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Moving from “If” to “How”

May 2, 2018

It was 2:00 am, pitch black but for the twinkling headlamps of my fellow climbers on Mt. Rainier. Crampons on my boots, ice axe in my hand, inexorably tethered to a climbing team of four. I’m scrambling up the aptly named, Disappointment Cleaver, despair creeping into my consciousness. This is where I learned the meaning of “how” commitment.

Though I’d trained hard and felt great on the climb the day before, I was laboring mightily in the higher altitude. (Guide, RMI owner and mountaineer, Peter Whittaker, told me later I wasn’t breathing properly. Ugh!) While we charged past other rope teams, I felt as if I was barely hanging on, I’d never been so completely spent. (What made me think this was a good way to celebrate my 50th birthday?!)

No Matter What

Then, I recalled what the famous mountaineer and our guide, Ed Viesturs had told me the night before our initial ascent. I’d asked him how many times he’d turned back from a peak due to circumstances within his control. His answer: Never. He had never given up on a summit because he was too tired or too hungry or too cold or too scared. Never in 30 years of climbing the world’s highest peaks. Ed’s formidable fortitude inspired me to dig deeper than I could have imagined possible on that ridge, and so I kept placing one boot after the other. I would get up that mountain, no matter what.

“No matter what” thinking generates a powerful mindset shift from “if” to “how.” Nothing about the circumstances change, and instead, we change. When our mindset shifts from “if” to “how,” the possibility of impossibility, the option for failure, is eliminated from consideration. And instead we search for the way we can. 


The “if” mindset is like testing a hypothesis. Hypothesis: I can summit Mt. Rainier. True or false. (It is as if either outcome has an equal likelihood.) Because an “if” mindset allows for a “false” outcome. With a “how” mindset, every way considered assumes success.

The difference between “if” and “how” is a matter of commitment. 

In our over-scheduled, always-accessible, multi-optional lives, we experience “if” commitment all the time. We experience an “if I can,” “if it’s convenient,” “I’ll try,” kind of commitment to goals, people, communities, work, volunteerism and ourselves. I’ll go to that board meeting, “if I can.” I’ll help my friends move, “if they are really organized.” I’ll stop by that get together, “if I have time.” “I’ll try” to hit my fitness goal – no harm in trying. 

These are hedging strategies. With “if” commitments, we keep our options open, we avoid actually failing, we don’t disappoint, we don’t get hurt. The “if” commitment is comfortable, convenient.

And while “if” commitments feel easier, what we don’t realize in the moment is how exhausting they can be over time. We are constantly re-trading our decisions. Should I or shouldn’t I? Who will be upset with me if I don’t? How much effort is enough? Is this good enough? An “if” commitment is a partial, “toe in the water” kind of commitment, and leaves some of the most resourceful parts of ourselves behind.

Now How?

A “how” commitment is energy-efficient. A single decision is made once. Like an on/off switch. All the energy is put into the effort of moving forward on the goal, the relationship, the event, the organization. We are “all in.”

How do we make “how” commitments without becoming over-committed? One possibility: Transform “if” commitments either into a defined “how” commitment or no commitment at all. A defined “how” commitment would involve deciding specifically what we definitely will do, then anything more is gravy. How many times per week will we work out, no matter what? How many nights will we be home for dinner at a specific time, no matter what? How many times per month will we call/visit family, no matter what?

Creating defined “how” commitments or eliminating commitments altogether can be difficult in the beginning because it requires intention, clarity and courageous conversation with the parties involved. Instead of constantly kicking that can down the road and wearing down ourself and our relationships with our “iffy” commitments, we can be following through on our “how” commitments with an efficiency and clarity that dramatically reduces mental, emotional and physical drag and enhances the quality of our life and relationships. We can feel lighter and more aligned with what’s truly important to us.

BTW, I summited Mt. Rainier around 6:30 am that morning, minus a few teammates who started the trek. It was by far the hardest thing I have ever done. And it was life-changing for me because it proved the power of “how.”

What does commitment mean to you? How do you treat commitment with your clients? How do you respond when they don’t follow through on commitments? How do you hold yourself to your own commitments?

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P.S. Our 2018 training calendar is now set. Check out the entire course catalog or click on the link below for our two new Team Training courses launching soon.

Posted in: Motivational

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