If you only look forward, you’ll never know how far you’ve come

My family and I often do lots of hiking trips. This above sentence came to me on one of our many hikes in Australia, Mt Feathertop. It was a long time ago, probably about ten years ago now. But I was reminded of this recently on our annual hiking trip, this time to New Zealand.

We usually hike up mountains. Don’t ask why, it’s just something we do. It probably has something to do with the views you can often see from the top. Usually mountains are pretty high up, so you have to hike or climb to reach the summit. Hiking up the various mountain paths reminds of the startup journey… or really any journey in life. Here’s why.

The Journey of Life

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You’ve most likely seen the above image, on Twitter posts, LinkedIn articles, and more. It’s what we often talk about as the journey of life and all the obstacles we face along the way. I agree with some people that we should know reality is coming and be prepared for it. That’s why when we hike, we plan for river crossings, mountain climbs, potential bad weather, and injuries. We have all the necessary gear, and items we might need in an emergency.

No amount of planning however, can ever prepare you for the real thing. Regardless of how prepared you are, something will happen that you don’t expect. Whether it’s negatives like someone hurting themselves or the river rising, or the positives, like the most amazing view you ever seen or meeting someone special along the way.

Remember, life (and business) isn’t always about the end goal. Whilst the end goal is the reason you often do things, it’s the journey along the way where you learn and grow as a person.

Expectation Vs. Reality

As we see in the image above, expectation and reality are two different things. You can be prepared for reality and you should plan for it so your expectations aren’t just a flat boring line, but it’s reality that teaches you. On our hiking trips, we don’t plan who we’re going to meet on these hikes. We don’t plan how the weather is going to be – hiking requires booking months in advance. We don’t plan for injuries to happen. But we are prepared for things if they do happen. It’s these unplanned (but – usually – prepared) moments when the greatest and most unexpected things can happen. We met so many amazing people on our hike, from all over the world. Each person we spoke too gave us new insights. In my sister’s words “when you meet someone, it’s like you’re getting a snippet of their lives and how they see the world”.

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Expectation. Mt Robert Ridge on a beautiful sunny day (Photo credit Latest Adventures)
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Reality. Climbing up Mt Robert Ridge on a windy, rainy day. But we were prepared for it with rain jackets and waterproof, well, waterproof everything!

The more people you meet, and the more journeys you cross, the more you seem to experience. Some of the people along the way showed us photos of their trips, broadening our knowledge of the world. Others told us stories about how their family had to sacrifice so much for their children, giving us a new perspective on life and making us see how fortunate we were. Many others we got to teach… new cards games, where we’re from, and answer the ever pressing question “why does Australia have so many dangerous animals, and how do all you people survive?”.

Regardless of who we met, we felt privileged by each one of these encounters. Encounters happen in nature too. Whilst many people (including us) tackle these walks so that we can see the picturesque views seen in coffee table books, reality is not always like this. The weather can turn bad, you might not make it to the top, or you could have even mistimed things and end up in the dark, literally. But as I said before, it’s not always about the destination, it’s about the journey. So even if you don’t get the view, the people you met and experiences along the way matter just as much… although the views are usually the cherry on the cake!

Obstacles

These are everywhere in our lives… and on hiking trips! Some obstacles call for going around, and some you need to tackle head on. Tramping tracks, especially ones up mountains in NZ, have lots of rivers. Sometimes it can be easier to find a way around the river and hop along the rocks, other times natures calls for you to wade through the river. Obstacles pop up in business all the time. You shouldn’t get discouraged by them. Instead we should face them head on. We need to analyse the situation, decide if it’s too risky, and then proceed with caution – either around or through. Very rarely do we need to make a call to turn back, but this can sometimes be necessary.

Many of the tracks we hiked along are avalanche zones. In the middle of winter these can be very dangerous, and sometimes it’s too treacherous to continue and you need to turn around. Whilst most of the time in work it’s better to go forward, there are some times when you may need to make an executive decision and lead your team along a safer path. The group might not like you to start with. As a team, you didn’t make it to the end, or reach the goal, but you kept everyone alive, and they will eventually thank you for this.

Look up

Often when you walk up a mountain, or along a really long trek, you get tired. Yes, that’s what happens when your body runs out of energy! You start slumping over, your back gets sore, your arms flop, and your head droops down. Usually you end up walking, staring at the ground for hours, wondering if you’ll ever get to the top (or the end). But more often than not, if you stop, take a breath and look up, you’ll see something amazing. The landscape might have changed while you’ve been looking down. You might be above the treeline, or the scenery could be absolutely stunning. It’s in these moments when you realise things aren’t as bad as they seem and you receive renewed strength to go on.

