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My son Colton taking a leap of faith. 2013, Central Valley, Ca.

On Fear and Failure

 

I am a climber.

Sometimes I forget it, often I neglect it and once in a while I deny it. But it’s who I am.

Years ago, I got into a deep discussion with a good friend (also a climber) about what it truly meant to “be” a climber. I argued then that it is innate and part of who you have always been. I said that you couldn’t really learn to be a climber – you had to discover something within yourself that drove you to climb or you simply were not a climber. Yeah, I had a really big ego when I was 24.

Today, with a beautiful wife and children – and two additional decades of hindsight, I feel a little differently. I still think that to climb you must discover something within yourself, but now I believe this discovery is something we are all capable of.  We are all climbers; it is simply up to us what we choose to climb.

Climbing to me (in spite of my ego) was, and is, always really a grand metaphor for life. It was when I was the most still inside, the most clear about what was outside. Thousands of feet and several days up the wall reduced my world to a few square feet of granite – my problems became petty, stress faded away. My concern became only what my next move would be. It is ironic that, for me, to feel the most grounded, I had to get as far away from level ground as possible! I guess it was in this Vertical World that I was finally able to face myself.

Because the length of a rope is around 60 meters, I often found myself out of sight and out of earshot of my partner, struggling with a difficult problem far above my last piece of protection, the abyss pulling at me from below. These moments were when fear – often a very abstract feeling for many of us – truly became my Fear, something I had to face alone to move forward. Many times I had a very simple choice: do something or fall. The outcomes on these occasions varied but the lesson I took from them was this: action didn’t necessarily equal success but inaction certainly meant failure.

Fear is a complex and personal thing. For some of us it can be motivating, for many, debilitating. In both cases, it interplays with our ability to do something. The trick is figuring out how to take the anxiety and channel it into a productive outcome instead of a fruitless one. Paramount in this equation is identifying why we might be allowing (yes, allowing) fear to control us. If we start from a place of ego, which we almost always do, it’s outside factors that result in fear-based indecision; I can’t. I’m not. I don’t. What if?
It’s as if the thing that scares us creates the fear within us. From a climber’s perspective, this might seem obvious; come to an unfamiliar crux move, a committing roof hiding what lies beyond, or the first signs of a storm moving in and we are afraid. We have lost control.

That was me for years. I let the outside circumstances of my life control my emotions. But over time, meditating high on the epic granite walls of Yosemite, I started to climb for reasons that were different from when I began. I was less interested in impressing myself and others and more interested in sharing the pure experience of climbing – the journey, what it took to get there – and not so much the summit itself. And I started to realize that as I set my ego aside I was not so separate from my fears. I was part of them. I created them. And I put them in place purposefully, to limit myself.

I’m not a psychologist, so I wont pretend to delve into a deep explanation of why we might do this. Suffice it to say that, in my case, fear of accomplishment played a part. Did I want to stay on the side of a wall, suffering through cold nights, steady drizzle, dehydration, and chewed up hands? Of course not. On every climb, I longed for the summit and a hot meal. But there was also something sad about finishing. It meant the experience was over. And on a deeper level it meant that all things must eventually come to an end. Perhaps I feared what lay beyond. Ultimately, I think I just didn’t want to let go.

I think on some level we are all intimidated by what’s to come. And I think this is a very normal reaction. What makes it all the more distressing is when we decide to separate ourselves from our fear and assign its cause to outside forces. This is what results in inaction. I think fear of failure on the surface may be partly a fear of consequences – of looking bad in front of ourselves or other people (external) – but on a deeper level might really be considered a fear of succeeding (internal). Falling – failing – is part of what and who we are as humans. It is how we learn what not to do and it is how we calibrate ourselves to the task at hand. In climbing – as in business, relationships, anything – failure is as essential to success as setting a new speed record or impressing your friends on the next pitch – as long as we acknowledge and learn from it. Success may deliver a celebratory mindset in the short term, but often comes with a much greater level of responsibility. As we progress (succeed) we must abandon our past victories and invent new ones. We must create the next level of standards. We must lead. The word success itself originates from the Latin “to come after”. And many of us know what an onus it can be to have to reinvent yourself over and over again. So maybe it is a more subtle interplay of the yin and yang of success and failure that shapes our fear. Regardless, search the Canons of history and you will find we, as humans, time and time again, have achieved through failure as much as we have through success. Perhaps we should not choose to stand on the sidelines out of fear but embrace our ability to fail (or succeed!) instead of labeling it with such stigma. For better or for worse make a move, own your fear, take action…and see what heights you climb to.

