No one remembers who climbed Mount Everest the second time — Sir Edmund Hillary
This essay is a deeply personal story inspired by the countless men and women who have climbed or attempted to climb the 100 highest mountain peaks in the world. Almost all of these peaks lie in the countries of India, China, Pakistan, Nepal and Afghanistan. The highest of them all — Mount Everest is in Nepal.
The two contemporary mountaineers who continue to inspire me today are Cory Richards who recently climbed Gasherbrum II, a 26,360 ft peak in Northwest Pakistan and the Free Soloist Alex Honnold who became the first person to climb El Capitan without a rope on June 3, 2017.
It is not just their climbs that continue to inspire me. Rather, it is their journey to conquer their inner demons to climb those peaks. A journey that is testament to the capability of every human to achieve the impossible should they choose to conquer their fear and find their unique personal summit to climb. That summit is a symbol of any single minded pursuit in life from music to writing, from film making to climbing peaks.
The Beginning Of A Life Without Fear
For most of my teenage and adult life, I have been scrawny. “All bones, no meat!” they would say. If people had a very strong opinion about my appearance, they made no bones about it. No pun intended. Growing up, I was constantly hounded by almost every single person I met. The other choicest set of words I was constantly at the receiving end of but I never actually got comfortable with was: malnourished, undernourished, underweight, unhealthy etc. However, the word that pained me the most was ‘emaciated’. Even though I was from a family that was well off, that word just conjured up images of abject deprivation or that of a state of life devoid of basic necessities.
None of it was true. It was true that I was skinny but not to the extent society characterized my appearance. I must admit those words reminded me of the brutality that human speech could inflict on tender, growing minds. For years, I thought there was something lacking in me and that I could never matchup to the world. It was almost as if society dismissed my existence with a single, swift wave of a hand. A gesture that said “you won’t amount to much”.
Life passed by at an ordinary pace. I kept hearing the insults but could never really get over them. At least, not until July of 2012. At the time, I found myself at Nathu La — a place on the Indo-China border which was also known as the ‘old silk road. Nathu means “listening ears” and La means “pass” in Tibetan. It connects the Indian state of Sikkim with China’s Tibetan autonomous region. The winters at Nathu La experiences heavy snowfall with temperatures dropping to -25 °C. Because of the steep elevation increase around the pass, the vegetation graduates from sub-tropical forest at its base, to a temperate region, to a wet and dry alpine climate, and finally to cold tundra desert devoid of vegetation.
However, what connects Nathu La to my journey of overcoming my own demons about my appearance is that Nathu La is at an elevation of 14,140 feet or 4,310 meters above sea level. To give you a very rough idea, the North Everest base camp is at an elevation of 16, 900 feet or 5,150 metres. Altitude wise, I was still not as high as Everest base camp but mindset wise, I had already climbed mount Everest. The temperature was roughly -10 celsius and all I had on me were two layers of clothing. As I climbed to the highest point of the Nathu La pass, I ran out of breath but I survived with nothing but two layers of clothing. As I stood there admiring the view, my very first thought was “I was sticking it to the man”. I was admonishing every falsehood society had conjured up against my being. I was soaring higher than the artificial elevation that the majority of the world thought was my limit.
Since then, I have never given up. After skydiving from an airplane and flying that very same airplane the next day, nothing seems impossible today. I have broken free from the thoughts of the rest of the world about me.
I write this deeply personal story to remind each and every one of you reading it that it took me a long time and a torturous climb to break free of my inner demons. However, if you ask me today ‘what a great man looks like?’, I would smile and say ‘ a common man who has conquered his own fears and is on a journey to climb his own Mt. Everest’. That singular peak which is unique and his own to conquer. Becoming the first person in the world to do so is just a natural outcome.
What Goes Around Comes Around
Asia is a very fascinating place. It is home to about 2,197 languages, countless ethnicities, religions, cuisines and so on. However, what has fascinated me a lot growing up is a unique form of educational class distinction. The hierarchy that defines a smart person in Asia goes somewhat like this: at the top are the doctors followed by engineers. In third place are students of accounting, commerce and economics and at the bottom are students pursuing liberal arts. A large part of this class hierarchy is because of practical, economic reasons. As one of the most densely populated continents in the world, only the people who are the best of breed in the top two layers of the class are perceived to be on a road to leading a great life. The rest of the people are doomed to an average or a slightly above average life. There is a large truism in this class distinction especially considering the fast paced economic growth this region is experiencing. With India’s GDP poised to grow above 7% and China’s above 6%, there is going to be a huge demand for doctors and STEM graduates. Add to the mix the fact that Artificial Intelligence is reshaping the workforce.
In short, you would be wise to choose a STEM course as a path to a succesful life. I, on the other hand, am more of a creative person. I loved science but I loved music and writing more. If I had no economic constraints whatsoever, I would have loved to pursue a career in music followed by writing.
Honestly, I haven’t made much headway in music but I am at the bottom of the peak as far as my writing goes. I have no idea how successful I will be at either but I am close to finding out. As I watched the documentary ‘Free Solo’ featuring Alex Honnold who climbed El Capitan with his bare hands and nothing else, it struck me that each of us has to find our very own personal peak to climb. A journey that keeps you awake at night and dreaming and planning about it during the day. It doesn’t necessarily involve climbing a mountain peak. It could be the creation of the first system of alternative education that prepares the workforce of the future or it could be a platform providing the simplest possible solutions for world problems. It could simply be writing to inspire a generation.
Many of us have a chance to free ourselves from a feeling of economic bondage during our lifetimes to come back to doing the things we always wanted to. Ironically, Artificial Intelligence (AI) is intended to free up our time to pursue our creative passions. There is no excuse left as far as the modern gig economy goes. We live in a time where all the equipment in the world, the platforms as well as the audiences are accessible more easily than any other point in human history. The only thing holding back your greatness is your own fear.
When you begin to fathom the impossibility you lay before yourself and then work scientifically to break down the task to a sequence of steps, you have already changed that impossibility into a possibility at least mentally.
After a long career as an accountant and as a banker, I have come back full circle to pursue my passion for storytelling and writing all in my own lifetime. I have just begun. If your own mortality is your biggest motivator, you don’t have any time to waste.
Your Own Impossibility
This world needs inspiration more so than ever. A glimpse of perfection, even for a moment, can save somebody’s life and give him purpose. While the outcome is the same i.e. inspiring every human in the world to be the best version of themselves, the possibilities of creating a symbol of that inspiration are endless. You can inspire the world in a million ways. However, before you can do that, you have to find out what unique gift your life has endowed you with. My father is a captivating storyteller. The fact that I am writing is just his legacy. Today, I seem to have found a small gift. A gift of using words to explain complicated things in a simple way and to tell stories that inspire people. It is a gift I have just begun to understand more about. This world is full of great writers that I cannot even begin to match.
Figuratively, I am at the bottom of my peak. It could take me more than one lifetime to reach my full potential but I am aware of my little boon. I am sure each of you has a unique gift, talent or skill that no one else possesses. You have to climb solo. For a mountain climber, it is the relationship between the mountain and his body — an animate object that focuses on nothing but the wall of granite in front of him. Likewise, it has to be your unique gift and you. There’s nowhere else you’d rather be. The only thing keeping you climbing is the rediscovery of your soul.