10 Lessons Climbers Understand About Success

Cristian Bortes
Cristian Bortes

Climbing is a sport that lends itself to metaphors. When people talk about success, they talk about “making it to the top” or “moving up” or “climbing the corporate ladder.” And when people talk about failure, they talk about “falling” or “slipping up.”

So, when I took up climbing as a hobby, I noticed that every experience I had at the gym or on the trail became a metaphor for pushing limits, taking chances, and other ingredients to success. Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned from climbing that I’ve been able to apply to my life — and that you can benefit from, too, without conquering your fear of heights or getting blisters in the process.

1. You’re more capable than you think.

When I first started climbing, I listened to my body when it told me it couldn’t go any further. If my strength was giving out, I let go. But then, just as an experiment, I started reaching for holds I didn’t think could pull myself up to. To my surprise, I sometimes not only reached them but also continued to reach the ones above them (and sometimes I fell, but hey, that’s what the rope’s for.) I also tried routes that seemed way too advanced and somtimes actually completed them.

So, I decided to let go of assumptions about my own limitations in other areas of life as well. When I thought there was no way in hell I’d be considered for a job or no chance a journal would publish my writing, I tried anyway. Sometimes, my predictions came true. But other times, I surprised myself — and just a few surprises made all the difference for my career.
Just like grasping for that hold that seems out of reach, applying for that job you think you’re unqualified for or asking out someone who seems way out of your league could leave you pleasantly surprised, and you have nothing to lose.

2. You need to let go to reach the next level.

When you’re securely hanging on to a hold and the next one is way up or out of the way, it’s tempting to stay where you’re comfortable. But you only tire out your arms and impede your own progress that way. Yes, there’s a metaphor coming. Wait for it.

So many people cling to jobs, friendships, or romantic relationships because they’re not sure if something better will be waiting for them when they let go, and they prefer a less-than-ideal known entity to something unknown. But staying still only postpones inevitable burnout.

This is true for quitting jobs, it’s true for ending relationships, and it’s true for lifting up your foot when the next ledge is way up by your stomach: If you reach for the next level, you might fall, but at least you’re not stagnant.

3. Your “failures” aren’t actually failures.

When people ask me if I ever fall back on the rope, they’re sometimes shocked to find out that I almost always do. (Even if I don’t on the way up, I have to in order to get down.) Falling is part of climbing. If you’re not falling, you’re not challenging yourself.

Outsiders often assume that falling off a rock or climbing wall is the mark of a mistake, but it’s just part of the process. In the same way, meeting people you don’t end up in a relationship with is just part of dating. Not receiving offers is just part of job-searching. The list goes on.

Part of succeeding is falling — and falling is not the same as failing.

Michael Pollak
Michael Pollak

4. When it seems like you’re out of options, just take one more step.

Every climber has had this experience: You think there’s nothing left to grab onto, then you just move your foot an inch and suddenly a whole world of holds opens up that wasn’t in your field of vision before.

When you’re struggling through a work assignment or creative project and think you’re out of ideas, just taking one small step — googling a new term, writing one more sentence, or throwing out one more suggestion — can suddenly turn things around. What seems like a dead end could actually be a fork in the road if you travel a little further.

5. Practice makes progress — even when you don’t notice yourself progressing.

When I started off on level 5.10 routes, I thought the climbers doing 5.11s were clearly stronger and more athletic than me. The real difference between us? Practice.

I continued to feel as shaky as ever, yet within a few months, I had become one of those stronger, more athletic people I had envied. And routes that previously filled me with dread somehow became warm-ups.
One day, tasks that currently appear completely beyond your skill level could become second nature to you — if you choose to dedicate yourself to them.

6. Your confidence affects your capabilities.

In addition to practice, one reason I grew able to tackle harder climbs over time is that I gained comfort and let go of some fear (though, to be honest, not all of it — falling still terrifies me even with the rope). I reached for more holds because I was confident I could grab them. Even now, on bad days, I have a harder time climbing because I give up more easily.

In other areas of life, many of us have settled for lower positions because we lacked confidence in our ability to grab and hang on to higher ones. But you never get the promotions, awards, or relationships you don’t reach for. And, again, you’d be surprised how many you can grab.

Jerome Bon
Jerome Bon

7. You can’t plan everything.

Here’s another experience every climber can relate to: You trace a route with your eyes like a puzzle before you even tell your belay partner “ready to climb.” Then, once you get up and actually feel what is and isn’t graspable, the course of action you plotted out for yourself makes zero sense. Or, the route looks completely undoable from the ground, but once you get up there, you realize it’s not so bad.

Even if you’re not a climber, you can probably relate to the experience of nailing down plans for the weekend only to receive an unexpected invitation or Yelping Mexican restaurants only to be hit with a spontaneous pasta craving or obsessing over a new apartment decoration just before work requires you to move. Planning is necessary, but don’t stress over things that haven’t happened yet — because they might never happen at all.

Another implication of unplannability is that sometimes you need to start something to figure out where it’s going. It’s easier to decide what to say in an email once you start typing it, to figure out what’s necessary to make an event happen once you start planning it, to evaluate whether you want to date someone once you get to know them, etc.

8. Tackle the toughest tasks first.

Some climbers will disagree with me here, but I’m anti-warming-up. If I want to climb a more difficult route than I’m used to, I’ll do it first before I run out of energy. Then, I can take it easy for the rest of the day and feel satisfied with what I’ve accomplished so far.

I also try to avoid checking my email and immersing myself in mindless work tasks while the biggest items on my to-do list loom over me. Once you finish that monster of a report or prepare for that nerve-wrecking presentation, the rest of your workday feels less daunting, and you have the momentum to finish everything else efficiently.

9. Conserve your energy.

One of the biggest mistakes beginning climbers make is using muscles they don’t need. While beginners often spend several seconds suspended in what amounts to a pull-up, more experienced climbers will let their arms dangle until the last second before they need to propel themselves up to the next level.

Outside the climbing gym, one of the biggest ways we waste energy is through worry. We tire ourselves out trying to solve problems we have no control over, which makes it harder to address what we can control. We try to impress people whose opinions don’t matter, which leaves us with less to give to those we care about.

Your energy is finite, and every second you spend wasting it leaves you with less to devote to what’s important. The same way the most successful climbers avoid using any muscle unnecessary for the very next motion, the most successful people are extremely strategic about how they allocate their attention.

10. The scariest things in life are the most worthwhile.

Sometimes, the things you don’t want to do are the things you’ll be glad you did. For me, this applies to climbing the highest and steepest routes as well as climbing in general. Arriving at the climbing gym still fills me with an irrational sense of doom, and when I climb outdoors, I nearly get a panic attack. But that moment when I can look down and tell my belay partner I’m ready to fall makes it all worth it.

Whether it’s entering a contest, giving a public speech, or telling your crush you like them, the result of facing your fears can be extremely rewarding — and the more terrified you are, the greater the potential reward. TC mark

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