The author high on the Nose Route, circa 1991. El Capitan, Yosemite, Ca.

Day of the Rock

You might consider two choices: You can live the life you have, with contentment, or you can live the life you think you should have, stubbornly. One takes heart, the other takes vision, and both, passion, persistence and commitment.

I’ve spent a good portion of my life as a bit of an itinerant, moving from NY to Pittsburgh to Atlanta, back to NY, all around SF (after a very circuitous  and protracted tour of the country), in several National Parks as a semi-homeless person in my ’66 VW bus, and finally (ok, maybe not finally (ok, as my wife pokes me, definitely not finally)) down to Los Angeles 9 years ago. I’ve traveled to Europe, Southeast Asia, China, Japan, Central America, Canada, and remote islands in the deep Pacific. I’ve rock-climbed from Joshua Tree to Yosemite to British Columbia to Upstate New York to Thailand, wandered through the Sierras, Cascades, Rockies and the Adirondacks and ridden a motorcycle across Mexico on the Baja 1000 course. I’ve stood at the top of Mayan pyramids, the World Trade Center and the summit of El Capitan and at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. I’ve wine tasted in Napa, savored the aprés ski of Lake Tahoe and Vail and lived the good life on the upper east side of Manhattan. In my adopted home state of California, I’ve raced mountain bikes, snowboarded Mt. Shasta, leapt from an airplane in the Central Valley, and hunted deer in the Trinity Alps. I’ve built houses in Atlanta, New York, San Francisco and LA and I’ve flown helicopters and airplanes – the latter upside down from time to time. I’ve started two businesses, one of them an international, multi-million dollar, somewhat successful venture. I’ve been a carpenter, a movie producer, a landlord and a limo driver. I’ve dug ditches (literally) and had lunches with Studio Execs. I am a husband and the father of two rambunctious, energetic and stubborn little boys. And ultimately, because we all have places we have been, great things we have done and darn good stories to tell – regardless of our backgrounds or our choices – I consider myself a very ordinary man.

My inner goal was – and still is – to find out what it is that I am really supposed to be doing here (here on this planet, not here in LA, although for now they are one and the same.) Changing places or jobs, as it were, usually came with some anxiety that was largely based upon fear of the unknown, especially when I violated one of the cardinal rules of moving: always make sure you have a new thing before you leave the old thing. But, more often than not excitement and exhilaration were the overriding emotions I experienced. There is something about starting something new that is so innate, so human and natural, that its almost as if we were made to be renaissance men and women or perhaps (as in my case) even serial adventurists. I heard a recent statistic that we now change our jobs every 12 to 18 months. Seems natural to many of us, but wasn’t always the way of things. I think my father – a dedicated research physician who has held the same career at the same hospital for the duration of my entire life – would disagree, but I find some comfort in having discovered in my travels that the only constant really is change, and, should we choose to embrace it as caretakers of this technology-saturated, digitally-chaotic, social-media-infused infrastructure of the new millennium (*take note Generation Z), change, with all of its intimidation and panic and gnashing of teeth, can be a good thing, and may just lead us to the what, the why and the who we are.

It is in this spirit of change that I have started this collection of writings, a next iteration of my experience here. I think it somehow fitting to launch this on my birthday but I am not even sure what it will be that I will ultimately stake here, as an internaut, in my little corner of the cyber world. As a Virgo, I am acutely aware that, to be successful, there will have to be some sort of through line. Perhaps we will develop that together as we go, sharing the experiences that further the telling of our collective story. I am looking forward to this next adventure.

Welcome to my blog.