Let’s Talk About Stress, Baby

“Let’s talk about stress, baby. Let’s talk about you and me, let’s talk about all the good things and the bad things stress can bring. Let’s talk aboooouutt stresss.”

 

Alright enough with the funny business, let’s get down to the business of stress. It’s no longer a surprise to anyone that stress has been running rampant across the U.S. and most of the western world. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO), has dubbed stress as the health epidemic of the 21st century; reducing our quality of life and sending many of us to an early grave – not cool. Stress is a broad topic area, so in this post I want to get specific and focus on why stress has become such a big problem today and provide you with a few easy tools and strategies to manage the stress in your life.

 

First, let’s get a baseline understanding of stress because it’s pretty misunderstood…

 

People often refer to “stress” as a terrible thing but stress, in and of itself, is actually not the problem. As a matter of fact, stress is an amazing physiological response that our age-old brains developed to keep us safe.

 

Let’s take a look at what happens to our physical body when we get stressed:

 

When we experience a stressor, the nervous system triggers the adrenal glands to release adrenaline and cortisol – these hormones make the heart beat faster and raise blood pressure. As our heart rate increases, our blood vessels dilate which increase the amount of blood that gets pumped to the heart and large muscles. We breathe harder and more rapidly to get more oxygen to the muscles. Our muscles contract to prepare us for an impact and the liver produces more glucose (blood sugar) to give increased energy to support the fight or flight response.

 

When you think about it, the stress response is actually pretty friggin cool. Stress is meant to be an ally – we basically become super-human for a moment to deal with the stressor before our rational brain even fully grasps what is going on – it’s pretty much our spidey sense.  People often say they want to eradicate stress from their lives completely, but the truth is; our ancestors probably wouldn’t have done too well against their predators or hunting prey had it not been for the stress response. Even in many present day contexts, we’d be screwed (or at least at a big disadvantage) without it.

uganda
A perfect example of a time where I was thankful for my body’s natural stress response…

 

So why has stress become such a problem?

 

The issue with stress is more often the lack of recovery from the stress than the stress itself. Back in the day, the way it would go is that once the crisis or stressor passed, your body systems returned to normal. The hunter tracking his prey gets this super-human burst which subsides once the prey has been caught. That same hunter later gets ambushed by a predator and gets that same super-burst to fight or evade the attacker until the threat is gone. In this context, stress was the best thing that could have happened for them.

 

But we don’t really experience stress like this anymore…why?

 

Our brains didn’t get the memo that times have changed… it’s 2019 and in our normal day-to-day we’re no longer evading danger or hunting prey in the present moment…we still do this but in our mind. Our brains have this amazing ability to visualize and rehearse things, which allows us to plan for and imagine a future or reflect on and learn from the past, but it also means that we can re-live or imagine stressful experiences that can haunt us. It’s a brilliant little catch 22: our greatest asset (the mind) can produce the same physiological response to stress based on an imagined event that will likely never happen, or be much less stressful than the idea itself.

 

Take dogs for example. If you were to kick a dog, the dog would quickly learn to avoid you to not get kicked again. He’ll avoid you whenever he sees you, but once you’re out of sight, he’ll rest again. Humans however, will replay a situation, past or future, time and time again reliving it as if it were happening in the present moment – therefore the stress response never subsides and that is why we have CHRONIC stress. Those physiological responses were never meant to be held over an extended period of time, and when they are, they can wear us down physically, mentally and emotionally and lead to a slew of unwanted conditions such as hypertension, headaches, depression, anxiety, weight gain, etc. the list goes on and on and on…gastrointestinal, reproductive, and cardiovascular…oh my…

 

So, what can we do about it? For the rest of the post, my goal is to share some simple yet effective tactics to manage the different types of stress in your life.

Jordan squad 4
Giving a presentation in Amman, Jordan that would be published in Jordanian news. Without these stress management tactics, those pants would have been brown, not blue…

There are a few ways I think about categorizing stress management tactics:

  • Strategies to prepare for stress (preventive)
  • Strategies to deal with stress in the heat of the moment
  • Physically-focused tactics
  • Mentally-focused tactics

 

Note that there are both physical and mental tactics that can be used to prepare for stress, others that can be employed in the heat of the stressful moment, and some which can be used for both. Regardless of your preference, to effectively manage your stress, you will need to incorporate all of these different strategies to some degree.

