If success is a mountain, I’m an accidental climber.
Has it ever happened to you? You’ve been working hard for goals you believe in for a long time. You’ve sacrificed and said no to trinkets so that you could focus on the gold of your objectives, your future. It didn’t happen overnight, but it came to pass. You took initial steps into the unknown of a new job. Or you committed more deeply to some visionary idea, and the universe rewarded with you success. The business grew. You were promoted. The publisher said Yes.
It feels good, so you stay on the path a little longer, and you continue to get a few more responsibilities. All the while, other areas of your life also begin to grow. You’re a spouse now, maybe, or a parent, or you have a loan for a house and are slowly filling it with stuff. Your hard drive’s filling up with pictures of kids at Christmas, and Little League, prom night, graduations. It’s not perfect. You hit some bumps along the way, but you’re getting more these days. Life’s filling up. The business is gaining new market share. Investments are doing their job. It’s all paying off.
Days become decades, quickly. Now there’s money in the bank, and when the car breaks down, you don’t worry about whether you can afford to get it fixed. You eat out a bit more, maybe a lot more. Others, looking in on your life from the outside, are a little envious, or maybe resentful. That’s because you’ve become what our culture tells us is most important—in some measure at least, you’ve become “successful.” You just kept walking, step by step, and eventually you found yourself high up on the slope by your own measure of fame or influence or upward mobility, looking down on the lights below. Pausing to look around for a moment, you wonder how you got here.
Once you have a little time to catch your breath, you look around, but nothing looks familiar. You’re not sure where you are anymore. You thought this was the right path because back down there along the way everyone applauded and affirmed every step you took—college degree, corporate job, promotion, partner, consultant, marriage, kids, CrossFit, commute. The world’s filled with cheerleaders ready to affirm or punish every step of the way so that the well- trodden mountain of cultural success becomes your mountain too. You followed the path, almost without questioning, and now that you’re up here, somewhere near the top, you’re not sure this is where you belong.
That’s because you like it here on the one hand, but on the other hand, getting here has taken a toll. You’re tired, and the pace of life has become more like a video game, with obligations coming at you faster and faster so that you’re reacting more than living. Things have become complicated too, with some debts and a new lifestyle to which you’ve become accustomed. High up here on the mountain a fall would be costly. There’s your influence to consider, and your reputation. You need a little time to get your bearings before you proceed, but odds are you won’t push for the needed time off unless something huge shakes you awake and forces you to ask questions you maybe should have asked years ago. But right then you were too busy succeeding to actually consider whether you were climbing the right mountain.
Conventional Wisdom, or any disguise dressed as the same, capitalizes on these longings for success. That’s what seminars are for, and books about losing one hundred pounds, or running marathons, or creating a marketing strategy. An entire “pursuit of success” industry flourishes precisely because we believe that “going after it” is the right thing to do, and maybe it is.
I’d always thought I wasn’t in that camp. In a world of BIG, I’d made my living running a church in my living room and teaching at tiny Bible schools around the world several weeks a year. In a world of urban, I was living with my wife and three children in a place where the phone book was a single sheet of paper. We were rural, small, subsistence. We had resource challenges at times, but even though we lived below the poverty line, we slept under the stars on clear nights, camped in old fire lookouts where Jack Keroak spent his summers, and enjoyed tiny staff meetings around the kitchen table. It was hard work, and frugal, lacking notoriety, but life- giving.
Then, when opportunity came knocking, I answered. We moved to the city where I would lead what, to my mind, was an enormous church of three hundred people. “Teaching is teaching,” I said naively, believing that the practice of my craft would be the same whether the place was large or small. I was wrong, of course. Bigger stuff is more complex than small stuff, and though that is self-evident to most people, it wasn’t clear to me. I needed to learn it firsthand, as our big church started to grow even bigger.
Growth meant adding staff, adding buildings, saying goodbye to staff for whom the change and growth weren’t right, dealing with changing team dynamics, altering organization charts, creating new positions, reorganizing structures and systems to accommodate “bigger,” adding new locations so that we could offer the same kind of healthy community in other neighborhoods, raising funds, dealing with complexities that happen when competing visions and ideologies sneak in under this larger umbrella, facing the rejection of those who don’t like change and the adulation of those who do (both equally dangerous), and so much more. HR task forces. Policy manuals. Bigger and bigger budgets. Adapt. Grow. Celebrate. Adapt. Grow. Mourn a little bit. Celebrate. Repeat.
I knew I should be happy about this, but after about our sixteenth year of continual growth, I began to ask, “Where does this story end?” And the honest answer was that I didn’t know. This is because sometimes the only picture of success we can see is the single disco ball in the room. The commonly held metrics of achievement are, in truth, surprisingly few, and predictable. “Growth”—whether of sales, souls, or influence—is the low-hanging fruit, the easy way to convince ourselves that we’re significant.
Lots of people go after this low-hanging fruit, some with gusto and unapologetic clarity. Others stumble into it by simply doing their jobs well. But whatever our on-ramp, it’s all the same: we’re heading towards the disco ball in hope that our light will be magnified. And now, here I was staring into the multi-faceted light of success, and I realized I couldn’t see a thing. I didn’t know where I was or where I was heading. What I did know was that this kind of success had created an environment where the complexity of the machinery seemed to be consuming too much of my creative energy, leaving me running on Empty. When that happens, we can’t see far enough ahead to lead well, we can’t parse our motives with any sort of clarity, we can’t contribute what is life-giving to others and ourselves. Like thin air in the high mountains, this is not a place to stay for long. I knew I needed to move. I asked my board for three months off so that I could get off the treadmill, get my bearings, and return, not only with a sense of refreshment, but with a recalibrated soul, better able to serve, lead, and discern the signs. Little did I know that I was on the cusp of an important journey I thought I’d never take.
Praise for The Map Is Not the Journey
“If your spirit is weary or your faith is running dry, this book is like a refreshing drink from an alpine spring. It will take you above the tree line of discouragement and help you renew your enthusiasm and rekindle your joy. You’ll find yourself walking in Richard’s boots as he paints incredible word pictures and takes you on a compelling journey of transformation. Breath deep and take it in. A truly inspiring book for everyone who seeks renewed motivation and deeper meaning.”
—Les Parrott, PhD, New York Times bestselling author of The Good Fight
“Richard Dahlstrom’s travels and adventures in the Alps aren’t just good stories of adventure in far-away places. Though told well enough to bring me right into the Alps with him, they’re also instructive on how unexpected everyday experiences can shape us to become better people. Those looking to find God in the commonplace will benefit from this book.”
—Jim Zorn, long-time NFL player and coach
“I’m deeply grateful for Richard’s musings on the journey of life. It’s as if he was writing directly to me, talking about how journeys define our lives, warning about the dangers of success, reminding that our packs can get too full, that control is an illusion, and how the greater dangers are usually the subtle ones. And then to hit us with, ‘God. Is. Enough.’ Impactful!”
—Mike Romberger, President/CEO, Mount Hermon Christian Conference Center
About the Author
Richard Dahlstrom studied architecture, had a God encounter and changed his major to music, and then God “tricked” him into becoming a pastor in 1984. He has run a ministry for interpreting faith with outdoor experiences, along with other ministries, and has led Bethany Community Church in Seattle since 1996. He teaches with Torchbearers Missionary Fellowship and is the author of O2: Breathing New Life into Faith and The Colors of Hope. He and his wife have three grown children and live in the mountains east of Seattle where they ski, hike, climb, and read books by the fire.