Life Lessons From The Trail


My fourteen-year-old son Matthew and I just returned from a hiking trip in Guatemala’s Mayan Highlands. Our journey was challenging, meaningful, fun and enlightening. We took away four primary lessons that apply to our daily lives: First, without unrelenting effort you miss out on the best that life offers. Second, discomfort and sacrifice is necessary for success. Third, no one accomplishes anything alone. Finally, we grew a deeper appreciation for our lives.

Effort is the price of entry. Effort presents the gift of experiencing what others can’t. The rewards, both tangible and intangible – the big house, the fancy cars, the feeling of pride or accomplishment – drives us.

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As Edmund Hillary, the first man to summit Mount Everest, said poignantly, “It’s not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.” And so it is. The mountain, the career or the difficult relationship is not the challenge, but rather merely the foil. We challenge the self-imposed limits that constrain us and endeavor to exceed previous incarnations of ourselves. Effort is how we stretch ourselves and live fully.

Discomfort, both mental and physical, is required for success. People fall into three groups: quitters, campers and climbers. Quitters pack it in at the first sign of adversity while campers have greater tolerance pushing on until they are comfortable or until the adversity is too great. People choose to quit or camp because they no longer want to sacrifice and fight through pain. In contrast, climbers are on a lifelong ascent and are constantly testing themselves intellectually, physically and emotionally.

With this mindset, and an imperative to succeed, Matthew and I began our journey. On the first leg of our journey we summited a 13,000-foot volcano and we later trekked 50 kilometers climbing over 6,000 feet in elevation to a 12,000-foot ridge-line.

As we climbed, the altitude sapped Matthew’s stamina and strength. Despite the physical discomfort, thin air, heavy backpacks, cold and dirt, failure was not an option; we chose to be climbers. We focused on one goal at a time – a summit, the next village or a river crossing. Tired, weary and short on breadth Matthew pressed on.

An interesting transformation occurred. As we achieved each incremental or ultimate goal Matthew was energized. After summiting the volcano Matthew’s pain disappeared and, energized by his accomplishment, he literally ran down the volcano. He quickly forgot the effort and hard work and basked in his success.

Teamwork. Matthew, our guide and I worked together as a team. We kept each other motivated, shared the burden of carrying over 80 pounds of equipment and provisions and shared our success. Together we accomplished more than any of us could have alone.

Appreciate your life and give back. Little factors have huge consequences. Living in America affords us advantages such as education, stable governmental institutions, abundant food and fresh water and a nation of immense wealth and power. We experienced the gap between ourselves and the Guatemalans every day. We have opportunities that they can only dream of. We have an obligation to help others less fortunate.

So I leave you with a favorite poem of mine “For The Want Of A Nail” and the thought about how lucky we are that we each had that nail in our lives.

“For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.”