Climbing Koko

Meditations on life, career and mountain climbing Jing Lang


It was a great idea two hours ago. But at 10:30 a.m., I was only 20 steps into this 1,000+ step climb. The sun was already high, and my shoulders, arms and legs glistened from freshly applied sunscreen. Short shrubs lined both sides of the straight trail, but they were not tall or numerous enough to provide any consistent shade.

Already panting and nauseated, I stepped to the side of the railroad ties to make way for a family of five coming up behind me: a couple in their mid-30s and three children ages 2 to 5. Once a toddler passes you on a trail, you know your fitness level is pathetic. I rested my hands on my knees and squinted up at the steep impending incline and my husband, Tony, who was farther ahead. This climb was harder than I remembered.

Admittedly, this was a spontaneous trip. For two weeks, there had been intense showers four to six times a day, rendering most hiking impossible. So, on this Sunday, when the sky was blue and the forecast clear, Tony suggested we go to Koko Crater. When we arrived at the trail’s parking lot—two bus transfers and 90 minutes later—we saw that all of Honolulu, locals and tourists alike, had the same idea.

Ill-Prepared for the Task at Hand

Koko Crater is an extinct tuff cone that last erupted more than 7,000 years ago. During World War II, the U.S. military built bunkers on the summit and a railway to support an incline tram to transport supplies. When the city of Honolulu took over the administration of Koko Crater in 1966, it converted the abandoned railway into a 1.8-mile out-and-back trail, which over time became an attraction for tourists and a workout route for locals. Most steps on the trail are higher than the 7¾-inch height of a standard stair. Thus, it’s not the distance, but the elevation, that makes this trail an ultimate StairMaster.

I can only blame myself for my pitiful shape. I am up 8 pounds since the beginning of the pandemic. Frequently, I find myself in front of the fridge, stewing in a constant state of mild anxiety and looking for edibles to throw down a bottomless hole as if that would lessen the unknowable and uncertain future.

As I step back onto the trail, I start counting: Five, six, seven, eight. One beat for each railway tie to calm my breathing.

The last time I was this ill-prepared for something was the 2013 Vancouver Marathon, which I signed up for five months ahead of time after I found out I had failed the Society of Actuaries (SOA) Individual Life and Annuities Design and Pricing (ILA-DP) exam for the second time, with yet another score of 5. My rationale for signing up for a marathon was simple: I wanted to find a sport that grounded me. If I could pull off running for hours on end, surely I would dig up what it takes to prepare for a third attempt of the same exam. Did I participate in track and field in school? Not at all. Did I enjoy running? Not the point. In my mind, I had coupled studying for the spring sitting of the 2013 exam with the marathon four days later. If I can do one, I can do the other.

As it turns out, preparing for a marathon in your head does not substitute for actually putting in the weekly miles to build up your endurance. For five months, I rowed and cycled five times a week but did no running. When I stood at the marathon start line on May 5, 2013, one thought occurred to me: This is a little reckless. But I am not one to back out of a commitment. The starting horn sounded, and my feet hit the race timing mat. Ready, set, go.

Fighting Through

By the time I caught up to Tony, he was standing on the side of the trail with his hands on his waist, looking unwell. “Are you thinking what I am thinking?” I asked him. “What? That we are not going to make it this time?” he responded.

I flinched out of irritation. There I was, thinking it would take much longer and more rest stops to get to the top this time, but the thought of not making it at all had not crossed my mind until he mentioned it. How dare he plant that unsolicited seed of doubt. We were going to finish, of course.

I had always been oblivious to obstacles in my life. Even though I failed my fair share of actuarial exams, I never questioned that I would become a qualified fellow (I received the FSA designation in 2015). Even though it was probably not medically advisable to run a marathon without practice runs, I never doubted I would finish (and I did, at 5 hours and 36 minutes). Now on this trail, even though a toddler had passed me and I started taking rest stops way too early, I never doubted I would get to the top. It was then, at this moment, to my shock and awe, that I realized I have never doubted my dream to be a contributing writer for The New Yorker.

I started writing in 2016. When I returned from a three-month work secondment in London, I was burning with the urge to write about my experience. The result was an 800-word article that I posted on my employer’s internal community page. It received rave reviews and heavy blowback. Some readers loved my candidness, and others were insulted by it—my first performance review as a writer. With time, I made writing a daily practice, and now I regularly contribute to four different publications. I learned to write by writing. I long for the day when my work becomes good enough to be published in The New Yorker.

Henry Ford once said, “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.” If our goal is an illusion until realization, why not choose a set of beliefs and convictions that is productive? Plus, there is gratification in practicing and getting better at any chosen craft, unmatched by the satisfaction of achieving the desired result.

Shifting Focus

At around the halfway mark of the Koko Crater trail, I brushed shoulders with a small troop returning from the summit. “Be careful when you come down later, it’s harder than going up!” one of them remarked since we were still working on the upward journey. I don’t even have the brain cells to process that right now, I thought.

After I obtained fellowship, I shifted my focus to career advancement, which included relocating from Toronto to New York in 2017. Climbing a trail is not dissimilar to career advancement. Presumably, everyone wants to get to the top to see the panoramic view. Some are faster than others, but ultimately everyone who goes up will come down. We step down in our careers, too—through retirement, restructuring or other job changes. I realized it would be truly sad if I were to devote so much time and energy to climbing a certain career ladder and if once there I were to discover that it was the wrong mountain.

One silver lining from the COVID-19 pandemic is I have had the chance to closely examine my life’s priorities. I realized that without consciously participating in it, I have been in a rat race. Throughout my whole adult life, I have looked at everything in relation to others: time taken to obtain fellowship, frequency of promotions, praise from senior leaders. Although I thought I knew my self-worth, it was all inevitably tied to external markers of success.

We evolve as we grow. We can re-evaluate our choices and decisions and pivot what we focus on in life. If we know what’s important to us, we can prioritize accordingly. When I look back on my life since college, I can broadly divide it into four phases/focuses with four clear goals:

  1. Writing actuarial exams (obtaining fellowship)
  2. Career advancement (promotions)
  3. Diverse learning (becoming a polymath)
  4. Introspection (a variety of creative endeavors)

I realized career advancement, which in many ways is seeking someone else’s approval, does not make me happy. Instead, learning and working well with others does. Through that process, I have developed the humility to not only ask for help but also accept it.

View From the Top

When I got to nearly the top of Koko Crater, I found myself needing to take a break every five or six steps. Even though the trail was packed, people were very courteous. When I missed a step, lost my balance and felt the panic of falling and taking down the entire string of climbers behind me, a stranger thrust forward to catch me, no doubt driven by an instinct of human decency. After all, we are all in this together.

Jing Lang, FSA, FCIA, FLMI, MAAA, is VP and product manager at iptiQ. She is also a contributing editor for The Actuary.

Statements of fact and opinions expressed herein are those of the individual authors and are not necessarily those of the Society of Actuaries or the respective authors’ employers.

Copyright © 2021 by the Society of Actuaries, Chicago, Illinois.