I spent my late teens and half of my 20s as a serial monomaniac. I wanted to be a professional musician. I wanted to publish books of fiction and poetry. Basically, I wanted to be an “artist,” and I really didn’t want to be the starving kind. I wanted to spend as much of my adult life as possible not chained to a dull nine-to-fiver. So whatever I wanted to do with myself, I felt like I had to really crush it, and to do a lot of it. That’s kinda how this stuff usually works — you don’t get your breaks by producing just the one song or story or poem. You usually need a bit of an archive to demonstrate you didn’t just produce a fluke.
I was always all-in on something or other. I spent a lot of nights cranking away at my fiction and poetry website, then spun that off into a zine. I started a band where I wrote all the songs I would ever write for said band before we had our first practice. I was rabid about writing and demoing what was supposed to be my “debut solo album,” which had to be brimming with inarguable brilliance. I’d skip classes to write songs, then catch up on my courses in a series of 20-hour study days. I quit a job so I’d have time to write two drafts of my undergrad thesis. Everything had to happen immediately. I felt like the clock was always running down on something — my teens, my college years, those periods of time when I could afford to get by working one job instead of two.
The situation only became heavier when I stopped juggling part-time jobs and took a full-time gig. Everything else I wanted to do was shoved into nights and weekends. I didn’t go out very much. When I did, I wasn’t always sure who I could call up to join me. When I think about that era of my life, I mainly remember being alone. Alone and usually tired and almost always despairing over how I wasn’t at least a little bit famous yet.
At a point in my mid-20s, I hit a wall. I felt utterly stuck, depressed, and exhausted, and I had my second breakdown. I could no longer handle being alone all the time. And I started questioning everything I was doing — mainly how I was doing it. I looked around at people who had pieces of what I wanted, and I noticed most of them weren’t carrying all the weight themselves. They had some kind of help. And they seemed to be happier and better-adjusted than I was.
That’s when I came up with the mountain analogy. Really simple, and I’ve shared it with loads of people over the years. It’s more or less like this:
In front of you, there’s a mountain. You want to get to the other side. There’s no good way to get over the peak, so there are two ways you can do this: You can tunnel under the mountain, or you can walk around the mountain.
Tunneling under the mountain gives you the shortest, most direct line between Point A and Point B. Going around the mountain is a much longer path. At the beginning, you can never really tell how long it’ll take to walk around it, because the terrain is varied. Tunneling under, you can pretty much anticipate that the work will require steadily and consistently the same amount of effort throughout; it might seem as though you can estimate how long it’ll take to reach the other side.
Problem is, digging a tunnel under a mountain is very hard work. Every yard calls for about the same amount of exertion as the previous yard. It’s repetitive. It’s dark. You can’t actually see where you’re going. And it’s really challenging to get anyone to come along and dig with you, at least not for any considerable length of time, because it’s tiring and dark and no fun at all. So you’re going to be in the tunnel by yourself for most of the time, if not all.
When you walk around the mountain, you understand it’s probably going to take more time than tunneling under. But you can have a much more pleasant time. There’s sunshine, and there are trees and cool views. You can see where you’re going. You meet some interesting people out on the trails, and you can walk with them for a while and enjoy each other’s company. If you want, you can take a detour, follow a trail spur for a bit, get off the path and wander. You have a lot of freedom and a lot of options.
Almost everyone I knew who was hitting their marks and achieving what they wanted, I realized, was walking around the mountain. There were a few exceptions of people who had successfully dug a tunnel or two, but I didn’t envy them.
I recognized I’d been digging a tunnel for years, and that I wasn’t doing myself any favors. I had abandoned about as many tunnels as I was still trying to dig. Sure, the folks who had walked around the mountain needed more time to get to the other side than I wanted to take. But they’d gotten to the other side, is the thing, and I hadn’t.
At the same time, I had another moderate revelation that I’ve tried to remember and live by ever since: No one’s going to give you permission to get what you want out of life. And there’s a strong chance you won’t need anyone’s permission. Just go out there and do it. I spent years thinking I needed to appease some gatekeeper or other, or to get some kind of ephemeral cosmic go-ahead, if I were to be “recognized” or doing anything. In reality, there are very few gatekeepers out there that truly signify. A lot of people go through life saying, “Oh, I’m not the sort of person who does xyz,” or “I haven’t earned the privilege to do what I want,” and it’s like — so what? If you want to be the sort of person who does xyz, just do it, and you immediately become the sort of person who does. Doesn’t matter if you’re not all that great at it from the jump, or if no one sees you do it. You’re still that person. That’s probably a topic for another post, sometime later.
Anyway, one of the best things about deciding to walk around the mountain is that I found I wasn’t alone as often. Turns out you can have a more fulfilling social life if you take yourself out on the town first. I used to think I needed to be famous or at least “recognized” to be invited to the party. (The metaphorical party, I mean. But also the actual party.) It turned out I just needed to be around. Most of the good things that have happened in my life since my mid-20s came about because I was just kind of around all the time.
The mountain analogy can help you decide who you’re going to join forces with, too. I can’t tell you what to do, but you probably don’t want to take a job working under someone who’s living in the tunnel.
Anyway, ymmv. I’m not going to say that between walking around and tunneling under the mountain, there’s only one good option, which applies for every single instance. But maybe, before choosing a method, you should take a step back and assess whether you’re looking at a mountain or a small hill. You might be able to pop over the crest of a small hill, no problem. Maybe it’s a snowbank; I think we all know what happens to those after a few days. Hope you make some good decisions, that suit your own goals and psychology, in getting where you need to go.