The Invisible Mountain

“First there is a mountain.
Then there is no mountain.
Then there is.”
– Zen Proverb

Everything is possible in the beginning.

You are on this mountain. I am on this mountain. We are all on some mountain somewhere. The trick is realizing it's there.

You are on a mountain. I am on a mountain. We are all on some mountain somewhere. The trick is realizing it’s there.

Having started a handful of businesses, a couple of little local TV shows, several websites, and about three dozen novels, I’ve always found the beginning to be a perfectly lovely time–a gentle stroll down a shady path. But then gradually, invisibly, the terrain begins to shift and the grade steepens. Before long, I feel like I’m trying to scale a sheer rock face with nothing but bruised fingers grasping at icy little holds.

Does that sound at all familiar?

For a while, I interpreted this phenomenon as a sign that whatever project I was working on was just faulty in some way. Only later did I realize that the increasing resistance I was encountering was nothing more than the inevitable mountain awaiting all artists, entrepreneurs, and other aspiring world-changers.

In 1889, a Swedish chemist described a barrier preventing chemical reactions from occurring. Whether lighting a match or turning hydrogen and oxygen into water, there’s a certain amount of energy you need to put into the system to make the reaction happen. That energy looks like a big spike (or mountain).

This is what activation energy looks like.

This is what activation energy looks like.

Chemists refer to it as Activation Energy and in my experience it could as easily describe the challenge for someone trying to change her station in life as depict specific facts about chemical transformations.

The slope increases the further up you get until it feels like you’re struggling up a perpendicular rock face. Only after you push past this maximally difficult space does the slope even out and then start rapidly descending. But oh the joy in that descent! Once you’ve broken through, it’s much easier to maintain and even accelerate your transformation.

So how do you push past the wall?

I’d recommend taking two very simple, yet significant lessons–one from chemistry and another from mountaineering.

activation20energy

Catalysts (enzymes in the illustration above) can make molehills out of mountains. Imagine that the Delta-G at the end of the reaction is the explosion of good energy you get after your novel or other creative project breaks through and bathes you in riches and glory.

The Catalyst

To overcome the steepest hurdles in chemical transformation, chemists will introduce catalysts–substances, enzymes, or other materials that reduce the amount of activation energy you need.

In life, this might be the equivalent of being discovered by some great promoter or publisher who nurtures your career to the point where you can really take off. Successful families also can provide this energy to their offspring, paving the way for far quicker and easier trips up the mountain.

That said, if you don’t happen to catch a ride on one of these magic helicopters, there are other catalysts you can find to support your journey. Critique groups or other networks of fellow creators can often help you over the wall. So can mentors or loved ones who really believe in what you’re doing and who will lend you strength and enthusiasm when your own falters or gives out.

The wider and richer your network, the more likely you’ll be to find the catalysts you need. In that sense, then, one of the absolute most essential things any creator must do is seek out and actively support other creators. Be their catalysts and they may in time be yours as well.

Dedicated teams stand a much better chance on the mountain than solo adventurers.

One way to think of feedback loops is to consider them as switchbacks leading you over the activation energy mountain.

One way to think of feedback loops is to consider them as switchbacks leading you over the activation energy mountain.

Switchbacks

Of course, if you want to climb any mountain, one of the oldest and most obvious strategies is to take switchbacks rather than attempt to scale the mountain straight up. This is where feedback loops factor in.

The process of gradually accumulating skill through relentless practice such that you become better and better able to produce works of greater and greater quality is akin to switchbacking your way over an activation energy mountain.

The positive feedback part of it all is the elevation you gain with every turn of the loop.

You might feel like you’re just walking in circles or even going nowhere, but as long as you keep focused on the mountain you’re climbing (rather than getting bored or turned away by how steep the climb is) you will reach the top. Every step builds on the progress of the steps before. As the mountain narrows toward the top, your switchback loops grow smaller and smaller and your conquest of the peak grows more and more inevitable.

The point is: you must keep climbing. The mountain is only invisible as long as you’re focusing on the challenge of the moment. Put it in perspective and you’ll realize the struggle is both necessary and well worth the effort.

Previous post in this series: Magic Loops

Next in the series: Lessons from Wildfires

6 thoughts on “The Invisible Mountain

  1. Aaron,

    Great post and very interesting.

    Thank goodness for critique groups. I was thinking today about how much I’d owe if I’d been charged for every critique I’ve received.

    I’m definitely getting a workout with my writing, but I’ll keep climbing!

  2. The writer’s mountain. I don’t even know if I’ve hit the plateau to the base, some days. I keep wishing I am just climbing in the fog and someday I’ll open my eyes and LOOK AT THAT VIEW!
    Of course, I’m desperately afraid of heights, so maybe that won’t be cool afterall.
    Back to the point at hand – Writers. Switchback. Keep Climbing.
    Yes, thank you.

    • The view will be well worth it. So will all the free energy on the downhill side. But yes, for now, it’s all about the diligent climbing. The trickiest part of switchbacks, of course, is that you can walk for quite a while and then realize you’ve gotten back to a point that’s only a few feet above where you were before–but it is progress, and that’s the key. Right?

    • Is it instinct preservation or just waning optimism when we become more afraid of heights as we age? We all have to climb for a view though! The writer’s mountain indeed. Is it just one, or a whole range?

      I like finding catalysts to fire me over the First Hill.

      I just wish I was better at using the gained momentum to get over the Next Bigger Hill.

  3. Pingback: Lessons from Wildfires | Delve Writers

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