Tag Archives: ego

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.