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After walking for a few hours through a forest, you suddenly look up and realise you can see the mountain now!

I feel like this is something that happens in startups and businesses. You are surrounded by so much stuff that you stick your head down and trudge on. You get so swamped with paperwork, emails, and the like that you wonder if you’ll ever get out of it. Much like hiking, often at work you need to put your head down and get to it (or put your head down and walk). But when you are feeling overwhelmed, stop! Look up, and take a breath. It will give you renewed strength to go on. When things pile up and work seems impossible, step back, take a breath, and look at the world around you. See your friends and family, go to that social event, or just relax with a book. You’ll feel reinvigorated to tackle the next stage of work.

Celebrate the smalls wins

Speaking of tackling the next stage of work… or the mountain. When you’re hiking, especially up a mountain, you usually don’t know how big the mountain is. You could be hiking up hill for ages and you see a rise and think “yes this is it”. But you get there and then there is an even higher hill, or it just goes up and up and up. This is when you need to stop and celebrate the small achievements. If it’s hiking, then you stop, take a rest (sharpen the saw as Steve Covey calls it), marvel at the view around you, eat a snack, then keep on going.

In business, you stop, not at a small rise in the physical hill, but with a small win on your journey. Maybe it’s that you submitted the reports for the week, or won the best employee of the week award, or closed your first sale, whatever it happens to be celebrate it! Celebrate it to the extend it should be celebrated. When you’re hiking, small hills mean short breaks, a bit of water, and a snack. Big hills mean lunch stops, photo ops, and longer rests. Make sure you celebrate to the accomplishment you received. Don’t go out and spend your whole months wages just because your boss sent you a thank you message. But by the same token, if you win a national award, don’t just crack open a bottle of $10 champagne and call it a celebration. Celebrate to the extent that you (and your colleagues deserve).

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I definitely celebrated when I saw this. The first sighting of the hut after a full day of walking and greeted with a view from one of the most amazing lakes in the world. I stopped and look it all in (and a photo) before continuing

So what does the saying mean?

Let’s go back to the start of this post:

If you only look forward, you’ll never know how far you’ve come

What does this really mean? Most of the time people say, don’t look back, look forward, look towards the future. If we never look back however, we will never learn from the past. History will evade us and the same mistakes will be made. That’s one way to look at it… but what I also mean here is that is if you only look at how much work you’ve got to do, you’ll never celebrate what you’ve already achieved.

I talked about celebrating the small achievements above, and how it helps you move forward because you’re reinvigorated. But there’s another meaning. When you’re hiking up the mountain and you can’t see the top, all you think about is all the work, all the energy you need to expend to reach the goal. You can’t see it, you don’t know how far it is, and you don’t know if you have the energy to keep going. But if you stop, and not just look around you, but you look behind you, you’ll see how far you’ve come. You’ll see the path you’ve taken and how much you’ve achieved. You’ll realise you’ve done so much already and accomplished things you didn’t think were possible. You look back to the start of the hike and remember your thoughts before you set out. Then you realise you’ve come so far and achieved so much and you realise you’re capable of doing to next slog.

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If you only look at this, you can’t see the top, you just see a steep hill that you have to climb

In your daily work lives, when things pile up and tasks seem nigh impossible, stop and take a moment to reflect on what you’ve achieved. Realise that you’re capable of doing great things and that you can get the next bit of work done. You might need a break to re-energise, but you can do it!

Straying from the path

Sometimes when we hike, we lose the path. Yep, those markers aren’t always the easiest to find. Either we stray from the path because we can’t find the impossible-to-spot triangle, or because we think there might be something there. Whether you lose the path (either on purpose or accidental) it’s not always doom and gloom.

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Try and spot the path in this pic

Sometimes you might take a wrong fork in the track. Often it might lead to something amazing – a waterfall perhaps, or meeting a new person. Sometimes these little side trips can be important to our development so take them in your stride! Just remember to come back to the main road when you’re done.

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I travelled off the path towards the top of the ridge and was greeted with an incredible view of Late Rotoiti as the cloud cleared

Moving forward

So next time you think you can’t move forward, think about what you’ve achieved, what you’ve done. Realise you can do it. Take a breath (and a break if you need it) then put one foot in front of the other and keep on going; whichever direction you decide to go.

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