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5 Tips to Survive Anything at the Office

A mountain climber's lessons on scaling challenges at the workplace

When people first learn I’m a professional mountain climber, they often tell me how envious they are of my career choice. They wish they’d taken a bold move when they were younger and followed their dreams into a more adventurous career path rather than winding up in their current corporate position.

I often respond that my job, like theirs, can be challenging and frustrating, filled with ever-changing logistics, competitors, customer demands and impolite people. But here’s a little secret: While I’ve summited some of the most challenging peaks in the world (including Mt. Everest, six times), it’s the perils I face when I’m back at the office, safely at sea level, that I actually find more intimidating.

Fortunately, the mountain provides a lot of valuable lessons about survival and these life lessons are surprisingly adaptable for dealing with virtually anything the corporate rat race can throw at you.

The mountain provides life lessons that are surprisingly adaptable for dealing with anything the corporate rat race can throw at you.

So whether you loathe your boss, your new assignment or your cubemate, here are five tips I’ve developed while mountain climbing that will help you cope with just about any setback in the workplace:

1. Be ready to deal with anything.

On the mountainside, any number of life-threatening events can pop up at a second’s notice. The trick is to pay attention, almost continuously, to early signals of treacherous conditions — such as the cloud cover at the summit, the rise or fall of air temperature, how close we are to sundown and the alternate route if something unexpected happens.

Similarly, in the workplace, paying attention to subtle changes in the landscape could tip you off to a bigger, more consequential, occurrence to come.

Has there been a shift in rhetoric coming from top management? Have long-term projects suddenly been placed on hold? Have there been a series of closed-door meetings you weren’t invited to? Are growing numbers of talented employees starting to jump ship? All of these could be signs something is changing on your mountain.

Make a point of monitoring the conditions that make up your daily grind — even keeping a work journal —so you become aware of changing conditions that suggest it’s time to take action.

2. Don’t be afraid to take risks.

We take a lot of risky moves up on the mountain. But, at 20,000 feet, we’ve come to understand that risky moves are what will ultimately save us from sure disaster. This is not to say we make stupid moves. We don’t. We take calculated, conservative risks, which always beats standing still and doing nothing.

In the office, employees often freeze when faced with the unexpected. Instead, take appropriate risky moves. For instance, when there’s a new management structure and you find yourself suddenly reporting to someone half your age, be bold and forge a relationship with him or her. That way, your new boss will become aware of the skills and benefits you provide to the enterprise.

Adrian Ballinger, one of the USA's premier high-altitude mountain guides.Credit: Courtesy of Adrian Ballinger
Adrian Ballinger, one of the nation’s premier high-altitude mountain guides

React to changes, like we do on the mountain, but in calculated and smart ways. If you do nothing, you may find yourself snowed over.

3. Trust your team.

At high altitude, the lack of oxygen can wreak havoc on the mind. Depending on how much you’ve exerted yourself or slept or ate or hydrated, these effects can be mild or severe. One of the first things to go is the ability to make clear decisions. When that happens, I rely on my team members, fellow climbers and Sherpas to back my judgment up.

The same should go for you and your team at work.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve discovered a bad habit of often dismissing the input of younger co-workers because they lack the experience and years of training I’ve put in. But the safety of a climbing expedition lies in the hands of each team member and I’ve learned that it’s critical to trust and forge a relationship with everyone on the journey.

Trust your core network of colleagues and associates, but also make the effort to reach out and make new connections. Let everyone give you their perspectives about what’s going on at work.

Perhaps you are making too big a deal about a small change. Or perhaps you’re standing in front of a speeding train that’s about to take your entire department under. Stay safe by seeking out the counsel and perspectives of others.

4. Don’t rush! Take your time.

Slow and steady is how we do it on the mountain… literally one agonizing step at a time. But this is the best way to ensure we maintain sure footing. Fast, unexpected moves on the cliff side can be deadly and set off avalanches.

Similarly, while management may want you to respond to every challenge with speed and a sense of urgency, when you’re facing personal obstacles on the job, don’t do anything rash. Take your time planning your personal strategic moves — how you’ll handle your next job review, how you’ll handle that difficult boss or how you’ll transition into a new position.

Take the necessary time to assess the situation, gain clear perspective and plan your next move based on discernable facts.

5. Always remember to keep perspective.

In climbing, there are many times when we fail to make the summit. That’s when we like to say: “Well, it’s only a mountain.” And it’s true. It’s not our health, our family or our lives.

The same holds true for whatever challenge you’re dealing with at the office. If you lose that promotion, the big client or even your position, keep things in perspective. No matter your age, there’s always a next time — the next project to tackle, the next opportunity to shine or even the next step into an exciting new career path.

If you do it like we do on the mountain, with true passion, you won’t go wrong.

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