Failing and Loving It: Lessons from Climbing

Because gym climbing doesn't look awesome, here's me on an easy problem that's photoshopped to look tougher.  
Because gym climbing doesn’t look awesome, here’s me on an easy problem that’s photoshopped to look tougher.  

Epic Flail

  I’ve been at this problem for weeks now.  It’s rated a V4, which is just outside of my current skill level, but if I can do it it’ll mean that I’m back to my pre-deployment peak condition.  

  It’s a sit-start problem, so I start sitting down with my hands in a hold and my feet toed into the two tiny chips that count as footholds.  I breathe slowly to calm my heartbeat, visualize myself as pro climber Chris Sharma, and I swing onto the problem.  The first two moves come easily, and I flow through them like a choreographed dance.  My entire body moves efficiently, precisely placing each finger or toe on the next hold without any excess movement.  I get to the first tricky part: a very high reach onto a sketchy sloped pocket.  I walk my feet up to the wall to reach the highest toeholds available and launch myself upwards, while simultaneously reaching with my left hand.  My left hand somehow finds purchase inside this sloped hold, and my right hand quickly shoots up next to my left.  I walk my feet up again, and I place my right foot onto the last remaining toehold.  I look up at the next move: the end of the problem.  I psych myself up again, forcing myself to remember to breathe and try to slow down my heartbeat.  My handgrip won’t last much longer in this position so I have to move soon.  I give myself another second or two, then focus all my weight onto my right toe and get into a crouch on the wall.  With an exhale of breath, I explode off of my right toe and my right hand shoots up to reach for the final hold in one dynamic motion.  The top part of my fingers feel the top of the last hold for a fraction of a second, and I do everything I can to hold on.  

  Another fraction of a second later, I’m falling.  Another failed attempt at this problem.  I give myself a couple of minutes to rest, and I repeat this process again.  Over, and over, and over.  At least 10 times over the course of an hour.  Every time, I fail.  

That’s lame, why do it?

  Climbing is special to me because it rewards repeated failure.  And within the special subset of climbing that I do (bouldering), I get to fail often, and fast.  In a way, failure is the point.  In climbing, the fastest way to improve your technique is to climb at or near your limit.  There’s no substitute for being on the wall.  Nothing compares to the feeling of being on the route, where you have to do a special kind of gymnastics just to slowly move upward.  You learn something new on every attempt, and your body discovers different ways to solve the problem.  By failing fast, failing often, and learning from your mistakes, you can accelerate your own growth within the sport.  

  I believe in the educational power of failure.  It translates well to learning snowboarding tricks: the more jumps and attempts you can fit in on one session, the faster you’ll learn.  In my experience with advanced research and development, you want to test as often as you can so you can learn from the results and get some insights.   Thomas Edison supposedly said: “I have not failed.  I’ve only found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”   

  Repeated failures are the price we pay for eventual success – and the more you invest in a problem and the more you pay, the bigger the payoff.  The feeling of climbing to the top of a problem that you’ve been working on for weeks is priceless.  The feeling of landing that new snowboard trick.  The feeling of reaching a new level of mastery in your skill or profession.  It gives meaning to all the hard work, and makes you even hungrier for the next one.  It builds your resilience in the face of discouraging conditions and challenges.  It’s the feeling that makes you want to shout at the top of your lungs and punch the air.  


  There are, however, a couple of things I wouldn’t want to fail on: skydiving and bungee jumping.  Those activities teach a lesson that you won’t walk away from!