In my line of work, I am consistently reminding people that we don’t fail or succeed. We don’t suddenly arrive at the end game and never crave a Twinkie again.
Every achievement is the serendipitously knit together steps we’ve taken, struggles we’ve overcome, and downright luck of the stars. It’s about the journey, I say, regurgitating patronizing trollop that would suggest one is simply not spiritually evolved enough yet.
Then I ignore everything they say and I pick a fight with a big mountain.
Lately, it’s been the mountain behind my house. Arguably, I should be climbing it right now to break in my mountaineering boots, but I am failing at that and being much more successful at drinking porch coffee and writing.
I tried to scale it one February day in snow shoes. Granted, I was wearing canoe-country snow shoes and it’s a steep hill, but being ill-prepared has never stopped me from trying a bad idea. I tried again later after the snow melted, in my little barefoot runners as rather a side note to a morning jog, but aborted the mission because I had no food, water, or idea where the hell I was.
Weeks ago, I found a trail in the woods – going in the direction of that mountain. On my last excursion, I found the off-shoot I’m pretty sure goes to the top. If I don’t get sidetracked by another cup of coffee and plucking off garden gophers with the .22, I might attempt it again today.
It’s not about the summit, really. It’s about everything I learn about the land and myself as I wander about and at this point, the relationship I have with the mountain.
I have a similar one with Rainier. I have failed to summit her once and failed to circumnavigate her once. Both journeys were filled with many lessons and memories. And in neither of those journeys did I die, which kind of makes them a success.
Yet as I prepare to kick steps into the slopes of my old friend once more, I hear the preconditioning language of someone prepared to fail. In mountaineering, being prepared to fail is what keeps people alive.
I have done thousands of box step-ups, miles of weighted climbs, intervals with a 60-pound pack. I have played with prusiks, organized my gear, dehydrated my meals. I have read the reports, scoured the maps, and made a plan. I’ve done all the miscellany recommended for success.
Yet it is the failures we must be most prepared for.
The mountaineering analogy seamlessly applies to much of life. Are we able to respond to those things outside of our control? Can we do so with grace and humility and competence? And maybe some tears and snot.
Perhaps this is what draws us outside or to push ourselves. It is not so often to see if we can do the thing. If we are being honest with ourselves, we know what we are capable of – and not. It is the unknown that calls to us.
There is a pilgrimage of self-discovery in every one of our failures. It requires a different kind of courage – one in which we embrace introspection, vulnerability and uncomfortable truths. And in some cases, projectile vomiting at high altitude.
Don’t just prepare for success. Train for your failures, too. We wouldn’t want the suffering to go to waste.
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