The following essay was submitted to the Wharton MBA program by our client. The client was accepted to the program.
Several names and details in this essay sample were changed to protect client privacy.
The application essay question / topic:
Describe a setback or a failure that you have experienced. What role did you play, and what did you learn about yourself? (500 words)
In mountain climbing there are many uncertain variables (from weather and equipment functioning to rock conditions). In my 10 years of climbing, I’ve learned to outline my route precisely and hope for the best.
During my most recent climb, over a week up “X” mountain in India, and just days from the summit, the expedition reached a hundred meter cliff laced with ice. As a group of 9 experienced (and determined) climbers, we advanced fifty meters towards our goal, but the conditions grew far worse than we’d expected. I went forward alone to check the danger of ice conditions ahead. When I returned all eyes were on me to decide– to go on or step-down (an extremely hard decision at 5,500 meters, with little air in my lungs and months of training behind our eager group). Yet, I saw it was clearly too dangerous to continue.
Making this final call to turn back I felt the failure of the expedition laid in my hands. Rationally, I knew the ice conditions that prevented a successful summit were out of my/our control, but I also knew that if we’d had a higher level of experience we could have made it. The climb was a failure, but we also had failed (I could see the disappointment in my team’s eyes). Yet, turning back felt especially like my own failure since I took the decision to abandon the goal… our dream.
Walking down to base camp was solitary for us all. After 9 days climbing in extreme conditions, months of organizing our team, researching the mountain, training physically and mentally, and then that intense inner drive and anticipation, it was gutting to have it taken away. Worse, it was the first time this core team I've been climbing with for years failed to summit a peak.
Back at base camp, a question was raised whether it’d be worth climbing a different (second-choice lesser) peak. For me this introduced an inner struggle-- feeling it wasn't worth compromising, yet knowing giving up completely could feel far worse. This failure made me realize how single-focused my mind was and how resistant I was to let go and "re-set" so quickly onto new goals. Yet, I saw stubbornness was like pouting and would get us nowhere.
Eventually, we climbed another peak, which was ultimately fulfilling and taught me to define failure not as falling down, but staying down. After this experience, I recalled my first major climb in Argentina in 2006 with this same team. The expedition leader lectured us on accidents happening from being blindly ambitious about reaching a peak. He warned us to stay in-tuned with limits of ourselves and the mountain and how far we can push both. I remember thinking then I’d be willing to give up a finger to make it to the top.
So, four years later, I was proud I had foresight to gauge the situation, myself and my team’s abilities and acknowledge that giving up was the right decision. I learned it is important to get over blinding pride, and now I’m proud to feel it actually might have taken more courage to accept our limits and give up initial goals. Importantly, I learned to know and accept my own limits and understand that failure is what we define it as. Because we went on to an alternate peak, this experience taught me failure isn’t an “end” of a path, but rather just a change introducing a new junction. I learned to see failure as something I move through, around or over, rather than letting it be a stopping point.
"Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising every time we fail.” (Confucius)