 

Let’s start with the physical.

 

I believe that when we are stressed, the first thing we should do is check in with our physical bodies. While stress often stems from the mind, it shows up in a very real way in the physical body and can instantly change our state. Breathing, exercise, sleep and rest, are the first things I look at when I feel that I am in a state of stress.

 

  • Breathing: What is my breathing like? The breath don’t lie! You can’t be calm when your breathing is short and tight, and you can’t be stressed when your breath is slow, calm, and steady. This is why the first thing I do when I feel the onset of stress is check-in with my breath and begin deep breathing. It can instantly change your state in the heat of the moment.
  • Exercise: Have I been exercising? This is another baseline check in my stress diagnostic. Regular exercise has been shown to decrease overall levels of tension, elevate and stabilize mood, and improve sleep – all which reduce stress. While regular exercise is critical to build general resilience to stress, a single session is also a really good way to release stress in the heat of the moment by pumping you with endorphins
  • Sleep and Rest: Am I getting adequate sleep and rest? I’m sure we can all remember a time where we were well rested, feeling great and something that would normally bother us became laughable. Alternatively, I’m sure we’ve all experienced a time when we were worn down, and something seemingly meaningless set us off. Trying to manage your stress when you are constantly tired is like treading water with a 100lb backpack on…you’re setting yourself up for failure.

 

I love these physically-focused strategies because they are simple and can be used to change your state in the heat of the moment. They can also be practiced over time to build a strong foundation to help you to deal with future stressors that will inevitably come. That said, while deep breathing might cool you down in the heat of the moment, it doesn’t get to the root cause of the issue and that same event may stress you out the very next day. In these cases, we need to go a bit deeper to resolve the core issue.

 

In these cases, we can look at some of the mentally-focused tactics to deal with some of the repetitive stressors in our lives. This is where it gets interesting…

 

First, consider the question: how much of the stress in your life is caused by external events vs the internal narrative you attach to that event?

 

Think about the biggest stressors in your life at the current moment: Is it school exams? A deadline for work? A big presentation coming up? A tough conversation you need to address?

 

When you really think about it, none of these things are stressful in and of themselves. It’s the stories we attach to it…”What if I fail? Will I get fired? Will people judge me?”  We create these stories in our mind about the event and THAT is what causes the stress response. I hate to tell you but there are other people in the world faced with the same “stressful” situation who aren’t losing any sleep over it because in their mind, they have a positive relationship with the stressor.

 

Consider this: You’ve been doing your breath work, you’ve been exercising regularly, and you are well rested…but the stress has not subsided…

 

You can now explore 3 options that will enable you to manage that stress

 

  • Change or remove the stressor
  • Change your relationship with the stressor
  • Change your relationship with the stressful thoughts and feelings the stressor triggers

 

Let’s take a deeper look into what these mean and provide a bit of guidance into when each strategy might be most appropriate. We can use an example of public speaking to illustrate each strategy.

 

Imagine that you have an important presentation coming up. It’s the culmination of a lot of hard work on something you care about. There will be many big names in the audience who have substantial clout in your industry. People are counting on you. You are STRESSSINNN

 

Change or remove the stressor – you could change the stressor by switching the presentation to a phone call or creating a video to convey your message. You could also have someone else on your team present the content instead of you or even cancel the presentation altogether. Doing this would likely alleviate a good bit of the stress coming from the presentation but I don’t think it would really solve the problem. In this case, removing the stressor would probably not be an action aligned with your values. This is something that is important to you and avoiding the situation would only make things more difficult in the long run.

 

Change your relationship with the stressor – This strategy has saved me many times. Our relationships with people, places, and things can often become a source of stress. One need only to change their relationship with the stressor to alleviate the stress. This is best done through cognitive reframing (aka – shifting your perspective). In the case of the presentation – you can start to think of it less about “I have to crush this, the stakes are so high, if I fail all is lost” and more like “I’m so thankful I’m getting this opportunity, I get to share my passion with leaders in the field today, imagine what could happen if I crushed it.” Moving from an “I have to” to an “I get to” mentality can really change your world.

