What Mountain Climbing Can Teach You About Business

07-21-15When we think of mountain climbing, we tend to think of Mount Everest and big groups of people climbing in long lines. Armies of Sherpas create base camps and ferry supplies and gear up and down the mountain. Miles of rope anchored to the mountainside helps climbers reach the top. For a very long time, many people considered this the best way to climb a mountain.

Today, there’s a different way. First, collect everything that you’re sure you will need. Then, remove one item at a time until you get down to what you can carry. This method of climbing is called alpine style, or climbing light. The focus shifts from the traditional siege mentality of “attacking” the mountain to one of moving fast and light to the summit and back down again.

One of my favorite climbers, Mark Twight, wrote a book about it called “Extreme Alpinism: Climbing Light, Fast and High.” Alpine-style climbers keep pushing the envelope by continually focusing on taking only what is necessary to reach their goal and by really questioning the definition of necessary.

Learning about alpine-style climbing helped me see that what we think we need, and what we really need, are usually two very different things. Getting clear about the difference allows us to drop the obsession for more stuff and instead focus on enjoying the experience.

I love that idea!

Every time I think about alpine-style climbing, I can’t help but wonder what an alpine-style life might look like. Living that way would require us to question our idea of what’s necessary. I know that when I focus on stripping away what I don’t need, I enjoy life more. In fact, Steve House, one of the best alpine-style climbers, says it well: “The simpler you make things, the richer the experience becomes.”

House also serves as a climbing ambassador for Patagonia. I can’t find the original reference, but I seem to remember him saying something like, “Most people go around with a jacket designed for weather that’s going to happen 5 percent of the time. The other 95 percent of the time it’s overdesigned.” In other words, wouldn’t we rather be really comfortable 95 percent of the time and figure a way to get by during the other 5 percent?

It’s a great concept that I’ve managed to apply in my own life. In my first book, “The Behavior Gap,” I told a story about having four pairs of skis. Each set was designed for different conditions. One day, I stood in the garage debating which skis to use while my friend yelled at me to hurry so we could get to the hill.

I hated feeling overwhelmed by options. It detracted from the experience. I also remember moments while skiing where I wondered if I’d grabbed the right skis. I was so much happier when I sold all four pairs of skis and replaced them with one pair that worked great 90 percent of the time.

I recently met someone that applied this line of thinking to his business. He thought he “needed” a big warehouse, office space and more equipment to run his painting business. Of course he did, because, well, that’s what everyone running a painting business had.

So he took a hard look at how much these supposed necessities were costing him in time and money. With some careful planning, he stripped down his business to a file folder and an iPad. This small footprint offers a ton of flexibility and created many more options for him personally. He’s now running an alpine-style business.

I’ve seen a lot of other businesses that operate under a siege mentality. They focus on numbers, but not always the right ones. How many employees do we have? How much equipment do we own? How much office space do we use? It begins to look like an awful lot of stuff is necessary, and along the way, they start to lose track of their real purpose.

So what does less stuff, however you define it, mean for our lives? When we focus on the “why,” we get to forge a path that will take us to where we really want to go instead of chasing someone else’s goal.

All of this reminds me of an experience I had on the Grand Teton. I was climbing with Brad Petersen, who now runs Utah’s Office of Outdoor Recreation. We had a particular route in mind. But a storm rolled in, and we were forced to change our plans. For a moment, I was frustrated that we had been derailed, and it looked like we weren’t going to make it to the summit. I found myself wondering, “What was the point if we couldn’t finish the climb?”

Then I reminded myself, “Wait a second. We’re having an amazing day on the mountain. The rainstorm is beautiful, and I’m with one of my best friends. What do I have to be mad about?” We adjusted. We found a little shelter and enjoyed the moment. A little later, the storm passed and we moved up the mountain to see what it would give us.

We did end up making it to the summit, but now that didn’t matter. Because we were flexible and able to move fast and light, the focus shifted from the singular goal of reaching the summit to something more simple: just enjoying the experience.

Maybe how we get somewhere matters just as much as if we get somewhere. We could weigh ourselves down with a lot of stuff. We could even convince ourselves we need all of it. Or we could step back and ask ourselves, “Do we really need that?”

This commentary originally appeared June 15 on NYTimes.com

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