It was a number of years ago. I was a management trainer for a consulting firm and was teaching over twenty different leadership/soft skill classes for various clients across the country. I was pretty good too. I’d form relationships with my clients and would continually get asked back, over and over again. By most peoples’ standards, I was very successful; but not for me. When I looked in the mirror I knew something was terribly wrong.
You see, I was going through the motions but my passion was faltering. It was taking more and more effort to get excited about what I was doing. I wasn’t feeling it anymore.
Raise your hand if you know what I’m talking about.
Right about this time my buddy Eric was telling me about a one-day high ropes program that he had taken.
“What’s a high ropes course?” I asked.
Eric smiled, hoping I would ask. “A high ropes course is a series of challenging outdoor activities that typically take place high off the ground (like up in the trees or on poles). Picture a telephone pole and you have an idea about how high off the ground I’m talking about.”
“And what’s the point of these activities?” I asked rather curiously.
“You almost have to experience it for yourself to truly understand the value. What I can tell you is that you’ll learn more about yourself than you’d ever imagine.”
As Eric continued talking about his high ropes experience, my mind began drifting over to my own dilemma. I interrupted him.
“Do you think that program would help me get a new perspective on life?”
He nodded. “And a whole lot more!”
“Then I’m doing it!” I said, and enrolled myself in the next available program.
The High Ropes Course
After a few light team building exercises to start the first morning off, our instructor Sara pointed over to our next activity, off in the distance. We all gazed in the direction of her finger.
What I saw sent chills up and down my spine. She was pointing at the infamous Power Pole, a 35-foot pole with a small platform on top that had a trapeze dangling about 7 feet out from it. All I could think as my body began shaking was, Are you kidding me!
I had seen this activity on YouTube before. First you have to climb to the top of the pole with nothing but a belay rope attached to you. Then you have to somehow maneuver yourself up on the platform so you can stand up. And if that’s not enough, the only way down is to jump off the pole and trust that your teammates below will slowly lower you to the ground. And the trapeze, you ask? Well that’s more like a bonus for those who can manage to jump straight out 7 feet from the the top of the pole.
Sounds easy, right? Not if you have a fear of heights…or trust issues…or balance problems…or any other limitation. In fact, the woman who was climbing the pole on the YouTube video began hyperventilating as she reached the top of the pole and literally froze at the top. Eventually a rescue team had to climb up and peel her off the pole and help her back down.
Needless to say, I started to panic as we began walking towards the pole. Negative thoughts were flooding my mind. I’m not sure I can do this! What if I start hyperventilating like that lady did in the video and freeze at the top? I quickly sized up the other nine participants in the program as I searched for a strategy. I needed a plan…a survival plan.
And then it came to me. I know, I thought to myself, I’ll go fifth!
A rare smile came over my face. It was the perfect plan. I’d place myself right smack in the middle of the group, thereby enabling me to carefully watch and learn from the first four! This way by the time it was my turn, I’d know exactly what to do. And then I giggled to myself thinking how going fifth would also separate me from the few stragglers at the end who surely were going to struggle with this particular activity.
Now with my strategy intact, I was ready, or as ready as one could be for such a monstrous challenge…or so I thought. But then something happened that would change my life forever.
As we came up to the base of the 35-ft. pole, I noticed that we were all staring up in wonder…or in my case, wondering what was I thinking in signing up for this program! Just then Sara asked us all to sit down, as she went over a grabbed a stick. When she rejoined the group, she proceeded to draw a circle in the dirt.
“Do you see this circle,” she said.
We all nodded.
“This circle represents your comfort zone. The inside is where your greatest comfort comes from; it’s what you know…it’s what you’re used to…and it’s safe.”
Then she pointed to the area outside the circle. “What do you think this area represents?”
“Risk,” shouted one participant.
“The unknown,” added another.
“Our growth areas,” I yelled, still not sure where she was going with this demonstration.
Sara smiled. “That’s right. So what’s our natural tendency when we get to the edge of our comfort zone…do we take a step out or do take a step back in?”
We all looked at each other before someone said, “I think we move back into the comfort zone.”
She nodded. “I think you’re right. And here’s the problem with that. Imagine that each time we retreat back into the comfort zone, we add a layer of bricks around the outside of the circle…and then another layer and another layer. Eventually the bricks get so high that we can no longer see out.”
“So what you are saying,” I added, “is that instead of our comfort zones expanding, they become insulated.”
Sara’s eyebrow’s lifted up. “Yes!”
“But how do you know if that’s happening?” asks another participant.
“Simple. You stop taking risks. You stop challenging yourself.” And then she paused before emphasizing, “You stop growing.”
At this point we were all so focused on the conversation at hand that we had forgotten about the giant power pole looming in front of us.
Sara pointed to the edge of the circle again. “Tell me this. What would happen to our circle…our comfort zone, if instead of retreating back into the circle we took a baby step outside the circle?”