Note: This strategy may not be very effective in the case of a stressor such as a toxic relationship. In that case, changing or removing the stressor may be a better strategy and one that is more aligned with your values.

 

Change your relationship with the stressful thoughts and feelings the stressor triggers: Finally, you can change your relationship with the stress response itself. When you get on that stage and your heart starts pumping and your breathing speeds up, rather than think “omg I must be nervous” you can remember “Wow, my body is preparing me for this challenge, I am getting more oxygen to my brain to lock in and focus…let’s f***in go!” Learning to recognize this physiological response as an ally rather than an indicator of anxiety will enable you to embrace it and use it to your advantage rather than try to get rid of it to no success.

 

So there you have it  – my perspective on stress management 101 – it’s done wonders for me. I hope you now understand that stress can be your ally, it’s when it becomes chronic that it turns into a problem. You have the tools, now it’s time to put it into practice.

 

Thanks for checking out this post. If you thought it was helpful, consider sharing it via Facebook or LinkedIn

 

Cheers!

Matt

Happiness is a choice, not a circumstance

matt smiling

What’s up folks,

 

It’s been just over a month since transitioning back to the U.S. after 6 months of working and traveling through South America. It’s been quite an interesting transition to say the least. Since I’ve returned, I’ve experienced a fair share of highs and lows, all of which have been good tests for me. There are a few things which I have learned through this transition that I’d like to share over the next couple of weeks. The first, being the most prevalent for me at the moment:

 

Happiness is a choice, not a circumstance

 

Boy oh boy – talk about a lifestyle shift. For the last 6 months, I had encountered new people, places, and experiences around every corner. Each day came with a new and exciting mission – explore nature, look within, face fears, challenge myself, connect with a stranger, etc. I was free. On my own. Doing what I wanted, when I wanted it and not having to answer to anyone…

 

Coming off of this exciting year, I was initially very eager to return home and put all of the learnings and experiences I had accumulated into practice. Once I arrived however, I quickly realized that not everything would be as I had initially envisioned. In an instant, my circumstance did a 180. I went from:

  • Summer sun and beautiful beaches to rain, snow, and cold
  • Complete autonomy to living back at my parents’ house for the first time in 8 years
  • Novelty in everything I did to returning back to my quiet hometown of ~20 years where everything feels the same
  • Being of service to incredible people every day to spending a majority of my time alone in an office, working remotely

 

Ram Das describes this test well “If you think you are so enlightened, go home and spend a week with your parents” He goes on to explain how the more shared past there is in a relationship, the easier it is to slip back into old habits and patterns – reliving the past .

 

So, It wasn’t long before I found myself in a bit of a funk. I was off, my mood wasn’t the same, and I wasn’t really engaging in life the same way. I began to blame my circumstance for my lack of mojo.

  • “I can’t thrive here”
  • “Winter sucks, I’m definitely a summer person”
  • “My parents are smothering me”

 

I was allowing myself to become a victim of circumstance and it wasn’t until I was with my mother, venting about how “unfortunate” my situation was, that I finally realized what I was doing. As I was speaking, my mom listened patiently. When I finished, she simply looked at me and asked “Is this how you coach others?” ….OUCH…but true. As her comment sunk in, I was able to put enough distance between me and my thoughts to observe for the first time how soft and victimized I was allowing myself to be.

 

The fact of the matter is that happiness isn’t dependent on circumstance. We all know people who can make the best situations miserable, and others who can take a miserable situation and turn it into a positive experience. What is comes down to is focus and expectation.

