In a society that celebrates great accomplishments and stresses constant advancement, taking a backward step can be deflating. It’s easy to think that our steps backward are a sign of failure. Yet all is not lost. In fact, exclusively moving forward is rarely the best route to reach a goal.
When we encounter an obstacle on our journey (in business or in life), we often apologetically state that we took two steps forward, and one back. However, what if that step back is what allows us to step forward?
I had the good fortune to speak with Alison Levine recently. In addition to being a bestselling author and an amazing professional speaker, Alison led the first women’s expedition to Mount Everest. She has reached the highest peak on every continent and visited the North and South Poles. This feat is known as the Adventure Grand Slam.
She’s perfectly suited to these frigid, death-defying challenges — aside from surviving three heart surgeries and having a condition that causes her blood vessels in her hands and feet to collapse in cold weather, of course.
How You Reach The Highest Peak
Alison explained that you don’t climb a mountain like Everest by just moving forward. It takes 10 days just to get to Base Camp, which is over 17,000 feet above sea level. After a few days, you take on the incredible challenge of ascending to Camp One. After you reach Camp One, you then (wait for it) descend to Base Camp. After days of recovery at Base Camp, you climb to Camp 1 and sleep there. Then you go to Camp 2. Then, you guessed it, you come back to Base Camp. “Even though you are going backwards, you are still making forward progress,” Alison explained.
Clearly, this can be a psychologically challenging predicament, whether you’re climbing a mountain or managing a business. You might have a client who turns out to be a tougher sell than expected. Things aren’t going as planned, and your inclination is to push forward toward the contract. However, what if the best move at that moment is to take a step backward in the process? What if you need to regroup, review your notes and take a longer but less perilous path to success? It might seem easier to just push forward, but if the conditions are wrong, you’ll lose everything you’ve worked to achieve.
Know Your Goal
Alison explained that they stayed focused by simply knowing the goal. The goal in their case was not to “stand on the top of a pile of rocks and ice,” as she described Everest. Rather, the goal was to ensure that everyone finished the expedition alive and in good health.
Without that perspective, they might have been devastated by each setback. As long as they came off the mountain alive, they were successful.
As a professional, you might have goals or aspirations, and I hope that you do. If you set a short-term goal of getting selected for a specific promotion or winning a hefty commission, then you might feel horrible if you don’t reach that goal at the first opportunity.
If, instead, your goal is to gain experience and develop your skills so that you would be a great choice for a position like that, or that you build enough expertise and trust with your client that they would select your product or service, then you’d realize that a step backward does not mean failure.
Backing up in Your Career
“Backing up is not the same as backing down”, according to Alison. Just as she walked her team back to base camp each time she scaled a portion of Mount Everest, you might need to take a step back in your career or with a business pursuit if you realize that your current path forward isn’t the best route to reach your goal. Taking that first step in what seems like a backward direction, however, can be terrifying.
Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg was right when she told her readers to view their career as a jungle gym instead of a ladder. When we focus single-mindedly on “advancement” in one field, we might overlook opportunities to take our talents somewhere we’d enjoy more because we’re scared of descending our proverbial mountain and taking a less prestigious position. But if you take a good, hard look at yourself, you’ll almost always realize that passion is more important than prestige.
You’re doing everyone a favor when you back up to rise again in another field. Not only do you enhance your own life by pursuing something you enjoy, but you also inspire your clients and the company you keep by staying humble and focusing on the area where you can best help others.
It’s Your Turn
Accomplishing your goals, big or small, internal or external, is a lot like climbing Mount Everest. Sometimes you have to take a few steps back before you can effectively move forward.
What about you? Have you ever dealt with a dilemma or a shift by taking time to reassess the situation instead of plowing forward?
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