At the Top

Recently I became friends with the former ice climbing champion of Japan. After years of topping the charts in her particular sport, she decided she needed a hobby and took up mountain biking — trials, specifically. Except for the fact that we both often get mistaken for high school boys and practice the same sports, we are almost perfect yin and yang. I have tried my whole life to be the best at something, but have always fallen short, usually because I get swept away with some other hobby. She decided one day she wanted to be a world class athlete and was successful very quickly, but then spent the rest of her career in a pervasive ennui about professional sports in general. While I love mountains so passionately that my bones quake whenever I look up and see them on the horizon, she could take them or leave them. I am very comfortable in cold; she hates it.

There are many differences between us, but at the same time both of us share the experience of dedicating our entire lives to the pursuit of a single goal. In her case it was ice climbing. In my case? It was, and still is, answering the questions that arise when common knowledge just doesn’t make sense. Both of us have spent hundreds, perhaps thousands of hours alone, relentlessly chipping away at the wall between where we are and where we feel compelled to be. We are both very intensely aware of how lonely the path to the top truly is.

Over drinks last night I said to her, “When I was young, my mother always warned me that it is lonely at the top.” She paused for a moment and said to me,

“Maybe. But when you actually do get to the top, the scenery is vastly different than anywhere else. You can see things and meet people from the top that you couldn’t if you were just bumbling around mid-pack. For example, you get to meet the other top athletes from around the world. And even musicians. The top climber might have something in common with the top musician even though one is an athlete and the other an artist. So actually, it’s not really that lonely.”

Suddenly I felt criticized. It’s not that she was saying something so very different, or even inconsistent, than what I said. To be at the top is to have gone somewhere that no one else is by definition. But in my friend’s view, being at the top of your own mountain meant being able to wave to everyone else at the top of the other mountains. You can’t see who else is at the top when you’re still down below tree-line and that’s pretty obvious, too. However, I have never gotten to the top of anything. I was never the smartest in math, or the best dancer, or the strongest climber, or the most moving writer. Everywhere I went and everything I did I would excel far beyond the average schmuck, but I would soon find someone excelling even farther than myself. Try as I would to catch up, they would only ever disappear over the horizon, leaving me both alone and stuck in the middle. So while I know the pain of solitary training, I have never seen the beauty of surpassing all of my competition.

As I sat there at the corner table in the dark, twenties speakeasy style whiskey bar, I wondered to myself why this person who I liked so much was making me feel bad about myself by speaking positively of her own experience. Most of the time she is unhappy with her responsibilities as top Japanese athlete. So why would this one moment of positivity disturb me? It occurred to me that she, like so many people alive today, was implying with her language that the scenery at the top is better than what you would see from the middle. While most people would probably think it pretty cool to meet the top violinist in the world, or the top mountain biker, or the top runner, or any other person who had topped their field, people who have never undertaken the long and lonely struggle of getting to the top themselves would probably not appreciate on a personal level all that the other person had accomplished. It would be much like meeting a famous celebrity. We could react with awe, or respect, but we would not be able to connect with that person because we would not be able to share the experience of being at the top.

I thought about some of my own struggles as I sipped a rich brandy out of an extremely large glass. When I was a runner, people would come to me full of excitement saying things like, “did you hear? So-and-so just broke the world record marathon time in Berlin!” My reaction was always, “So? What does that have to do with me?” I was always much more excited to hear that the overweight office lady who just started running last season broke the 4.5 hour barrier, or to find out that a former professor of psychology had quit her job to become a professional endurance athlete. These were things that I could relate to. The professional athlete with the professional team of coaches and the sponsorships and the free medical support breaking the world record was just irrelevant to me. Who knows? If I had all those advantages, maybe I could break a record, too? In essence, I wanted to hear stories of people like me accomplishing things that I would love to be able to accomplish. That way I could hope for my own goals to be one day realized.

I think one of the reasons that I never made it to the top is that to me, being better than other people doesn’t seem to mean much. I like when people cheer for me and praise me. I love it when my friends, people that I truly respect and care about, speak proudly of something I did. If I were a top athlete, news anchors and specialty magazines would say things about how amazing I am, but I would know that it’s their job to say those things, and I would know that the day someone else overtakes me would be the last day that any of those strangers would care. If I ever were to become the best at something I would want it to be because I did something or discovered something that no one else did. I would want it to be a reflection of who I am, not simply an artifact of the relevant competition at the time. To me, the value of making it to the top would be that it would validate all of my effort and all of my uncertainty along the way. I imagine that my friend and her colleagues at the top of their fields are all enjoying a similar type of validation. I imagine that to most of them, being at the top means that they are close to their own potential and that defeating the other competitors isn’t the point at all.

When we finally left the bar and walked out into the eerily cold night air, I couldn’t help but think to myself: She says you have to get to the top to hang out with the others at the top. But what are we doing right now? All I’ve ever been able to do well in my life is be stupidly happy over the incredibly mundane. And yet I get to spend my Saturday evening sharing drinks with a champion athlete and hearing stories of a world that only a handful of other humans will ever get to see. Somehow, I feel like I might have found a shortcut.

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