In 1852, Indian mathematician and surveyor Radhanath Sikdar used trigonometric calculations to identify Mount Everest as the world’s highest peak. Since that defining moment, the mountain has captured the imagination of adventurers, explorers, mountaineers, and laypeople alike. Numerous expeditions attempting the summit followed, with many resulting in epic stories of near successes, tragic failures, and death. It was not until one hundred and one years later on May 29th, 1953 that Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay completed the summit. Since then, Mt. Everest has seen 5,104 ascents, with 77% of these occurring since 2000.
To no surprise, the conditions and equipment since the time of Hillary and Norgay have changed drastically. One of the most telling examples of this change has been on the original ascent route taken by the duo: the southeast ridge route. Technically the easiest route on the mountain, the southeast ridge is also the most well travelled and hosts a number of conveniences that make the trip even easier, including a series of well beaten paths, permanent ladders, and fixed ropes. In fact, combined with the use of supplemental oxygen, these conveniences significantly lower the barriers of what is required in order to reach the summit.
The reality is that getting to the top is easier than it once was. The numbers represent this. In 2010, five days before the 57th anniversary of two men making the first ever claim to the top, 169 climbers reached the top of Everest – in a single day. By comparison, that is more climbers in a single 24-hour timespan than the 30 years between the first ascent in 1953 and 1983. John Krakauer, mountaineer and author of many articles and books – including Into Thin Air, which details the 1996 Mount Everest Disaster when eight people died – claims that the commercialization of climbing Everest began in 1985, when a Texas oilman and rancher millionaire who had been climbing for no more than four years summited Everest.
Since then, paying your way to the top of Everest has become commonplace. Some pay as much as $120,000 to be guided to the summit. Of course, to the shock of the individuals putting the money forward, paying an exorbitant amount for others to carry your food, equipment, and manage logistics does not guarantee success; even survival, for that matter. Even in some of the most successful years on the mountain, Everest still only sees a slightly better than 50% summit rate.
This is because there are realities on Everest that money cannot mitigate. Sure, money can fly you into basecamp, bring oxygen on someone else’s back, and put ropes and ladders on the mountain. Yet unless you have trained to your peak endurance, the climb will be sluggish. Unless you have worked to increase your VO2 max, you will be short of breath. Unless you have the years of experience necessary to get yourself out of a jam, you increase the chances of endangering your life and those around you. Although nothing is guaranteed, chances of success are increased when you put in the legwork.
This is an undeniable fact of life. You will find exceptions to the rule if you dig deep enough, but more often than not, they’re fantasies disguised as great stories of immediate successes and riches. Malcolm Gladwell makes this point in his 2008 book Outliers. He introduces and builds testimony to the idea that in order to become truly proficient at any discipline, one must invest a minimum of 10,000 hours. He cites examples such as The Beatles, Bill Gates, and even himself as prime evidence of the 10,000-Hour Rule (as he titles it).
Of course, it is more than just time put in; it is about the experience gained. The truth is, whether climbing Everest or doing the dishes, success takes hard work and a familiarity with the task that only experience can offer. If The Beatles had spent their 10,000 hours committed to playing the same song, without the insight, experience, and adaptation from previous performances, failures, or experimentation – well, they wouldn’t be The Beatles.
Lessons of life carry over to business. Time is necessary when trying to gain something from experience. This is true – maybe especially so – at the highest levels of leadership within organizations. In a study done by Jim Collins and colleagues for their 2001 book Good To Great, the authors determine a positive correlation between leaders of successful companies and their status as an insider who worked their way up, rather than an external hire. Of the 11 companies that the authors defined as “great” over a 10-year period with a total of 44 CEOs, only 4.76% were from outside the organization when hired. In contrast, companies within the same industry used as “direct comparison companies” that did not achieve “greatness” by the author’s definition hired outside CEOs 30.77% of the time.
As Collins writes, “the comparison companies turned to outsiders with six times greater frequency – yet they failed to produce sustained great results.” Although he does not hypothesize the possible reason for this stark difference, Collins is willing to bet that experience has a large part to play. By coming from within the organizations that are “great,” the CEOs have gained insight, giving them familiarity in the process, politics, and nuances of a company’s business that are nearly impossible to gain as an outsider.
Ultimately, experience leads to successes that would otherwise be unattainable – in mountain climbing, in business, and in life. There is a deeper understanding, and therefore, appreciation that is obtained through experience. The pains of experience let you appreciate the gains and enjoy the fruits of your labor. No doubt that the millionaire who is airlifted to base camp and then carried to the summit can feel the accomplishment of getting to the top, but it is unlikely that they will feel the same accomplishment by being turned away by a blizzard 100 meters from the top.
It takes experience to appreciate the failures, and it takes the failures to gain experience that drives success.