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Fantasize about quitting your job to climb Everest or hike the Appalachian Trail? These die-hards are doing it.

Business Insider logo Business Insider 9/13/2021 rknight@insider.com (Rebecca Knight)
a man standing on top of a snow covered mountain: Suman Karthik recently quit her job to climb Mount Everest. "I can always get another job, but this is the only time when I have the ability and the strength in my body to do this," she said. Courtesy of Suman Karthik © Provided by Business Insider Suman Karthik recently quit her job to climb Mount Everest. "I can always get another job, but this is the only time when I have the ability and the strength in my body to do this," she said. Courtesy of Suman Karthik

Suman Karthik, a 43-year-old marketing executive and avid mountaineer, vividly recalls the moment of her pandemic epiphany. It was in May, when she was in a Zoom meeting for her Seattle-based company. Earlier in the year, she and her husband both caught COVID-19, and they'd each spent several weeks in the hospital.

"I remember sitting there that day thinking, 'I can't do this. I'd rather be using my energy to climb mountains than be in another meeting.'"

So she quit. In October, Karthik, who lives in Bangalore, will travel to the Indian Himalayas to practice alpine style climbing and in the spring, she will attempt her lifelong ambition of scaling Mount Everest. "I can always get another job, but this is the only time when I have the ability and the strength in my body to do this," she said. "If I don't climb now, when will I?"

The pandemic has served as a potent reminder that life is short, prompting many people to reconsider what they want out of their lives and careers. Some have pursued passion projects or started new businesses; others quit jobs they were unhappy with or changed their lines of work. For a small band of thrill-seeking die-hards, though, the pandemic sparked something altogether different: a primal desire to tackle an extreme physical challenge.

Fueled by a heightened sense of carpe diem and eager to take advantage of still-decent knees and cardiovascular function, they seek the kind of adrenaline, focus, and fulfillment that their day jobs don't offer. It requires a certain pluck - and privilege, it must be said - to quit your job to climb a mountain, but for those with the financial means, physical capability, and professional chutzpah, adventure calls.

"We've all been made aware of the fragility of life, and a lot of people during this time have experienced some version of an existential crisis," said Margarita Mayo, a professor of organizational behavior at IE Business School. "For certain Type A personalities who are ambitious and like to push themselves, this crisis spurred them to action. Why am I here? To take on this challenge."

'It's been liberating'

To be sure, hardcore outdoor-sports enthusiasts are a self-selecting group. Not many people willingly choose to push their bodies through miles of pain for months at a time. But for those so inclined, the pandemic provided a perfect backdrop to conjure an athletic quest.

Being bored and cooped up in quarantine gave them the opportunity to ponder what they wanted to be doing instead - and time to get in shape. They had more disposable income, too. Stay-at-home orders meant people weren't going anywhere, so they could salt away their earnings in preparation. Climbing Everest isn't cheap, after all.

What's more, the pandemic emboldened people to take professional and personal risks, said Dan Gusz, CEO of Lloyd, a career-coaching company. "The idea that you need to be on some 40-year path loosened," he said. "It's been liberating: Some realized they could step off the ladder - even temporarily - and do something they've always wanted to do."

Count Jonathan Wright among them. Wright, a successful publishing executive from London and cycling enthusiast, remembers being on a business trip in Hong Kong in January and undergoing a mandatory three-week quarantine. He wasn't allowed to leave his hotel room - breaching the rule carried a prison sentence - and the quiet isolation and missing his wife and children got to him.

a man wearing sunglasses posing for the camera: Jonathan Wright is cycling from Maine to Florida. "Whatever's next will present itself," he said. Courtesy of Jonathan Wright © Provided by Business Insider Jonathan Wright is cycling from Maine to Florida. "Whatever's next will present itself," he said. Courtesy of Jonathan Wright

He felt a powerful need to do two things: one, quit his job, and two, ride his bike. "There was something about being confined in a hotel room that made me crave the open road and having that blinkered focus of pedaling, eating, sleeping, and washing your kit," he said.

Then he began plotting a route from Northern Maine to the southern tip of Florida.

In August, Wright embarked on a 2,529-mile ride along the East Coast. The ride will take him at least a month, and then he will look for a new role. "I still want to work hard and take another senior role in a business," he said, adding that he's not overly worried about finding a new job. "Whatever's next will present itself."

