What Climing Kilimanjaro Taught Me About Business (And Life)


Last year, I decided that I was going to climb Kilimanjaro.  I also unilaterally decided I was going to make my kids do it with me.  I thought it would be fun.  I gave us a year to prepare and train.  Even with training, it is hard to be prepared for that trek.  It is just a hard thing to do and summit attempts fail almost 40% of the time.  On June 10th, we made the summit- it took 7 days, covering 42 miles, to spend 10 minutes at Uhuru Peak.  It took just 10 ankle-and-knee-destroying hours to make the decent to the bottom.

Over the course of those 7 days, I saw a variety of business clichés come to life as part of our effort (and here they are):

Success requires a plan and preparation.

There is simply no way we could have made it up that mountain had we not trained and prepared to make that climb.  Along the way there were a ton of other things that we needed to be prepared for, vaccinations required to enter different countries, medications needed during the climb, equipment rented in advance, etc.  The other challenge was packing, being careful to not overpack, for five different climate zones encountered on the climb.  Success requires planning- simple as that.

Your goal is critically important.

I talked to several people who were making the climb for a cause- to raise money or awareness or to commemorate a life event.  My goal was simply to summit- and to do it with my kids.  I wanted to create an incredible, memorable experience to share with them.  On those days when we wanted to stop hiking (because it just sucked), remembering the goal helped us to find our focus and stay determined.  There are always tough days when quitting would be easy.  Your goal has to be bigger than those tough moments.

Great things are rarely accomplished alone.

The three of us had a team working with us- two guides, a cook and nine porters.  These were local guys who carry 20 kg packs, usually on their heads, for 6-10 hours a day, often times up insane inclines, over boulder fields and up dizzyingly steep rock faces.  They never complained- or stumbled or lost their balance or dropped anything (it really is quite amazing).  They were stars!  Our guides navigated the mountain in the dark (not kidding), finding a path where there was none and ultimately got us to the top.  Our cook produced incredible, calorie rich meals in the middle of nowhere every single day that fueled us and even tasted great! Without them, we would have never succeeded.  Interestingly, it was our team who often thanked us during the journey- to them, they needed us.  We needed to be there so they could work and earn their salary.  It was a team effort for all of us and we all needed each other to succeed.

Hard work is almost always required for a big reward.

Climbing Kilimanjaro doesn’t require technical mountain climbing skills.  You hike- for hours and hours each day- mostly uphill (or downhill)- and both crush your body and mess with your mind.  It is simply hard work but like most things that hard work is absolutely necessary to a successful outcome.  Ask anyone who is highly successful at anything- it might look easy from the outside but that is usually because a lot of hard work has been done along the way to get to that point.

Life is too short to work with jerks. Work with people you love!

I can’t imagine doing that hike again.  It was brutal.  It was so much easier though- especially on the really hard days- to be able to experience the climb with my kids.  The fact they are my kids notwithstanding; I just like them; they are fun (plus our conversations we had were ridiculous- I now know a ton about teenage boys and girl’s views of kissing).  Being out there with people I really enjoyed made the climb better and the work easier (sort of, not really).  It is important to work with people you like- life is too short to suffer fools.  So don’t.

This last one might sound a bit counter-intuitive.

We are all pretty insignificant…so be significant!

At a camp called Shira 2, we had reached an elevation where we were above the cloud layer.  It was cold at night, freezing actually, but the night sky was beyond description.  I got out of my tent that night, in that freezing cold, to use the bathroom (an almost nightly occurrence when you are drinking over 3 liters of water a day but I digress).  On that night, the sky was like nothing I had ever seen before- billions of visible stars including the ribbon of the milky way stretched across the entire sky.  Want to feel small?  See that.  I was instantly aware of how insignificant we really are in this universe.  My next immediate thought was this….since we are insignificant, we should make every effort to be as significant as we can be while we have the time and ability to do so.

So, whether that is to start a business, to tell someone they are important, to thank someone, to volunteer or to do whatever it is that you have thought about doing but for whatever reason, you just haven’t, get serious about doing it and get significant!  For me, that means focusing a major piece of my business to something I’ve been passionate about for a long time- I know it will be a lot of work, and I don’t know if it will succeed but I also know that if I don’t try, I will always wonder “what if?”.  So, I’m going to find out and see if I can be significant in the process.