How Goal Setting Compares to Mountain Climbing


My mountain climbing experience, while limited, includes an excursion on the beautiful Inca Trail, in Peru.  There are many allegorical parallels between mountain climbing and goal setting which I’d like to discuss.

Adapt to your environment

Upon reaching the summit, as with any goal, you can expect to feel a great sense of achievement, but on the way toward your goal you will certainly encounter obstacles. On the Inca trail I had altitude sickness, but following instructions, I became accustomed to the scarce oxygen and at daybreak was able to enjoy seeing the breathtaking Sun Gate, offering spectacular views of Machu Picchu, our  goal on the climb.

Fortunately, by the time you make it to the top either in mountain climbing or through one of  life’s lessons, you have usually acquired the equanimity to calmly enjoy your surroundings, plus a quiver of tools that  allow you to overcome difficulties. Along the way, you start understanding your new environment.  Once you reach your goal, the problems may not have changed, but you will have. You will be better equipped to understand them, deal with them and experience the unique transformations that can only come after a journey.  In many cases, as you develop, your vision changes.  You mature as you assimilate lessons. Your arsenal is fortified, though perhaps not in the way you anticipated.

As the old Chinese proverb says, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” To reach the top, one must first visualize how to get there.  At ground level, perspective is not the same as at the summit, where you have a bird’s eye view of the topography. At first, it may seem that the climb is through an impenetrable jungle but as you climb methodically,  you are better able to pick your paths.  The view improves as you gain altitude and the trees start to thin out. The winning combination is knowing what you want and which of your personal values support your goals.

Have faith

In any project, have faith that you can accomplish whatever you can imagine. Start taking baby steps to implement that vision. That you can imagine the result is an indication that you have the necessary resources to go forward. There is no greater deterrent to fulfilling goals than inertia or fear of failure, which keeps one from taking action, as when, for example, a person decides not to follow his dream of becoming an accomplished musician because of the practice, auditions and competitions that are part of the journey.

In practice however, everything sorts itself out gradually and the more ground one covers, the more prepared one is to overcome once seemingly insurmountable odds.  Once you mindfully begin the ascent, hitherto unseen opportunities open along your path and hasten progress.

I am reminded of when I made the commitment to go back to school for an MBA  at the age of 56.  It had been over 30 years since I had been a student.  I had a phobia about the level of math skills I would need. I had tried to go back to school before and had had to drop out for lack of time. I was fully engaged in running my language services company on a day-to-day basis, and the economy was in the midst of a recession. We were working twice as hard for less profit. It seemed impossible, yet one step at a time, I submitted the paperwork, attended orientations, took online courses and hired a tutor to supplement my finance and accounting skills. I found an executive program that met on Saturdays so I could continue to work. I focused on putting my best foot forward and was persistent in my efforts to do well.

Be tenacious

I was the eldest student in the class and at the end of two years was voted most outstanding by the faculty.  It all happened because I sustained my vision of getting the degree and applied personal values such as sense of responsibility, appetite for problem-solving and love of knowledge.    It was a taxing but rewarding experience which has stood me in good stead. Yet it would not have happened if I had not confidently started the climb and stuck it out. The experience led me to corroborate that one can achieve whatever one can visualize. Since then, I have gone on to fulfill other personal and business goals once considered farfetched, like offering  interpreting services around the globe, being a guest lecturer, writing articles regularly for several publications, getting an advanced scuba diver certification, and teaching yoga.

My brother, Alberto Salazar, a world-class marathoner in the 1980’s, relates similar experiences in striving toward significant goals.  While only in his twenties he tallied major victories at the New York and Boston marathons. He visualized himself winning, held that image, trained and learned from the experts. During each   race, he would just concentrate on placing one foot in front of the other, until he crossed the finish line.  I remember visiting him after he set a world record at the NY Marathon in 1981.  He was lying in bed in a suite at the St. Regis, enthusiastically chatting with the family, when I noticed the bed sheets around his feet were all bloodied.  He explained matter-of-factly that he had lost several toenails in the process.

Here, then, is one of the many lessons to be learned: always be  prepared to put some skin in the game if you consider the result  worthwhile.

Posted on January 19, 2012, in Business, Goal setting, life lessons and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. “…always be prepared to put some skin in the game if you consider the result worthwhile.”

    There is no other way to play the game!

    Thank you for a very inspirational piece.

    – Gio

    • Consuelo Burranca

      Indeed so, concentrating only on goals but not on how to get to them or on the learning along the way just brings frustration and missed opportunities, I personally need to be reminded of this constantly.
      Consuelo

  2. Georganne Weller

    WOW Ma. Cristina, you never cease to surprise me. Thanks for sharing your experiences with us and we will be looking forward to more from you over the coming months.

  3. Dear Maria Cristina.

    This is such a wonderful inspirational piece!! I am so glad you had a chance to visit my country and to do the “Caminos del Inca.” I have heard that it is not easy. Good for you!!

    Silvana

  4. Inspirational as always Maria Cristina! What’s more – I’m writing my PhD on expertise in interpreting. I’ve just finished an article on deliberate practice and clear goals which are two very distinct features of expertise in any field. This article could have been a popular work on those two features. Thank you for sharing that experience and I’ll be sure to use this with my students 🙂

  5. Hi, Maria Cristina.
    This beautiful post of yours greatly resonates with me, on many different levels. First the who allegory of interpreting and mountain climbing, which I coincidentally also explored in the last chapter of my book. Your late readmission to college is also something I can associate well with, as I, too, went back to school for an MA in interpreting at age 45. I went through the same fears, self-doubts and questions, but my result, like yours, have been very reassuring. Lastly, the missing toenails of your brother — and idol of mine — is something I have experienced first hand at the end of a marathon — although miles away from anybody rubbing shoulders with Alberto or anybody else in the leading pack. A beautiful post, for which I congratulate you.

    Ewandro Magalhaes

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