Perseverance & Giving Up

Breathtaking K2 movie poster

Last year I watched Breathtaking K2: The World’s Most Dangerous Mountain, and I think this is a very accurate metaphor for the startup/social enterprise journey. What is often a journey of many years working on a startup idea compressed into a 46-minute film.

The film follows Adrian Ballinger and Carla Perez as they attempt to climb the world’s second-highest mountain (8,611m) without supplemental oxygen. One in four people who reach the summit of K2 die.

On the expedition they experienced altitude sickness, adverse weather, the most snow in 30 years resulting in hazardous snow conditions, and an avalanche had already wiped out one team’s camp. This was before they even really got started. From there they faced one setback after another.

Most of the climbers give up for the season and go home. Some die. Everyone says this isn’t the season to do it. Adrian says he’ll “go until the mountain tells me I can’t go anymore”. As they get to K2 basecamp he reflects that the trek took 50% longer than they planned, but he was “so stoked to be here”. They then start the acclimatisation process, which he says “takes patience, persistence, and a lot of practice”. He also says “I am so confident it’s the right thing, but man it hurts”.

Of course, they’re supported by a team, and there’s knowledge from people who’ve climbed the mountain before. There were team members who did some core preparation work that would enable getting to the summit, even though some wouldn’t get there themselves.

“With their confidence shattered, and the obstacle in front of them seemingly too big to overcome, the team had a decision to make. They could pack up and leave with the rest of the climbers or they could stay and hope for a miracle”.

Adrian says “I sort of came into the season knowing that it was gonna be hard and dangerous… all along I’ve kinda told myself that failure’s okay and that we all fail, and that we just keep taking these small steps toward success and hopefully it comes and even when it doesn’t the experiences are really, really powerful”.

Trust and interaction between teammates are critical. “When I see them deal with stress and risk, their decision making is so on point and they’re so focused, but at the same time, their attitude is just right. It’s easy to be around, it keeps me feeling confident… they’re just good humans. They care about the people around them. When they’re asking you questions, you know they’re listening and interested… and just having fun.”

On the summit climb, you can see the emotional rollercoaster. “That was full on, scary, hard. We’re gonna try to get to a safe spot around the corner and reassess”. Followed not long after by “…we still have a long way to go. I’m totally emotional. I just can’t believe it, we’re at 8,400m. Perfect day. It’s feeling awful good. Still a lot of work to go. A couple of hours to the summit, and then we gotta get down safe, but it’s a special moment right now”. And then the final reflection before they thankfully got back safely… “it’s unbelievable that everything worked out with all of the setbacks”.

There are so many examples of mindset, awareness of strengths and assets, the team, their approach to risk and failure, how they reframed situations, their optimism bias, and most importantly, their personal sustainability. They took the time to go slow where they needed to look after themselves, acclimatise, and be able to go again.

These are all of the things I cover in practical and actionable detail in Chapter 1: Mindset of my book Solve Problems That Matter.

The key thing they did was persevere. Steve Jobs said “I’m convinced that about half of what separates the successful entrepreneurs from the non-successful ones is pure perseverance… Unless you have a lot of passion about this, you’re not going to survive. You’re going to give it up. So, you’ve got to have an idea, or a problem or a wrong that you want to right that you’re passionate about; otherwise you’re not going to have the perseverance to stick it through”.

You definitely need to be resilient and persevere to be successful. Our mindset and happiness habits are what make that possible. That’s why I focus on this first when I’m coaching people.

It’s also important to know when to go home. To give up. To stop. This is usually the hardest decision you’ll make on your startup journey. It’s an emotional one and it has its own grieving process. From my experience this applies about as much for something in the very early stages as it does when you’ve been working on it for years.

When that happens – and statistically it will – you’ll be hurting, but you don’t want to have compromised your personal sustainability. You want to be able to reflect on what you’ve learnt, maybe take a breath… and try again.