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The Lasting Value of a Lost Summit

Last night, CNN reported that four people died while descending Mount Everest’s southern slope. Those familiar with the challenges presented by Everest speculated that the climbers expended the bulk of their energy reaching the summit, only to find that they were unprepared for the rigors of descent. With nothing left, they succumbed to altitude sickness and the hazards of their endeavor.

Reading of their passing led me to draw a contrast with the experience shared with me at lunch over the weekend. I was at the luncheon following the Bar Mitzvah of a friend’s son when I was introduced to a gentleman who had tried and failed to scale Mt. Everest. He reported that, after training for the experience of a lifetime, he felt that his body was not responding the way he knew it had to in order to pass his life’s most rigorous test to date.

Understand that he was on Mt. Everest, high above base camp. He could almost see the summit, as I’m sure he had in his dreams many times. His decision, heartbreaking though it must have been, was to turn back. People do not conquer Mount Everest; teams do. In perhaps no other endeavor is the performance of every, single team member as crucial. My new acquaintance told me that he simply felt that he was not capable of holding up his end of the bargain. So he remained behind…and lived to tell about it.

I thought about his experience a lot on the way home. I returned to my thoughts when I read the CNN article. My thought process let me, inexorably, to the goals I set for myself and my business, as well as those I watch clients set themselves. I have seen people distort reality in their reach for achievement. I have watched companies fail or walk to the brink of failure because of it.

Construction companies wanting to achieve the “next level” take on projects far too large or complex for their current capacity and skill set. Professionals, wanting to instantly achieve a more robust suite of services to offer, begin dabbling in fields to which they are only minimally suited. Business owners who envision their name on a building or wider renown expend precious resources to achieve their particular summit…only to find disaster awaiting them on the other side.

People love the mantra “dream big.” I’m sure you could find those words in thousands of graduation speeches and millions of Facebook status updates. But in my view, what should accompany those words, bold and enticing as they are, is the admonition: “plan small.” If you have an understanding of the path you must travel to achieve your big dreams, I submit that the only way you will ever get there is to plan each and every step.

My new friend planned every step and he survived. I will not be surprised if he summits one day and joins me at lunch to tell about it.   Businesses are the same way. And if I could impart any advice, gleaned from 25 years representing small businesses as well as a (far) outsider’s perspective on mountain climbing, it would be: “dream big, plan small, and live to tell the tale.”