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Finding Success in Failure - Jess Taverna

Finding Success in Failure - Jess Taverna
Finding Success in Failure - Jess Taverna
Finding Success in Failure - Jess Taverna
December 24, 2011 - 

In an earlier post, I alluded to some changes in the way I think about success and failure in climbing. Over the past year, I’ve been working to develop what you might say is a healthier relationship with climbing, spurred on particularly by my first big alpine trip. Understanding why this has been a difficult but necessary process requires knowing a little more about me. My own self-awareness was enhanced recently by a personality test of sorts I had to take during a staff retreat at work. Couched in terms of uncovering each individual’s “strengths,” the test results provided a list of five “themes of talent.” Surprising no one, least of all my very patient husband, my themes emphasized competitive, structured, and goal-oriented traits--all my “strengths.”


For example, I was identified as an “achiever”: “Achiever describes a constant need for achievement. You feel as if every day starts at zero. By the end of the day you must achieve something tangible in order to feel good about yourself. And by ‘every day’ you mean every single day—workdays, weekends, vacations.” Most succinctly, “You are hardwired to pursue goals until they are reached. When obstacles arise, you become even more determined to succeed.” Surely, on many levels, this character trait is admirable and valuable--a strength; it makes me a hard-worker, a reliable and productive employee, it pushes me past what’s comfortable, through mental and physical barriers, and into territory where we “find out what we’re really made of,” as the saying goes. My achiever-nature has a lot to do with why, once I discovered climbing, I constantly pushed into more difficult and complex elements--from top-roping to leading, from clipping bolts to placing gear, from rock to ice, from the local single pitch crag to the Alaska Range--and I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything.

But despite what the folks behind this personality test might say, being an “achiever” is not unequivocally a strength. Being hardwired to go after set goals until “success” is reached can be emotionally draining--because, let’s face it, everyone, at some time, fails to reach a goal. And in the alpine environment, it can be downright dangerous--if the goal is defined as reaching the top or successfully completing a particular route, charging headlong towards that goal in the face of deteriorating weather conditions, physical or mental exhaustion, or unexpected changes in the route has the potential to lead not to success but to the most ultimate form of failure with injury or worse.

So how can Ms. Achiever, yours truly, maintain a healthy--and ideally lengthy--relationship with alpine climbing? If I am indeed “hardwired” this way, then I will always be motivated by goals and achievements. The key lies in how I identify and define my goals. I learned a lot about the need to reframe goals on my trip to the Kahiltna Glacier in the Alaska Range last May. By the standards I envisioned at the outset, the trip was, at best, “not a complete failure”--not exactly a ringing endorsement and certainly not the kind of results an achiever wants to see. We climbed most of our #1 objective, but stopped short of finishing out the easy pitches to the top because we’d been moving slower than we needed to. We did the alpine start and approach ski to another goal route, but got shut down at the base by a party that beat us there. We never seriously considered any of our harder, “reach” objectives, and settled for an easy half day on a route that wasn’t even on our radar before the trip. We spent a lot of days sunning ourselves in camp--pleasant, for sure, but I didn’t go to Alaska for a beach vacation.

But as I’ve come to learn, on many other accounts, the trip was a resounding success. For starters, we avoided any serious epics and my husband and I both came home healthy. We had two great climbing days, doing all of the technical pitches on our primary objective and topping out another route. I learned an incredible amount about my physical and mental abilities and limitations, gaining invaluable experience for the next trip. I ate bacon for the first time in 15 years (a feat my husband-partner definitely counts among the successes of the trip). In short--we climbed (which doesn’t always happen in the mountains), we pushed ourselves as much as we could given the conditions and improved our skills (when it’s all too easy to become complacent and overly-confident), we avoided injury or worse (in a season that saw numerous deaths in the range), and we ate great food (which we all know is the real reason to do a “fly to basecamp” trip anyway).

I’m still not entirely satisfied with the outcomes of that trip, but I’ve worked hard to draw both inspiration and motivation from that trip. Through the lens of reframed goals, I can see the successes we had and the positivity of that lens makes me psyched for the next trip. But also, the achiever in me knows that there are still new goals to be set, that reframing goals doesn’t mean settling for less but relishing what was accomplished and building on that for the next time, motivating me for future endeavors. And I’m working hard to bring this mindset into other climbing arenas. It’s a process of always striving for balance; standards for success--our goals--won’t always be easily achieved (they wouldn’t be meaningful otherwise), but they also shouldn’t always be so lofty as to leave us damaged. Being able to find success in failure shouldn’t be seen (as I so often did) as “settling.”


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