile or so from the summit, we saw other hikers descending.
“I’m guessing the views at the top are everything I’m hoping they will be?!” I jokingly asked a fellow hiker.
He laughed and smiled, “Oh yeah, you can’t see a thing up there!”
We’d come all that way and were about six miles into the hike, only to find out that we’d been working toward nothing, no views at the top. No prize at the end of the race.
Each time we saw another group of hikers descending, they said the same thing: “No views today. You’re basically in a cloud at the summit.”
There was no turning back at this point. We had no choice but to keep going. Finally, we reached the top, where we had hoped to see beautiful views of the Great Range and find respite from nearly seven miles of hiking.
We found no such thing.
It was windy, chilly, and visibility was zero.
You literally couldn’t see beyond the trees at the top of the mountain down to the side below, much less the vast mountain range we were expecting. It seemed we were floating in the clouds, standing on the precipice of nothingness. We’d never experienced anything like it.
We met a couple from New Jersey at the summit, and all we could do was laugh about the situation. “Well, that was worth it!” we mused. Water droplets clung to our husbands’ facial hair. A faint, grocery-store-type mist filled the air, creating a dampness that none of us could escape. We couldn’t believe our luck in choosing a mountain that was supposed to have such a beautiful view on a day when it was literally sitting in a cloud. We hurried through eating our lunches, eager to descend before any rain came and to escape the windy mist.
Bill and I looked at each other and laughed as we began the four-hour descent down what were now slippery rocks. We were bummed we didn’t get to see the view we were expecting, but we will never forget that hike! We didn’t get the reward we were hoping for at the summit, but we left with a story and a feeling of connection with our fellow hikers, each of whom couldn’t help but laugh about the situation.
The last couple hours of our hike were pretty quiet. By that point, you’re covered in mud, your knees hurt, and your feet are pushed so far to the front of your boots that all you want to do is take them off and sit down.
I took this quiet time as an opportunity to reflect on the day and what we had experienced. I thought to myself:
“What’s the lesson in this?”
I don’t believe in coincidences. I believe everything we do is connected and that we can assign meaning to any situation in our lives. Living life this way is more rewarding than staying in a state of frustration when things don’t go as I planned.
When we finally reached flat ground and emerged from the woods, I could see a glimmer of sunshine breaking through the trees, as the fog began to lift.
You’ve got to be kidding me.
In that moment, I could have chosen to view the entire day as a disappointment. After all, it was the only hike we had planned for the long weekend, and we couldn’t see anything by the time we reached the summit. It was chilly, wet, damp, and we were covered in mud as we finished out the hike.
Because of my focus on outcomes and achievement, I was inclined to see the whole day as a wash.
But it wasn’t.
If I was only focusing on the goal of having views at the summit as a reason for hiking that day, I would have missed out on everything else. I would have overlooked the joy in the journey – one-on-one time with my husband, brainstorming about our vision for the future, laughing and connecting with all of the other hikers, the surreal feeling of sitting in the clouds, our bodies’ ability to hike for nearly eight hours and almost 14 miles, the fact that we climbed the 13th highest mountain in the Adirondack Park, the feeling of accomplishment and relief that awaited us when we finally got back to our car and removed our boots and socks.
The day was full of joy and special time with the person I love most.
If we’re honest, only small slivers of our lives are characterized by mountaintops and spectacular summit views. When we experience these magical moments, we feel alive and accomplished and proud. I’m grateful for all of the mountaintops and summits in my life.
But I’m also grateful for the muddy boots, switchbacks, and all that comes with the hike to the top. The reality is, we spend most of our days putting in the miles, dealing with unpredictable circumstances, connecting with other people over shared experiences, dreaming about what could be, laughing at the unexpected, persisting when we don’t feel motivated, and getting a bit muddy along the way. Life is the climb, full of twists and turns, steep ascents and slippery descents.
Life is made up of millions of moments, many that are seemingly insignificant.
If we only appreciate the summits, then we’ll miss out on the joy of the journey to get there.
Bill and I have hiked dozens of mountains together, but I know this one will stand out as one of the most memorable. We’ll look back on this and think, “Remember that day when we were standing in the clouds? What a weird hike!”
Although we didn’t experience the views at the summit that we were hoping for, we were given this beautiful gift as the clouds lifted and we emerged from the trail.
As hard as it is to pause and appreciate the journey en route to our destination, I encourage you to try it. It’s still hard for me to do, because I’m so future-focused, but I know this weekend was a lesson in finding joy in the process and being okay with an unexpected outcome.
Reflect on the progress you’ve made in any area of your life or work. What would happen if you focused more on the journey and less on the outcome? Think back to five years ago:
- Where were you then (in your career, your relationships, your health)?
- What has the journey from then until now taught you? How have you grown? What have you learned?
- Who has been on the journey with you, encouraging you, laughing with you, supporting you?
- What summits have you celebrated along the way?
- How have difficult circumstances or unexpected bumps in the road ultimately led to at least one good thing in your life?
If we’re willing to ask ourselves what the lesson is in whatever we’re going through, life will be a lot less frustrating and a lot more rewarding.
Try to shift your mindset from focusing exclusively on outcomes and accomplishments. Instead, intentionally look for meaning in the mundane and joy in the journey.
For more stories like this one about taking a refreshing perspective on life and work, check out some of my previous stories:
- Be Willing to Be Bothered
- An Accidental Gift: Lessons from a Body Shop
- The Power of Disconnecting: 7 Lessons from the Adirondacks
- An Unexpected Gift: It Pays to Be Kind
- The Gift of Sickness: How EBV Changed My Life
- Be, Belong, Become: A New Vision for the Workplace
- The 3 Cs of Wellbeing: A Return to What Matters Most
- Kindness is Contagious: Spreading the Gift of Giving Back
- Because Nice Matters: The Gift of Gratitude
- Are We Helping, Fixing or Serving?