 

Focus. In any circumstance, we choose what we will focus on. For instance, if you set a new year’s resolution and falter on it, will you focus on the fact that you failed and give up? Or will you focus on how that moment of weakness made you feel and use it to strengthen your resolve as you move forward? <– same situation, but the direction of focus yields very different outcomes. “There is no good or bad but thinking makes it so” – Shakespeare

 

Expectation. Nothing can kill joy like unmet expectations. We have expectations that people will behave in a certain way and when they don’t, we get sad or angry. We have expectations of what our lives should be and if we aren’t meeting those expectations, we feel unworthy. We have expectations for the outcome of our actions and if those expectations aren’t met, we become frustrated. It’s good to have goals, but dwelling on unmet expectations won’t lead you anywhere productive. Instead, we must tune into the present moment, and understand that everything in this moment is as it should be. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t take responsibility to change a less-than-optimal situation, but never forget that the future is created in the present moment. Each moment comes with a set of choices that will either move you closer or further from your end goal. Stop resisting your current situation and start making the right choices each moment.

 

For me, I was focusing on the thought that I was “stuck back home with my parents” (outcome: frustration) rather than focusing on the fact that I have an amazing family who welcomed me back home with open arms while I prepare for my next move (outcome: gratitude). I had the expectation that my lifestyle back in the US would be the same as my lifestyle in South America, though rationally, I knew this phase would be a necessary step to continue moving forward.

 

Since that realization, I have been actively letting go of expectations and shifting my focus from the things that are “missing” in my current circumstance to view each moment as an opportunity to challenge myself, apply all of the things I’ve learned, and grow. The difference has been a gamechanger. Thanks for the reminder, Mom.

 

Long Story Short: “Don’t seek happiness. If you seek it, you won’t find it because seeking is the antithesis of happiness” Eckhart Tolle

 

 

Thanks for stopping by. Stay classy 🙂

 

 

Matt

What I learned from my own “Heart Attack”

RMD cheese

What’s up beautiful people.

 

I am finally back to blogging after taking off for the last month and back on U.S. soil after the last 6.5 months. Needless to say, I have a lotttt to write about. To spare you the trauma of reading everything in one post, I’ll be sharing learnings and insights from my journey in bits and pieces over the next several weeks.

 

As a brief overview for those who may not have been following – I just recently returned to the U.S. after a sabbatical that I took with my company, Deloitte Consulting. Long story short, my journey ended up taking a few unexpected (but amazing) twists and turns which ultimately led me to Florianopolis, Brazil, to work with an organization called Rosemary Dream. I came to Rosemary Dream to serve as a life coach and facilitator for their flagship empowerment program called “Heart Attack.” The name may elicit a bit of a visceral reaction when you first read it but that is exactly the point…

 

We often hear stories of individuals who had a catastrophic event or near death experience in their life that forever changes them. The stories often follow a similar pattern:

 

  • There was a normal life before the event
  • Then the event happens and they have a realization of what is truly important to them
  • They move into the next phase of their life with a new vision and a sense of appreciation and wonder
  • They often look back and recall the challenging situation as “the best thing that ever happened to me”

 

These stories are usually both inspiring and enlightening and I love reading them, but what about those of us who haven’t had an experience like that? And why must we wait until something so dramatic happens before we wake up, realize what is truly important, and take responsibility for our lives?

 

This is why the Heart Attack program exists, the creators wanted to develop a program that yields the same beneficial effects of a near death experience, without having to nearly experience death.

 

I came to Rosemary Dream expecting to help coach the Heart Attack program, offer as much value as possible given my background, and leave with fond memories of the people and the program. Never did I expect to be transformed in the way that I was…

 

Today, I sit here a better man:

 

  • Physically: I feel stronger than I ever have in my entire life
  • Mentally: I feel clear, focused, and motivated to crush my new goals
  • Emotionally: I feel liberated and healed with an improved ability and confidence to handle any situation that comes my way
  • Spiritually: My heart is full. I feel more grateful than I ever have, I feel happier than I have ever been, and there is more love and richness in my life than I have ever experienced

 

I’ll eventually post about some specifics from the program but for the remainder of this post, I want to share 3 key learnings from my experience in Heart Attack. While these may not seem like net-new insights (and while I already rationally understood these points to be true), Heart Attack allowed me to experience them directly and to solidify the learnings deep inside of my heart and mind.

