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Why We Climb Mountains

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Have you ever noticed in movies that monasteries, secret martial arts dojos, and other places of secret knowledge are always high up in the mountains?

Right now I’m thinking specifically of Batman Begins, Kill Bill II, Lord of the Rings, and pretty much every movie ever where a character needs to develop skills (usually with a montage) in order to achieve their goal.

It always happens on a mountain. Why?

Climbing a mountain is a trial that petitioners must go through. They need to be deemed worthy, and one of the ways they’re tested is by being able to get there in the first place. Notice that when the hero arrives at the dojo, he’s always near death, frozen, or whatever– it’s because that’s what it takes to get there.

The mountain is a metaphor for any challenge, but still, people assume that successes come easy. They don’t. The evidence is in the very fabric of stories we tell, back all the way through every story ever told.

If success were easy, we would see the dojo in the hero’s backyard, not on the mountain. And he would just walk back there and be like “Wassup. Train me.”

Would that movie suck? Yes. Would it be valuable if it were easy?

No. It would not.

* Filed by Julien at 12:24 pm under challenge, strategy


Hi, I’m Julien Smith. I'm the founder and CEO of Breather.

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10 Responses to “Why We Climb Mountains”

  1. Todd Schnick Says:

    Man, couldn’t agree more. Just finished my first half-marathon this past weekend. And I wrote about a similar theme to this post. People aren’t always interested in what you are trying to achieve on the mountain, but they respect and are interested in the journey to the top…

    • Julien Says:

      @Todd — congratulations man, that’s pretty huge. It’s true that when it’s on a mountain, people respect it. They see the challenge and go “oh, that’s really hard.” The symbol is enduring because it’s obvious, physical, and primal.

  2. Daniel Haran Says:

    For every heroic near-death experience there are 100 mundane stories. Your capoeira and rock climbing experience left scars without testing you to your absolute limit, and you learned valuable lessons. That story is ill-defined and inchoate, because you changed over time, sometimes in subtle ways. The near-death experiences are dramatic and easier to remember and recount.

    Plumbing saves more lives than surgery – and cleaning hands more lives than stents and bypasses. Yet the idea of modernity is that we’re lucky to have drugs and surgery, rather than the less sexy things like running water and sanitation.

    We remember our lives with the same cognitive biases, and then amplify that with hero stories. The lessons aren’t valuable because they were hard won: we just give them more importance because they were so.

  3. Christopher S. Penn Says:

    Except for some movie about the local building janitor being a karate expert…

  4. Judy Helfand Says:

    You are correct, most that comes easy we do not value. Last year I wrote about a mountain that has impacted many lives. You might enjoy reading http://blog.webconsuls.com/2009/01/many-ways-of-traversing-mount.html

  5. C.C. Chapman Says:

    Hello nail, Julien is now going to SMASH you right on the head.

    Thanks for the laugh and the reminder. Too many people look at success of others and for some reason assume they did just go in the backyard and make it happen. That is rarely (if ever) the case.

    And leave it to Penn to drop a nicely placed Karate Kid reference.

  6. Hugh Macken Says:

    I’ve been meaning to visit your blog for quite a while, Julien. I’m of big fan of Trust Agents and really respect the thoughts I’ve seen you share on twitter and elsewhere. This post reminds me of your earlier post about the value of sacrifice which you and Chris Brogan also allude to in TA in relation to building community. I’m 35 and married now but when I was growing up, my mother gave me a poster that had a photo of a mountain climber climbing a mountain. I still remember it vividly to this day. The quote below read: “Success is not measured by heights attained but by obstacles overcome.” I’m sure you get asked a lot ( I know Brogan has ) how to get on the NY Times Bestseller list as though there’s a fast downhill sled that gets you there rather than an uphill climb that takes vision, time and…sacrifice. Thanks for your thoughtful and encouraging reminder.

  7. James Burgos Says:

    What about Mr. Miyagi? Wasn’t his dojo was at sea-level? ; )

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