My toes grasp for a foothold and my forearms scream as I tighten my sweaty grip on the ledge above me. Slowly, my left toe slides down the wall, coming to a stop on a small knob. My left leg is bent and I lean as close to the wall as I can to relieve some pressure in my burning arms. Slowly I press my left leg into standing while my right leg hangs in space keeping me balanced. I look up and see the next hand hold. It’s above my left shoulder. My left hand has a firm grip but my right hand is pinched tight and slipping. Can I reach my right hand across my body to pull myself higher?
Every Sunday, I test my focus, strength, and strategy at a climbing gym in Nashville. The gym is a cavernous space with colored grips and footholds snaking up the 25 foot high walls. A set of colors corresponds to a different route and different routes are graded by difficulty. Most pathways require a partner to belay you up, essentially locking the rope in place as you climb to prevent falls. But there are others that are connected to an auto-belay system. Slipping off the wall leads to a controlled descent back to the ground.
I started climbing seriously after a friend invited me to join her two months ago. We started at the easiest routes and found success even as our fingers, forearms, and shoulders ached. Throughout the gym, fit and nimble men and women danced up the walls gracefully. We marveled at their technique. Their bodies read each route as if they understood a language that was foreign to us. And when it came time for our turn to advance to harder routes, we repeatedly failed.
The following week and the weeks after, we started to see progress. On routes we had failed only a week before, now we ascended with ease and confidence. For every success, however, there were multiple failures. Moments when our fingers gave out, our toes slipped, our confidence and focus wavered. And that, to me, is the point of climbing. Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to reach the summit of Mount Everest, once stated “People do not decide to become extraordinary. They decide to accomplish extraordinary things.” The wall is a metaphor for any obstacle in life. The goal is to reach the top. The challenges become gradually more difficult. Failure is expected. Progress takes grit. Can you stay focused when your grip starts to slip? Are your actions intentional? If you fall, can you summon the strength to try again?
The most fulfilling thing about climbing is the gratification of immediate feedback. When I conquer a route that eluded me previously, it tells me that I am making progress and I am getting better. There are times when I take a risk on the wall, holding on precariously to a grip with one hand while releasing the other hand to reach for another handhold, only to be surprised that my grip is more stable and stronger than I thought. Climbing helps me work on the hand and forearm muscles that are hardest to strengthen in a traditional gym. It teaches me to improvise, to be decisive, and to focus with each movement.
One of the things I have learned about the execution of ideas is that it takes practice. Learning to work at a task that gives no immediate payoff, but where progress can be measured, is an excellent way to build up the inner strength and determination needed to accomplish greater tasks, even if it is in a completely different field. Learning to climb will help teach me how to handle the starts and stops, the slow progress, and the frustration of developing an app. It might help you write your thesis, master that song, or grind it out with your business. It will lead you to make the decision to succeed at the extraordinary. So what are you waiting for?