 

  1. There is a direct correlation between challenges/adversity and personal growth/proud moments. It’s interesting – as human beings, we often try to avoid challenging situations or things that scare the absolute shit out of us. We work hard to bring comfort to our lives; just look at 90% of commercials and consumer products, they are all about making life easier – free of challenging situations and void of “bad” emotions. The paradox is that growth and fulfillment doesn’t happen when we stay inside our comfort zones.  Take a moment to think about the things in your life that you are most proud of or recall your biggest accomplishments. I would bet money that the things that come to mind were very challenging for you or scared the shit out of you when you first faced them. Knowing this – WHY IS IT THAT WE STILL AVOID THESE CHALLENGING SITUATIONS WHEN THEY COME?! WHY IS IT THAT WHEN WE FACE ADVERSITY OR WHEN THINGS DON’T GO OUR WAY, WE BECOME IRRATIBLE, SAD, ANGRY, INSECURE, ETC.?!? It’s crazy how the mind works…

 

During this program I was pushed to my limits – I took a silent fast for 4 days and 3 nights in complete isolation with no food or water, I sat hunched over in a Temescal (sweat lodge) for 3 hours where individuals scream, cry, and pee themselves due to the intensity, I partook in Amazonian medicine ceremonies and ran barefoot on the beach as fast as I could for 2.5 hours straight. Earlier in the program, there were many times where in the midst of the experience, I found myself thinking “this sucks” or wishing it would be over soon. This all changed however, when during one particularly tough experience I recalled one of my favorite Bible verses from the book of James. It reads – Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face challenges/trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. In that moment everything clicked, I realized that instead of resisting, I should be grateful for the difficulties and embrace them, knowing that they are building my perseverance and strengthening me. From that moment on, during the most difficult times, I found myself with my head to the sky, saying “thank you” and feeling a deep sense of gratitude for the opportunity to grow.

 

In Heart Attack, when things get intense, rather than back off, we press in. When people hit their breaking point and lash out in anger or break down and weep, we don’t try to “fix” or soften the situation, we embrace it with a “this is amazing” and press in a bit more, trusting that the experience is making us stronger in the long run. At Rosemary, we understand that resistance is the way.

 

So in your life, when you start to feel that fear, that insecurity, or that frustration, that’s a good sign. Step into it, don’t try to avoid it or soften it. Always remember… No pressure, no diamonds 🙂

 

 

 

2. It’s vulnerability, not openness, that truly connects people and breaks barriers. I consider myself a pretty open person and I never mind sharing personal things about myself. In fact, I often use this as a way to connect with others, I’ll share something personal and it makes that person feel safe with me and builds trust. What I realized during my time at Rosemary is that while I would share things that were personal, I rarely shared things that truly made me feel vulnerable. For example, my life story contains a past that was full of trouble and anger. When I share that, people will often say, “wow thanks for sharing that” or “you were brave to share that with the group”  but the truth is, this is wrong. It’s easy for me to be open about those things because they are behind me – I can confidently talk about those experiences because I know that today, I am a totally different person. The result of this openness tends to be a more one-sided connection, where the person I shared with would feel more connected with me than I would with them because while I was being open, I was not being vulnerable.

 

 

But then I had an experience that changed all of that…

 

When I got to Rosemary, the two men I worked most closely with were absolute STUDS. Now, I’m blessed that all of my guy friends are studs but these guys were next level. Tall, athletic, handsome, long hair flowing in the wind, model looking faces and ON TOP of all of that, they were brilliant at what they did – smart, well spoken, caring, and decisive. Alpha’s in every way.

 

When I first started working with them, I knew I loved them, but there was a barrier between us. As I was looking into what this barrier was, I realized it was my own insecurities. I’ve always been pretty confident, but I realized that part of my confidence was propped up on an identity I had built for myself around being “smart”, “athletic”, etc. and when I was faced with these two studs, that identity crumbled underneath my feet and I was left feeling low, questioning my value. (I will definitely be writing an entire post about this experience but for now, all you need to know is that’s how I was feeling.)

 

During the Heart Attack program, we had an activity that was all about breaking personal barriers and facing challenging situations. During this activity, I sat in the center of the circle, looked these two studs in the face, and in front of everyone, got as real as I possibly could have. I talked about my own insecurities around my physical appearance and described how I focused on other things to compensate for those insecurities, I told them that while I loved them, I had experienced thoughts about not wanting to continue to work with them out of fear of being lost in their shadow. I pretty much expressed every challenging thought that went through my head as a result of being around them.

