On July 4, 2005, as the sun was rising above the horizon and peaking through the clouds, I was climbing the south face of Mt. Adams in Washington. At 12,281 feet, it’s one of the most popular training destinations for climbers gunning for larger peaks like Rainer.
After 90 minutes of intense climbing from base camp, I could begin to make out the summit. With each step, the peak was getting closer and closer. My heart was pounding and my legs were burning. Only a few more steps. One more. I’m there…
As soon as I hurled my body over the precipice, a sinking feeling washed over me. I had been ready to celebrate, full already of a sense of accomplishment, but felt dread when I lifted my gaze. There was another peak looming. The tiny specs I saw moving in the distance weren’t ants—they were humans hundreds of yards away! What I thought was the summit wasn’t actually the summit. We had another 1,000 feet to climb.
According to Gerry Roach, a legendary mountaineer and author, a false summit (also known as a false peak) is “a summit that appears to be the apex but it turns out that the real summit is higher.”
As I experienced that July morning, false summits can inflict a psychological toll on a climber—disappointment, despair, and even defeat. At that moment, I felt cheated and betrayed by the mountain. I wanted to throw in the towel, but a voice deep inside of me told me to pick myself up and continue the pursuit. I was fortunate that I had the mental fortitude and the energy to continue. Depending on the mountain and the mental condition of the climber, false summits can have a demoralizing or disastrous effect.
While not everyone is a mountaineer climbing massive peaks for fun, just about everyone has experienced a false summit in life. If you’re a hyper-achiever like myself, you’ve probably encountered more than you’re willing to admit.
Have you ever said, “When I complete [fill in the blank] then I’ll be [fill in the blank]?”
- When I graduate from college and get a high paying job then I’ll have made it.
- When I start my company and raise venture capital then I’ll be validated.
- When I make partner at my venture firm then I’ll be safe and secure.
- When I pay off my credit card debt then I’ll be financially free.
- When I find the perfect partner then I’ll be loved and accepted.
- When I sell my company and make millions then I can finally relax.
- When I cross 100,000 Twitter followers then I’ll have influence.
- When I complete the coaching certification then I’ll really be a coach.
- When I get 25,000 subscribers then I’ll be a writer.
I know I have. And I’ve known what it feels like to reach the proverbial summit only to realize that deep in my core nothing has actually changed. After the initial rush of dopamine wears off, we notice that we’re fundamentally the same person. We’re left still craving validation, security, financial freedom, impact, relaxation, acceptance, love, and so on. So we repress what we’re feeling, lift our gaze toward the next peak, and start the climb all over again. Inevitably we tell ourselves a story that the next summit is the “real” one. We catch ourselves saying, “When I complete x…” all over again. And we relentlessly pursue that one. Rinse and repeat.
I know this pattern. For most of my life, I've been chasing achievement and external validation to feel whole, complete, and accepted. The more false summits I pursued and conquered the more empty I’d feel inside when I’d reach them. Something was always missing. Despite some amazing accomplishments and experiences, I felt exactly the same as I did before. I was the same person. My essence, my soul was unchanged.
I saw this cycle transpire in a coaching session a few months ago. One of my clients sold his company and made millions of dollars. It was a great outcome for everyone involved. He and I connected just after the transaction closed. I asked him how he was feeling about the acquisition and if he was able to celebrate. Here was his response:
“Everything happened so quickly. The deal was signed and announced on the same day. I barely had any time to breathe and celebrate. And I had to quickly shift my attention to ensure the integration goes well. I’ve moved from one thing to another. Honestly, Steve. I don’t feel much different. That inner voice is still pushing me. I’m the same person.”
Now that said, I’m not blaming anyone for wanting to pay off their debts, sell their company, or find the perfect life partner. But even the best intentions can get diluted or redirected by the allure and power of the mountain and its false summits. We believe we’ll stagnate, suffer, or even die if we stray or try another way. The pursuit of a new summit is all we know. As hard as the trek is, we prefer it to the unknown. It’s comforting.
