Mind over mountain! That's what we were told throughout the seven day climb to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro, the tallest mountain in Africa at 19,341 feet. I expected the climb to be challenging. In fact, that's one of the reasons I wanted to endure the long days, rain, cold, wind and altitude sickness. I enjoyed testing myself up the mountain, but the real test came after I summited and was back near sea level. It was this second test that I've realized is one of the real keys to life. It ranks as one of the most challenging and important experiences of my life.
The climb itself takes physical stamina and strength, but like the adage suggests, it requires more mental toughness than anything. And on that front, the mountain delivered. Staying strong and committed at over 19,000 feet is no easy task. Anxiety is high and oxygen is low. You need discipline and focus. If your mind wanders for too long, you can put yourself in jeopardy of not making the top or worse. Tackling a big event or challenge like this is crucial for developing grit and for stretching your (often limited) idea of what you can do.
It is only when you've been to hell and back that you can put these things into perspective. Nietzsche was half right. That which doesn't kill you can either make you stronger ... or more fearful (you don't have to look much further than phobias, early trauma or PTSD to see this play out). The question is then: how can you suffer adversity and come out better and more resilient instead of weaker and more anxious? The answer? Mind control.
The night I made it off the mountain and back to civilization, my tooth began to ache. It was a deep and sharp pain that literally took me off my feet. Pain medication was of no help. The pain and desperation only got worse that night and the next day. While the group was getting ready to fly over the Serengeti and do a safari, I quickly realized I couldn't endure five more days of intense pain and made the decision to stay behind.
Once the entire group left, I was by myself in a town in sub-Saharan Africa in excruciating pain without a hotel and with a ticket for a flight that left four days later. Professionally speaking, I started to freak out. I felt lost and completely uncertain. I don't know if it was the pain or the anxiety (or both!) but I couldn't think straight. My head was spinning, and I felt like giving up. But that was the beauty of the situation. Unlike climbing a mountain or doing a triathlon, I couldn't give up. I was stuck. Once I realized this, I remember thinking I didn't have a choice. Enter mind control. It took all my effort to calm my mind and develop a plan, but what became most important was the conscious thought that no matter how much pain I was in, no matter how difficult it would be to find a new flight and drive 100 miles to another city, no matter what, I would do it and I would get through this. My mind still strayed over the next 48 hours, but I kept coming back to the belief that I could and would survive.
The lesson is that we need to stretch ourselves beyond our comfort zones over and over and over again. This builds resilience and the confidence that we need to laugh off our fears and anxiety. One of the greatest skills and gifts you can give yourself is to trust in yourself, even when there is chaos all around you.
How can you push and stretch yourself over the next week? Start slowly and gradually build up your ability to withstand anxiety and uncertainty.
(Robert Pagliarini is a CBS MoneyWatch columnist and the author of "The Other 8 Hours: Maximize Your Free Time to Create New Wealth & Purpose" and the national best-seller "The Six Day Financial Makeover." Visit YourOther8Hours.com.)