 

The result was profound. First, it was extremely liberating to express how I felt to these guys, and expressing it in front of a larger group was even more empowering because there was nothing left that I was trying to hide – while these thoughts/insecurities never plagued me, they did exist and I judged myself for having them, never wanting anyone to know these thoughts crept into my “strong, positive mind.” Second, and more importantly, was what this vulnerability did for my relationship with stud 1 and stud 2. The next day I had conversations with each of them to talk about what had transpired the previous night. With all of the cards out on the table, both sides felt a much stronger and deeper connection with each other. The studs also shared some of the same insecurities they were feeling when I first came into Rosemary (like I said, the mind can be a real b**ch sometimes). This vulnerability bred a new level of trust and openness in the relationship and I am happy to say that very specifically, from that moment on, our friendship turned into more of a brotherhood that I share with only a few select people.

 

From there I was sold, I saw the value in this real vulnerability and wanted to continue to test it out. I wrote letters to two of my best friends from home – our relationships were seemingly fine, but there were small little things in my mind that I felt were holding us back from going a bit deeper with each other – and expressed everything that was on my mind, raw, with no sugar coating. Their responses were absolutely incredible and again, from the moment I received their responses, I felt instantly more connected to my friends of 10+ years that I had never experienced before. It was real and pure and has already yielded such amazing results for us.

 

So the takeaway? There is a difference between being open and being vulnerable – true vulnerability can make your heart beat 5x faster and instill a bit of nausea in you before you express it – when you start to feel that, it means you are moving in the right direction. Just like with challenging situations, this is where the real growth happens, step into it and I guarantee you will love the results (note that in some extreme situations you can experience a vulnerability hangover and find yourself thinking “why on earth did I just share that I feel so weak” – keep in mind that’s just the ego doing its work and know that the truth will set you free.)

 

 

3. The only way to truly catalyze transformation in someone is through unconditional love. My third and final point is a little bit esoteric and hard to capture in specific words/examples but it is the most important point that I can make. The Heart Attack program is an immersive 30 day program packed with sessions and experiences to spark empowerment and transformation in the lives of the participants. My team poured time and energy into developing impeccable content and memorable experiences for the participants. What I came to realize however, was that while the sessions had great information, they were not the gamechanger. The gamechanger was the way this content was delivered – with love in our hearts and deep care and commitment towards each participant. Remember, it’s not what you do, it’s how you do it. We showed up each day with unconditional love for each participant and poured that love into them day-in and day-out, no matter what.

 

 

When we had our end-of-program feedback session, the was a common thread in all of the comments from the participants was around how we treated them. They mayyybe remembered 30% of the content that they learned over the last month, but that will eventually fade too – what they will never forget however, is how much love and belief we had in them to actually spark change – because as my girl Maya Angelou says… People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

 

As I thought more about this, I realized this was the case for me when I came out of the dark ages – I attribute that transformation not to all of the words that people told me about changing my behavior, I attribute that to the unconditional love and belief that I felt from my family. This point was signed, sealed, and delivered during my last couple of days at Rosemary Dream where I experienced an outpouring of love and appreciation from the Rosemary team that I had never felt before and one that I will never forget. At Rosemary, that same love is so embedded in the culture and is clear in everything they do; from cooking you a meal, to sharing a conversation, to giving you a compliment in the morning, you can feel the love in all of it and the only word I can use to describe it is PURE.

 

So here I sit, after my own Heart Attack experience. Everything feels different. I clear understand the things that I want to bring into my life, I understand my gifts and my voice and am ready to bring them to others with a lot of love, I feel an amazing sense of reverence for this thing called life and no matter what happens to me, I can sit back and be grateful, and THAT my friends… is truly a blessing.

