By: Jill Wheeler, Wellfit Girls Founder

Creating meaningful work and serving with love is the antidote to despair and loneliness in this big and befuddling world. Belonging is a force that fortifies our most basic foundation; our self as connected to others and a world worth fighting for.

While en route home to Boulder, Colorado following another deeply fulfilling and inspiring ten days in Peru with Wellfit Girls, I reflected upon a statement one of our leaders expressed to the girls in our final circle. “I may be your leader, but you are my teachers.” Through tears, humility and grace, I experienced great pride in that moment. Pride, not because I created an organization that led an amazing group of 19 young women and five staff members to Peru for our fifth year in a row, but because I have gotten out of my own way for my mentees to take ownership of this program as if it were their very own. This is no small gift and I behold it with great reverence; I have not only envisioned purpose, I have enabled and nurtured it to fruition. In order to do this, I spent years leading my way, then stepping out of my way, to let others lead in their own way.

This may sound cliché and trite, but it’s as brave a thing as I’ve ever done—handing over the reins. It’s like planning for the outdoor adventure of a lifetime, having the itinerary locked down and not checking the weather, showing up surprised, unprepared (or possibly perfectly prepared), miserable and/or satisfied all at once. Sharing our vision with others and allowing them to claim it as their own makes for one fantastic and authentic adventure. If we try to control everything ourselves, the natural cycle of change will stagnate and growth will cease.

I grew up believing in and abiding by the “American Dream”. I don’t recall collaboration and connection with alliances at the top of How to Be an American Success story. I was expected to surpass my parents in education and wealth, climb the corporate ladder and achieve excellence and success at all costs—mainly the message was, stomp over your competitors. Individual pursuit was not only encouraged in society, it was preferred. Although I was acknowledged as a “natural leader” my entire life, I felt alone in my mind, unaware of my true potential to lead and influence for good in the world. I was not motivated by financial gain like many of my peers; and social justice and environmental issues continued to be my paramount concerns throughout my life. How would I ever be successful if these were my goals?

I continue to meet this once-younger-me in many of the young women we serve at Wellfit Girls. In most of their one-on-one sessions during our 10-day Peru expedition, their self-proclaimed greatest challenge was “their negative thoughts” or “lack of confidence”.  When faced with nature’s bountiful opportunities for challenge, they actively and powerfully stepped through them, one rocky, high altitude, oxygen-deprived and icy step at a time. It wasn’t the obvious thin air, cold temperatures, nausea, fatigue or back-aching physical labor of building a greenhouse that challenged the girls the most, it was their own thoughts, the 65 thousand some-odd ones they walk with daily.

Deceptive, destructive or even mildly distracting thoughts, I’m not like anyone else. I don’t fit in. If anyone knew who I really was they wouldn’t like me. I can’t. It’s too hard. I’m not fit enough. I’m not smart enough. I’m not enough. I’m too small. I’m too big. I’m too poor. I’m too much. I’m too different. The. List. Goes. On.

Until we flip the script. Until we talk more honestly with one another. Until we validate our wholeness. Until we stop criticizing our parts. Until we show each other we matter. Until we show ourselves we matter.

Until we lead the way.

And I’m not saying everyone should go climb a mountain or hike a trail (well, yes, actually, I am saying that. You must if you can or even if you think you can’t, because nature is the most badass place to be and hiking is hard and when you do hard things then you prove you can do other hard things, so there, I said it).

Take a hike!

We use the mountains as metaphors in our program as a strong inspiration to “climb high in all areas of life” and life rarely presents us with one badass mountain per life. We get ranges of peaks to ascend in our lifetimes; sometimes arduously, perilously and painstakingly slow, other times with great ease, adventure and joy.

One thing I confidently, proudly, heart-burstingly know for sure; no matter the difficultly of the mountains we will climb in life, it’s always better with a trail full of power sisters and brothers in front of and behind you.  You don’t have to be the strongest or fastest to be a leader. You don’t have to always know the physical way; there are guides for that. You must simply show up—mind ready and open hearted to adventure.

Nietzsche reminds us, that on the mountain of truth, one never climbs in vain; we either reach a higher step today or exercise our strength to climb higher tomorrow.

Not everyone reaches bold, beautiful and blissful summits in life. In fact, for most, summits are brief moments, far and few between, marked by tenacious time on the trail of life, endless endurance on the side of the mountains.

The flailing and resting and pausing and doubting and supporting and stopping and starting again and questioning and continuing and crying and laughing and loving and getting to know every little thing about our selves and each other. That’s character. That’s the side of the mountain. That’s the hummingbirds and sweet, wild strawberries and river crossings and coffee plantations and purple flowers and pink, orange and yellow ones, too. That’s barfing from altitude sickness, but rallying and walking again. The trail to the top is fun facts about cirrus and lenticular clouds and how to hike cool and sleep warm in the mountains and what’s your favorite thing to eat and how your parents met and what you want to be when you grow up and how much you love your dog and what your siblings names are and a million other reasons why taking a slow and hard hike with a bunch of people is a really good idea for your state of mind and the heart and soul of leadership.

Summits don’t matter in the long or short term. It’s the lessons along the way we give to ourselves, and the ones that mama Earth offers so generously. Nature kicks us all in the behind equally. When it rains, we all get wet—rich or poor, skinny or round. Wellfit Girls is an intentionally mixed group of our diverse American demographic. We believe the greatest positive influencers in the world will be humbled and empowered by nature’s grace and grit, no matter where we are from or where we are going.

One of the greatest gifts of this intensive five-month leadership program was actually not the surprise chocolate-making workshop in Cusco, it was the opportunity to hike a trail that led us to the mountain, and the mountain that led us to ourselves. While we did summit with success and pride, it was the lessons along the way that impacted the girls the most, specifically their ability to rein in a couple hundred, perhaps even thousand thoughts or so to make a positive trail marker on their minds for life, knowing they are not alone, fortifying the path to prosperity through connection and belonging.