Hill Climber or Valley Crosser: Is Your Hill Worth Dying On?

Hill Climber or Valley Crosser: Is Your Hill Worth Dying On?

Here’s an overused truism: life is a journey. 

In longer form: life is about the journey, not the destination. 

These linguistic phrases are repeated often because they accurately represent our lived experience. 

Language shapes our world and we often think in metaphors like this.

They help us grasp concepts in relatable terms. 

Enter a newer metaphor: Hill Climber and Valley Crosser. 

Which one are you?

Genesis

Theoretical physicist Lee Smolin first wrote about the concept as applied to academic research. His point, as summarized by Tim Kastelle and Roland Harwood, is that:

Some scientists…are what we might call “hill climbers”. They tend to be highly skilled in technical terms and their work mostly takes established lines of insight that pushes them further; they climb upward into the hills in some abstract space of scientific fitness, always taking small steps to improve the agreement of theory and observation. These scientists do “normal” science. In contrast, other scientists are more radical and adventurous in spirit, and they can be seen as “valley crossers”. They may be less skilled technically, but they tend to have strong scientific intuition — the ability to spot hidden assumptions and to look at familiar topics in totally new ways.

I came across the concept from a single mention made by Daniel Schmachtenberger during Rebel Wisom’s Sensemaking Course (highly recommended). Its profundity as an useful analogy struck me and its exploration has led to the distinctions below.

What is a Hill Climber?

Hill Climbers are motivated by traditional definitions of success like status, title, and wealth. Like the playground game, their goal is to make it to the top and become king of the hill. Their role is that of a Motivated Climber, where there is a set destination, the social, economic, or political top. Hill Climbers demonstrate their attainment through virtue and success signaling. 

The structures Hill Climbers navigate are hierarchical, and thus, zero-sum, by nature. There can be only one CEO, one VP, or one Executive Director. Moving up the ladder requires acquiring the finite availability of resources and power positions at the exclusion of others. Successful hill climbers are masters of power dynamics. 

A Hill Climber has bounded returns, meaning that because the success path is pre-defined and previously ascended by others, the opportunity to add value or novelty is bounded by incremental, rather than phase-shift, innovation. Because the destination is along a more known path, Hill Climbers iterate and improve what already exists and are much more likely to end with a modicum of financial success.  

The top level Hill Climber becomes the master of an existing domain by iterating and improving existing processes, excelling and dominating over competitors, & ascending and defending the hill. 

Hill Climbers ask themselves “how can I get ahead?” and “how can I create more?”.

What is a Valley Crosser?

Valley Crossers are motivated by achievement and exploration of uncharted territory. As they look across a chasm in front of them, they cannot decipher the distance to the other side or the contour of the terrain they must cross in order to achieve their outcome. Their role is that of an Intrepid Explorer, driven into the unknown allured by what might await them. 

The structures Valley Crossers navigate are more cooperative than competitive. These grand explorations are rarely embarked upon alone and require a complex web of collaborators to achieve breakthroughs. 

A Valley Crosser has the potential for significant, unbounded returns alongside a higher risk of “failure”. Because Valley Crossers trek an unknown path, their journey is one of trial and error, where maintaining a “don’t know mind” is essential for new discovery. Rather than iterate and improve what exists, Valley Crossers invent entirely new realities, or nothing at all and end with little financial success. 

The top level Valley Crosser is the forebearer of a new domain in thought or commerce, unearthing new inquiries to be solved and eliminating possibilities that don’t work. 

Valley Crossers ask themselves “what problems are worth my time to solve?”, “what’s difficult?”, and “how can I create something new?”.

HILL CLIMBERS VS AND VALLEY CROSSERS

When I first set out to write this article, I set out to prove that Valley Crossers are more important to our society because I have a personal proclivity (read bias) towards the value of Valley Crossing. Either/Or thinking like this will almost always fail us. This is the same type of polarized thinking fueling our many ideological clashes drawn around cultural battle lines: our “us versus them” mindset. 

The reality is typically more complex and nuanced than the easy and convenient temptation to default to one pole or another. The role of the Sensemaker is to decipher the signal from the noise present in all perspectives and then create a coherent understanding from the signals that drives personal meaning and action.

Some of the top Hill Climbers are by necessity Valley Crossers. Anyone who has climbed a mountain knows that the route to the top is rarely a straight shot and often a surprise valley or ravine is hiding between here and the top. Similarly, the top Valley Crossers have to climb hills to get traction and compete in the modern economy and marketplace of ideas.

Our primary societal orientation is Hill Climber. We need more Valley Crossers. Will society’s most vexing problems be solved by Hill Climbers or Valley Crossers? Or those that play in both realms? It seems that innovators cross valleys before climbing hills. Our trumpeted technopreneurs like Elon Musk and Steve Jobs (and all the others), even Thomas Edison, all crossed valleys before commercial success catapulted them to the top of a hill many others now find themselves on. 

“A hill worth dying on…?”

You may have heard the phrase “that is not a hill worth dying on” before. I have learned in my career to choose carefully which hills to die on (figuratively of course). Perhaps the most important part of this entire analogy is hill or valley selection. 

Whether we are climbing a hill or crossing a valley, which one is ultimately more important than the means by which we’re pursuing it. Think about the hill or valley you are on. Trace the outcome of your escapade to its conclusion. Begin with the end in mind. What is the expected natural outcome of this particular path? How does it align with your values?

Thinking like this must be one reason why I’ve heard people say, “I looked at the future and realized I didn’t want my boss’ job so I opted out…” No matter where you are today, remember that it’s never too late to start a new hill or a new valley. And it’s essential to periodically evaluate your path, progress, and destination.

Some Questions to Consider:

  • What’s at the top of this hill? Is it worth it to me?
  • What do I vision is at the other side of this valley? Is it worth it to me?
  • If money were no object, what hill or valley would I find myself on?
  • If I cast off societal expectations/taboos, would I choose a different hill or valley?

Answering questions around legacy and purpose is useful when considering your trek. 

Whatever hill or valley you find yourself on, may you become aware of your path’s trajectory, evaluate its merit, and chart the course that best suits you (and those you consider). 

Carry on my intrepid friend!