 

To close out this post I want to leave you with one final quote that I hope you never forget “We cannot all do great things, but we can do small things with great love” – Mother Teresa

 

So, less show and more soul – we have a lot of love to share 🙂

 

LOVE YOU FAM! ❤

Matt

 

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Summiting Volcan Cotopaxi – when there is a mountain in front of you, just take it one step at a time…

Hey fam – I know it’s been a while since my last post so thank you for being patient. The past two months have been full of travel. I had a close friend visit who had a rough year back at home so I wanted to make our time together fun and meaningful – we explored a lot of the country and met some amazing people along the way. For our last week together I wanted to end on a “high” note – I wanted to do something that would push us beyond our limits but if we accomplished it, would be unforgettable. What better way to do that than to climb the 3rd highest active volcano in the world, Volcan Cotopaxi?

Volvan Cotopaxi

The lead up:

When we decided that we would try to summit Cotopaxi, we didn’t know really what we were getting ourselves into. All we knew was that it was the 2nd highest mountain in Ecuador and the 3rd highest active volcano in the world – pretty badass. Once we decided that we were going to do it, we had to prep.

 

Although I’m a pretty physically active person, I knew this was going to be a challenge and called for a different type of fitness and training. Most of my training for the past 4 months had been spent at the beach surfing and doing yoga/explosive style workouts at sea level. Cotopaxi was going to be an uphill climb, battling the elements at 5,897 meters (19,347 feet) up to the summit. So, we set out on a 2 week tour through Ecuador to acclimatize to the proper altitude, get our legs ready for some serious trekking, and of course enjoy Ecuador’s natural beauty along the way.

 

  • We spent about a week total between Cuenca (2560 meters but ~3,900 meters at Cajas National Park) and Banos (1,820 meters) which weren’t as much serious prep as it was living at a higher altitude and taking a few half-day hikes – still amazing (pics below)
  • When we left Banos, we headed to Latacunga to hike the Quilotoa loop – a 3 day, 30 mile trek through the mountains in some pretty tough terrain until we arrived at Laguna de Quilotoa (3,914 meters – pictures below). It was challenging but rewarding
  • Finally, for our last 2 days before the attempted summit, we stayed at Secret Garden Cotopaxi, an beautiful hostel where we could see the monstrosity that is Volcan Cotopaxi from every angle (beautiful but intimidating – also pictured below)
  • From Secret Garden, we were also able to hike up to the summit of Volcan Pasachoa (~4,200 meters)
summit of Volcan Pasachoa
Summit of Volcan Pasachoa
  • All of this was good training but to put it in context, Cotopaxi’s basecamp alone sits at 4,800 meters… so we knew that it was going to be a whole new kind of animal

 

 

The summit:

We arrived at basecamp (El Refugio) at 3 pm the day before the summit to settle in and get our gear ready. We would be heading out at 12:30 am the following morning so we ate a bit of dinner and tried to get some rest before the climb…needless to say I didn’t get much sleep.

 

The first couple hours of the climb were amazing – the sky was lit up by the moon and the stars and I felt fresh, strong, and grateful…

 

Then we hit the glaciers – pure snow and ice – we put on our crampons (metal spikes for the bottom of your boots) and grabbed our ice picks. This is where shit got real.

 

The glaciers were steep, like double black diamond steep and if you fell, you’d either be sliding down Cotopaxi forever or fall into one of the thousands of crevices that went 80 meters into the depths of the volcano. Pretty friggin scary for a kid who doesn’t enjoy heights (more specifically, ledges at high altitudes). Add to this our extreme altitude where the air is ~50% less dense and the air molecules are much farther apart. The result? Oxygen deprivation, fatigue, nausea, headaches, etc.

 

About 3.5 hours in (with about 3 more to go) the oxygen deprivation started hitting me, I was fatigued and nauseous. I’d look down and I’d see how far we climbed, but then I would look up to the summit and it didn’t look like we were getting any closer to it. At ~4 hours into the hike, I told my buddy and my guide that I didn’t think I was going to be able to continue, we were getting ready to turn around. As we were getting ready to head back, my mind flooded with voices – I could hear my dad’s last words to me before the climb “one step at a time, one foot in front of the other” and my mom saying “God will give you the strength to do all things”  and finally I recalled the 40% rule from my book Living With a Seal…more on the 40% rule later.

