Beware of False Summits

A few years ago I embarked on a week-long, 50-mile backpacking trip in the mountains of Utah. It was awesome. During this trip, I encountered a phenomenon very familiar to seasoned hikers and climbers: the false summit.

A false summit is a peak that appears to be the pinnacle of the mountain but upon reaching, it turns out the summit is higher still. This is typically caused when the ridge or features of the mountain in front of you limit your line of sight. It can even be attributed to the curvature of the Earth. Just when you think you’ve reached what appears to be the summit, you realize you still have a long way to go. This can be very disheartening — especially if you’ve already been hiking for hours.

This is what happened to me on Day 3 of my trip. We ended up hiking to over 11,000 feet in elevation. After “reaching” the first false summit, I began to keep count. The fourth summit ended up being the real deal.

And to be honest, each false summit broke my spirit a tiny bit more. You can’t imagine (or maybe you can) how relieved I was when the final summit was, in fact, the final summit. My relief was palpable.

So why am I sharing this story?

Our lives are much like an extended backpacking trip. Long and sometimes arduous, with peaks and valleys, blistering heat and freezing rain. We cross raging rivers and trickling streams, go over fallen logs and through brush and brambles. Sometimes the view is breathtaking. Other times we just want to get to the car and head home.

What often happens in life is we hinge our happiness on achieving our goals. We see the summit we want to reach and we start climbing. We work and sweat and dig in. Hand over hand, we reach what we think is the summit, only to discover there is an even higher, more desirable peak off in the distance. And the cycle continues.

The false summits of happiness are easy to spot. They typically begin with the words “I’ll be happy when…” Some of these may sound familiar. Perhaps you’ve even voiced a few yourself.

  • I’ll be happy when I finish high school and go to college.
  • I’ll be happy when I finish college and start making some money.
  • I’ll be happy when I can stop renting and buy a house.
  • I’ll be happy when I lose 20 pounds.
  • I’ll be happy when I get that promotion.
  • I’ll be happy when I quit that dead end job.
  • I’ll be happy when I am my own boss.
  • I’ll be happy when the kids move out.
  • I’ll be happy when I find my true love.
  • I’ll be happy when…

Consider taking a moment to examine the false summits you’ve created in your life. Pause and look around. The truth is there will always be another peak in the distance. In fact, they never end.

Stop and look at where you’re standing now. Really look. If you open your eyes — and your heart — you might find where you are to be a pleasing vista.

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