Life came full circle for me when I was invited to speak at my alma mater's first TEDx event. I was thrilled beyond words to be a TEDx speaker! The excitement soon converted to nervousness, as I had to not only prepare a speech, but also speak in front of a huge audience. Over a month, the speech came together, pulling in my journey to pursue trekking and mountaineering while working a challenging job. I'm sharing here the video, as well as the transcript of my speech below. I hope you like it!
You study hard, you get into a great college, you find that well-paying job…and then what? What else are you going to do that society prescribes for you? Why is it that we are so keen to be typecast? Why are we so happy to be unidimensional? Because it is comfortable.
You see others doing the same things, and your mind tricks you into believing that you will fit into the same mould. That’s what I felt too. I was sucked into the rat race, was made to believe that my studies were everything and the charted accountancy exam was going to define my life. There is no doubt that my degree allowed me access to some great career opportunities. But as I now realize, life does not only revolve around my academic achievements. Academically inclined students in India, be it prospective engineers pursuing IIT-JEE ranks, prospective doctors with the CET, or commerce students with CA exams, are forced to adopt a life which involves the complete dedication of one's life to competitive exams. As my mother says "You'll get free time to do what you want after you retire!" What we forget is that our life is too precious to be summarized into one identity. You are not JUST students, you are painters, dancers, singers, storytellers, climbers, cricketers, quizzers ..… the list is endless. But the truth is, we are overcome by the inertia of ‘status quo’. I used to think that way as well. I had a great job (I still do), and it seemed like that was all life was about. Wake up, go to work, come home, sleep, and repeat. It was so easy to stagnate. I didn't challenge my body and mind outside of the office. But my life was ‘perfect’.
Then, one of my friends signed me up for the Chadar trek in 2015. I was unsure, I had never set foot on snow in my life. To add to that, I was nearing 25 years, and while not extremely overweight, I was quite unfit. We landed up in Ladakh, in the dead of winter. The temperature dropped to -35 degrees in the night. Those uncomfortable days spent on the trek, struggling to walk on ice, shivering in the cold, were some of my most memorable. We were walking in this beautiful winter wonderland, surrounded by tall mountains. I was hooked.
When I went back home, it struck me. I had sunk into the ‘standard issue’ mould of life. But now, my senses were nearly screaming at me to push myself out of this self-imposed lull. There was a whole wide world filled with hills, valleys, and mountains! Before I could stop myself, I signed up for a trek once again…and again…and I was out of my inertia. Today, after over 3 years, I have trekked to over 135 peaks and forts in the Western Ghats of India, and been on over 15 high altitude treks in the Himalayas. Not satisfied with just being a casual trekker, I signed up for a very rigorous month-long mountaineering course in one of the premier institutes in India. I spent a month in the Sikkim Himalayas, learning how to climb over rock, snow and ice. I sat in a classroom learning the history of the Himalayas, learnt how to rescue someone in the mountains, and spent hours perfecting the use of mountaineering equipment. Keen to push my boundaries even further, I spent 15 days trekking to Everest Base Camp this October. I took a longer, more challenging route, carried all my supplies, and found trails, completely on my own. In addition to this, I manage a blog, and an Instagram page to share my love for the mountains with the world. I also sneak in time to read.
But most importantly, I do all this while holding a full-time job.
The thing is, I am not alone in what I do. I regularly go for treks with a small group of friends, all of whom hold stable jobs and also dabble in photography. Our backgrounds may be vastly different, but our common love for the mountains ensures that we maximize mountain time without compromising on our work. This brings me back to the question: why do we like being within boundaries? Imagine you are swimming in a river. Moving in the direction the river flows would be nice, easy, relaxing. But imagine swimming against the current. You’d struggle, falter, and eventually give up. That’s what happens to us. We stop challenging ourselves to do more, to be better, to push our limits. Let me ask this to everyone sitting here – What is the first action you took in the morning? Most of you would have hit the snooze button on your alarm. Think about it – you began the day with an act of procrastination. That emotion stays with us through the day, through the week, the month, and the rest of our lives. Wake up, hit the snooze button, sleep some more. That’s how we treat our desires, interests, hobbies, plans. We hit the snooze button on them. Those plans to learn salsa, or to find an hour every day to exercise, or to just read a new book every month. They all never happen. They are all ‘snoozed’ too. Almost every week, I get questions from people who wonder where I get the time to do all that I do. Some believe I am a full-time trekker, some think I get unlimited holidays, while others think I have extra hours in my day! To all these doubts, I only have one simple reply – ‘Stop toeing the line’.
Your mind is the only real barrier between what you want to do and what you actually do. There is a way out for pretty much everything if you really set yourself to doing it. It won’t be easy, it won’t be comfortable, you will have to make sacrifices and adjustments, but it isn’t impossible.
Let me give you an example of this. I try to set out for a trek every weekend. A lot of the times that means traveling overnight in rickety public buses on Friday night, and even starting the trek overnight to escape the sun. I take my backpack to work, and straight after a 10 hour work day, get into my ‘trek mode’. It might sounds like a lot of trouble, but that is what makes it possible for me to do what I like.
We actively keep away from the things that are uncomfortable, that are not what everyone else around us is doing. But the discomfort is what makes you better. You may have seen this when you exercise - only when the weights you lift hurt slightly, you end up improving every week. Embrace the discomfort of pushing beyond your boundaries. The ‘fear’ of feeling uncomfortable cannot dictate your life. If it does, it will limit what you are able to do and how much you are able to achieve. Over the years, I have realized that people who beat the inertia of the comfort zone are those that are happy, passionate and successful.
Often, we end up thinking that dabbling in multiple things means being good at nothing. Again, what is stopping you from being good at anything is just you. To me, my job, my interests and my other commitments are all important. It is in my best interest to keep improving, keep learning, and keep pushing myself on all fronts. In fact, when you stop being uni-dimensional, and start exploring different things, you will realize that one aspect of your life has an impact on the other.
I am a meticulous planner at work. I like having clear communication, a solid work plan, regular check-ins in my team. This has seeped into my treks as well. I make excel sheet itineraries for multi-day treks, capturing details from all my research about the place. I have a detailed planner for all my annual leaves, and I make sure to use every long weekend and public holiday effectively. Trekking on the other hand, has taught me a lot about how to be with people of different temperaments, ages, and backgrounds. This has made me more patient, tolerant, and a better team player in my workplace.
Today, when you go home, take some time to think about something you like doing but stopped because of whatever reason, or something you want to do but have been pushing off. Then, instead of thinking you will ‘start on Monday, or the next month’, take the first step within 24 hours. Say you have been keen to learn kickboxing, find a class near you, and sign up. Don’t let your discomfort creep in. Just sign up and show up for the class. It’s the same when climbing a mountain too. Even after so many treks, every time I have to wake up at an unearthly hour and start walking in the cold, my inertia kicks in. My body protests, my fingers and toes are numb, and the first 30 minutes are tough. But then I fall into a rhythm, my body warms up, the sun shows itself slowly, and I start filling my lungs with the fresh mountain air. The views around me are incredible, and all the discomfort of the morning is forgotten.
Most of all, I am quite sure that all your greatest stories and memories will be from the times you did something that wasn’t routine. I can close my eyes and vividly remember how I felt watching Mt. Everest. But I won’t remember that day I sat and binged on Netflix.
So break out of your boundaries and do something different. Do not stop questioning what you can achieve. Thank you