The pandemic reshaped our relationship with time

That same devil-may-care attitude has permeated the workforce. Leaving one's job without another one lined up was once considered reckless. But today, many are doing just that. About 40% of workers are likely to leave their jobs in the next three to six months, according to research from McKinsey, and nearly two-thirds of those considering quitting said they'd do so without another job in hand.

The blazing-hot jobs market, of course, is a factor, but equally important, said Denise Rousseau, a professor of organizational behavior at Carnegie Mellon's Tepper School of Business, is that the pandemic reshaped our relationship with time.

"Living with so much uncertainty and unpredictability makes you doubt your capacity to plan," she said. "In the past you might have thought, 'I can do this next year or the year after.' But COVID made you realize that if you have a long-term goal you want to accomplish - like climbing a big mountain - the future is now."

Andrew Underwood, a 39-year-old logistics manager in Denver, knows the feeling. Underwood long dreamed of one day hiking the Appalachian Trail. In early 2019, his father and occasional hiking buddy, was diagnosed with corticobasal syndrome, a rare brain disease. "When I told my dad I was thinking about the AT, he said, 'You need to do it before you get too old.'"

a man sitting on a bench: Andrew Underwood left his job to hike the Appalachian Trail. "I was always going to do it, but the pandemic added new urgency and made me more determined," he said. Courtesy of Andrew Underwood © Provided by Business Insider Andrew Underwood left his job to hike the Appalachian Trail. "I was always going to do it, but the pandemic added new urgency and made me more determined," he said. Courtesy of Andrew Underwood

Underwood began training, saving money, and amassing lightweight camping gear. A year later as the first cases of coronavirus were confirmed in the US, Underwood realized he needed to accelerate his plans. He gave his boss two weeks' notice and flew to Georgia to make his way to Springer Mountain.

He finished the trail - all 2,200 miles of it - in three months and 27 days. The trail typically takes a through hiker about five to seven months. "I was always going to do it, but the pandemic added new urgency and made me more determined," he said.

'Being away from civilization is a great reset button'

As any amateur athlete knows, once you've crossed the finish line and the dopamine subsides, a period of mourning akin to low-grade depression often follows. Accomplishing a feat is a point of pride, sure, but then you must return to the humdrum of everyday life. Sometimes, also, a job search.

a tree in a forest: Sean Sullivan quit his job last year at the start of the pandemic to hike both the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail. "Being away from civilization is a great reset button," he said. @s_s.sullivan/Instagram © Provided by Business Insider Sean Sullivan quit his job last year at the start of the pandemic to hike both the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail. "Being away from civilization is a great reset button," he said. @s_s.sullivan/Instagram

Sean Sullivan, a 35-year-old architect, quit his job last year at the start of the pandemic to hike both the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail, roughly 4,600 miles total. He said that hiking in the wilderness for eight months changed his outlook on life and forced him to reevaluate what he wants out of his career.

"Being away from civilization is a great reset button," he said. "When you carry everything you need to survive on your back, you realize you don't need a lot. It puts things into focus."

Sullivan recently relocated from Philadelphia to Seattle and took a new job with a smaller firm. "My employer knows who they hired: I still had a beard and long hair when I interviewed," he said. "I like being an architect, but it's not the only thing I am."

It's not uncommon for people to return from these kinds of physically and mentally demanding experiences with new perspectives, priorities, and values, according to Haley Perlus, a sports psychologist and career consultant. They've also often acquired new skills that make them appealing job candidates.

"You need a level of mental toughness to embark on these extreme physical challenges, and employers recognize that," she said. "They also appreciate that you've gained emotional strength and resilience along the way that enhance your job performance."

Karthik, for her part, is focused on climbing Everest. Her job search will be waiting for her when she returns. She's scaled other peaks in the past, and she's well aware of how expeditions can have a reorienting effect.

"Every time I've come from a climb, it's changed the way I live and work," she said. "Climbing builds tenacity within you. It teaches you how to stay focused: to learn when you need to lead and when you need to follow."

"The bad part is that you come back to work and sit at your desk and wonder, 'Why am I here?'"

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