Here’s the reality. Life will continue to throw false summits in your path until you realize not only does the summit not exist but the mountain itself is a figment of our collective imagination. The mountain of ultimate achievement is an illusion that helps us escape the emptiness of life, infuses a sense of meaning into our existence, and keeps us feeling safe, even while we suffer on the climb. The mountain is a mental construct and a survival mechanism. This makes sense to me evolutionarily and psychologically. If we didn’t have goals and pursuits, how would we evolve and survive in this world? The desire to push forward and thrive is encoded in us.
There are two kinds of encoding—genes and culture. The first is our “hard wired” survival instincts that propel us to persist so we can eventually propagate our DNA. This ensures our lineage continues. Fear of losing our health or running out of food fall into this category—the fear of losing these things can keep us on a path we think is safe. The other kind of encoding—cultural—is more palpable. We’re social animals living in numerous small and large groups. It’s a norm, especially in the West, to compare ourselves and our lives to others. We ask, “Where am I relative to Jane? How do I close the gap?” This leads us to feeling unwhole and unsafe, and then we strive to make those feelings disappear. We also hear messages from our family and social networks that a life well-lived is filled with achievement and external markers of success. The result? We place tremendous pressure on ourselves to keep up with the Joneses, who look to be a bit ahead of us on the path to the next false summit.
The pressure mounts and we mindlessly set out to conquer another peak because it’s what we think is expected of us or will finally make us whole. We believe that these external efforts will finally “fix” something internal that might not even be broken. The rules we write for ourselves and signs we follow can be disorienting and misleading. It’s as if we lost our compass. We don’t know what’s up or down or even what’s inside of us, just as long as we’re focused on the prize and making progress toward it.
I’m not saying that achievement is bad per se or that reaching for new heights should be frowned upon. I appreciate a good challenge and progress. What I’m saying is that reaching a peak that doesn’t exist won’t fundamentally change who we are at our core.
But if there’s no mountain to conquer and it’s an illusion, what is there?
“The bad news is you’re falling through the air, nothing to hang on to, no parachute. The good news is, there’s no ground.”
— Chögyam Trungpa
When I walked away from my new venture fund last year, I made a pact with myself that I wouldn’t make any big decisions or pursue new projects for at least three to six months. I would coach—that’s all. Within a few weeks, I was enrolling new clients and dreaming of a new summit (a.k.a. a new project). I was craving solidity. I wanted to literally grab onto something that would make me feel safe, secure, stable. Being in this transition was uncomfortable because I had to sit with the notion that I was plummeting through the air with nothing to hold onto. I didn’t have a mountain. There was no ground under my feet and no summit to aim for.
This has been fucking scary. I’m still scared six months later, but without the distraction of the imaginary mountain, I’m discovering who I really am.
I’m learning how to “be” in the air by discovering my internal sense of morality, ethics, and values. Best of all? I’m redefining my relationship with achievement because I’m finding that I’m able to source security, approval, solidity and freedom from within.
On a mountain, it's pretty clear who's ahead and who's behind. But when you remove that fake context, everyone is just where they are, falling at the weight they carry, no one is behind or ahead. There are no external signifiers in the air. You can’t judge depth and height. There are no trail markers. It’s just you, and the internal map you draw.
Here’s the secret: the only way to find peace in the freefall is to go within. It doesn’t matter if you’re in the depths of despair, frozen with angst, or blissed out. When we slow down and relax into the void, we’re able to see that we have everything we need in that moment. We can then reconnect with our essence—presence, awareness, and wholeness—and discover the peace and freedom we all have within.
The real work is not in the climb someone else or society set you up for, but in becoming who you truly are in every moment. If you understand yourself only in relation to a series of false summits, you don’t understand yourself. The sooner you realize this the sooner you can begin to live your life on your own terms and enjoy the freefall. When you recognize this you’ll know you are perfect just where you are—in mid air, with the rest of us.
If the mountain you’ve been climbing no longer exists, can you find what you’ve been searching for within? How do you know?
Schlaf | Where the Road Bends Newsletter
Join the newsletter to receive the latest updates in your inbox.