 

With this new inspiration, I stood up and started moving forward. Now, don’t be confused, this was not like I got a second wind and sped victoriously up the mountain. No, I took it slow, vomited twice, and slipped and stumbled intermittently for the next 2 hours to the summit.

 

But guess what… I still made it. As we reached the summit I could see the sun just rising up above the clouds. I was overcome with emotion and gratitude and just wept. The grueling process to get to the top and witness the beauty was overwhelming for me and I have never felt closer to God than I did at that moment. A moment I will never forget.

 

What I learned:

Through this experience, I learned a lot, but I want to share 3 quick insights that apply to our lives in almost everything we do:

 

 

  • When you are attempting a challenging endeavor, set an intention
  • Have a sense for where you are headed, but take it one step at a time
  • When you are pushing yourself, remember the 40% rule

 

 

  • Set an intention: Setting out on this endeavor, I knew it would be a challenge. I learned a while ago how important it is to set an intention to focus on during a rigorous challenge – it helps keep you focused and committed to your cause. The interesting insight for me however, was how quickly my intention changed. At first, my intention was set around myself. I wanted this achievement to be a symbol for me to represent future challenges that came my way – remembering the grit that it takes to overcome them. My intention however, quickly shifted… As we were trekking, I became filled with gratitude. I was thankful to God for the legs that were carrying me up the face of the volcano, for my lungs that were pumping hard to get limited oxygen into my body. I was thankful that I had one of my best friends next to me to share the experience with. I started to think about my mentors at work who supported me 100% to make this sabbatical opportunity possible, and finally I was thankful for my family who stood by me for my entire life up to this point – giving me the courage and confidence to take on this entire adventure in the first place. So what started out as something for me, quickly became a dedication climb – to the people that made this all possible, to show that I didn’t take this for granted. What I learned was that by setting my intention on others, I was able to access a new source of energy to keep pushing forward – if it was just for me, I think I would have stopped before the summit. 

 

  • Take it one step at a time: Before leaving for base camp, I was talking to my dad and I mentioned that while I felt confident, looking at that Volcano everyday was a bit intimidating. My dad responded with simple but powerful advice, “you know where you are headed, now just take it one step at a time, put one foot in front of the other.” As we were ascending, the air was getting thinner, and I was losing steam. I’d look back down from where we came and see how far we had climbed but then I would look up to the summit and it looked like we barely made any progress and that defeated feeling of “we’ll never get there” started to settle in. At that point I had sat down on the ice and told my guide I didn’t think I’d be able to continue – we were getting ready to turn around when my dad’s words came back into my mind “One step at a time, one foot in front of the other.” And for the next 3 hours up to the summit, that’s exactly what I did, I put all of my focus towards locking in each step, putting one foot in front of the other, only seldom taking a glance at the summit. In life, when we are facing a goal/challenge, getting to the other side can seem daunting and so far away. In these moments, the best thing you can do is break it down and focus on taking one step at a time towards your goal. What I learned is that success for any goal/challenge is not about the one big decision of “I’m going to summit Cotopaxi” but the thousands of small choices you make to continue to push forward until you finally arrive at your destination.

 

  • Remember the 40% Rule: About a year ago I read a really great book called Living With a Seal. In the book, serial entrepreneur, Jesse Itzler, hires a badass Navy Seal to come live with his family and teach him about mental and physical toughness. In the book, the Navy Seal reveals The 40% Rule.  The rule is simple: When your mind is telling you that you’re done, that you’re exhausted, that you cannot possibly go any further, you’re only actually 40% done. While I was sitting, ready to give up and my dad’s voice popped into my head, so did the 40% rule. I realized that my mind was being soft as a survival mechanism, and that my body had a lot more to give – so I pushed on. And yes, it was tough and at many points it sucked…but I still made it. So the next time you hit your known limits, just remember you still have 60% more to give and push on.

 

 

I’ll never forget this experience and I am so grateful to all of the people and events in my life that made it possible. I hope you enjoyed the read and remember it the next time you have a mountain (physical or metaphorical) in front of you. Climb on!

 

 

Cheers!

Matt

 

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