“Your circle expands!” someone shouted.
Sara nodded while looking up at the pole. “Exactly. And this power pole activity is an opportunity for many of you to expand your comfort zones.”
Suddenly my mouth dropped open, as if I had been hit by one of those metaphoric bricks. Ah! Now I see where she’s going with all of this. She’s talking about me! A rush of uninvited awareness swept over me. I realized that I live in that comfort zone. It’s where I operate from, make decisions, and view the world from. Why, it’s no wonder why I had lost my passion…I couldn’t see out past the brick wall that was blocking my view. And to top it off, my I’ll go fifth strategy was anything but risk, challenge, or growth. It was me doing what I always do. Suddenly I was reminded of the quote, “If you want things to stay the same, then keep doing what you are doing.”
So why did I sign up for this workshop in the first place? I asked myself. Was it to shake things up in my life and discover what’s important? Or, was it to simply do what I always do and thus get the results I always get?
The answer was clear to me. I put myself in this workshop so I could change things up and view the world from a different perspective. Maintaining the status quo was no longer acceptable. Doing what I always do was no longer acceptable…which meant, going fifth was no longer an option. It was time for a bold move!
Sara’s voice suddenly brought me back to the group. “So, who wants to go first?”
I cringed as my shaking hand reluctantly rose up above my head. I felt like I was back in second grade, praying someone else would get picked. But no, not this time. Instead, everyone in the group looked over at me and unanimously shouted with conviction, “Yes, Giesen needs to go first!”
All I could think was, Crap! Is it that obvious!
The Power Pole
I knew if I thought too much about what I was doing that it would be the kiss of death, so I raced up the pole in record time, making sure to not look down as I climbed. Once at the top I was faced with the difficult challenge of lifting myself up on the loose platform that sits on top of the pole. This was much more difficult than I could have ever imagined. Not only was there nothing to hold on to, but I suddenly became deathly aware that I was up 35-feet up in the air and hanging on to a pole that was swaying in the wind. It was a moment that I’ll never forget. Part of me wanted to hold on for dear life, hoping to wake up from this nightmare with the realization that it was only a dream, while the other part of me wanted to persevere, trusting that I’d find a way to overcome this dilemma.
The voices from the group grew louder. “Come on Geese, you can do it! You’re almost there!”
I heard every comment and suggestion. In fact, I totally relied on the group to slowly and methodically instruct me the rest of the way.
“Now move your left hand to the other side…that’s right, just like that. Excellent! Now place both feet together and gently lift…nice and slow.”
Before I knew it, I was standing and trying to balance myself on the little platform on top of the pole. My body was literally trembling from head to toe as my knees kept buckling. The group began cheering, “You’re the man! You go Geese!”
I wanted to join in on the cheers and raise my arms in victory but couldn’t. I still had to jump off the pole…something that suddenly became more terrifying than climbing up on the platform. What’s more, the trapeze that I was supposed to lunge for seemed ridiculously too far away.
The group roared again from below, “We got you Geese, let her rip!”
I bent my knees just a bit, took a big breath, and lunged like I had never lunged before…and totally missed the trapeze. But you know what? It didn’t matter. I did it. And as the group slowly lowered me down to the ground, all I could do was embrace the intense exhilaration that engulfed me from head to toe. It was better than scoring the winning goal in overtime back when I played college soccer.
I don’t remember a whole lot more about the rest of that day except that I couldn’t stop smiling. That’s because I had found my passion again…a passion for life and a passion for going after what I wanted and getting it. But more importantly, I was passionate about my work and my place in the world. I had gotten exactly what I was hoping to get from this program.
To this day I continue to have very profound insights about my day on the pole and even created a whole presentation around it called Playing with Purpose (which I use in the Leading From Within program).
For now, I’d like to leave you with a few bullet points of what I learned from the top of the pole:
- The pole itself wasn’t that difficult to climb. What made it difficult was how I built the whole experience up in my mind before ever climbing it.
- It is very comfortable to live in my comfort zone…but I stop growing when I do that.
- The easiest way to step out of my comfort zone is by having a goal/desire that’s greater than the resistance that defines the edges of my comfort zone. However, this requires knowing what I want.
- I used to make fun of purpose statements but now realize that having a purpose is what gives me direction. And by having a direction, I’m able to know what I want and how to make it happen.
- I never could have successfully climbed the pole without the help from the group below. Likewise, I cannot achieve my purpose in life without the help of others.
- Whenever I’m feeling like I cannot do something…or that I just want to go fifth in life…I visualize being back on the pole and remind myself that the only thing that separates me from achieving the life I want is me. And if I want something bad enough, all I have to do is go for it with everything I have and don’t look back (or down).
Greg Giesen is the Manager of People Development at the University of Denver and brings over 25-years of experience in leadership development, management coaching, conflict mediation, team building, and keynote speaking. He’s also the author the award-winning novel, Mondays At 3: A Story for Managers Learning to Lead.