Five Unexpected Lessons That Rock Climbing Taught Me About Life

Magical Maeya

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Something looked wrong.

Oh right, all five of my toes were pointing in the wrong direction — 180 degrees in the wrong direction in fact.

Oh, and my ankle was the size of an apple. My entire leg was turning a strange shade of purplish-blue.

I looked up hopefully at the paramedic and asked,

“Is there any chance that nothing is broken?”

He smiled at me sympathetically and just shook his head.

Forty minutes later, I was airlifted out of the Blue Mountains in Australia. Other than it being one of the worst ways I have physically injured myself, I also didn’t have Australian health insurance or any family there.

Back then, if you had told me that taking that fall would be one of the best things that ever happened to me, I would have called you a liar.

But over a decade later, I realized that it was the start of my education with one of the best teachers I’ve ever encountered. My relationship with rock climbing has taken me across multiple continents, forced me to overcome some dicey situations, and introduced me to some amazing athletes.

But surprisingly, the best lessons I’ve learned weren’t about how to rescue myself off the face of a wall or how to physically push myself. The best lessons were more universal and nuanced — simple, though not always easy. They were always about how to navigate life.

I’ve realized that they have become even more relevant since the pandemic started and that everyone can benefit from them. Here’s how you too can change your life by applying these lessons.

1. The Best Lessons Come From the Toughest Times

Before my fall happened, I was fearless. I would climb things that were way beyond my limit and never understood why others felt fear. There was a rope, after all, wasn’t there?

But after my accident, I was paralyzed with fear. My naive way of compensating for this was to train harder. If I felt stronger, then I wouldn’t be scared anymore, right?

Wrong.

No matter how strong I got, I still couldn’t be a decent climber if my mind was overcome with fear as soon as I was five feet off the ground.

So, I realized that I needed to work on overcoming fear. I found a coach and worked on addressing my mental strength. Within two weeks of doing this, I was climbing several grades harder than I had ever climbed even before I had the accident.

I was dumbfounded. How could this be possible? Clearly, I didn’t get that much stronger in two weeks. What happened was that I had become a lot stronger mentally. Because I wasn’t scared to fall, I was more willing to push the next move even if I was tired. And that made all the difference.

Here is an important distinction — I was fearless before, but it was because I was naive. Learning to overcome fear gave me a different level of confidence entirely.

In her best-selling book Grit, Angela Duckworth shares the culmination of years of research showing that how you respond to failure and obstacles is a greater determinant of success than talent or luck. You can’t achieve grit without experiencing some tough times.

I believe in this lesson so strongly that I wrote a whole other article about why we need bad things to happen to us.

How You Can Apply This Lesson:

Think about what you are struggling most with now. Are you struggling to make ends meet financially or worried about job security? Channel that fear into starting a side hustle or learning a new skill.

Our toughest times force us to overcome things that are limiting us that we wouldn’t otherwise try to address. Nothing is a stronger motivator than necessity, pain, or fear.

So, if you’re struggling now, you should heed the advice of Winston Churchill who famously said,

“Never let a good crisis go to waste.”

2. Seek Resilience, Not Control

When I first started climbing, I always wanted everything to be just right if I was trying a hard route. When I was visualizing the climb — the weather would be perfect, I would feel amazing, and there would be no other climbers who wanted to climb that route.

Guess what?

The weather would change on a dime, hoards of people with pets and loud music would occasionally show up, and I sometimes felt extremely unmotivated after driving hours to climb.

But no matter how annoyed or frustrated I got, nothing changed. The weather was still doing its thing, the pets were still there, and I couldn’t control any of it.

Rock climbing is such a great teacher in that aspect. The rock really doesn’t care how much I wanted something and it is completely immune to my emotional pleas. It also doesn’t have an agenda I could play to.

In short, if I couldn’t climb a route, the rock will not change one iota for me. I would have to be the one to change. I would need to be stronger, braver, and have better skills. I would need to be comfortable climbing in different weather conditions and to tune out the noise around me.

This idea that one must learn to manage our inner world instead of controlling external events aligns with over 20 years of research by award-winning Harvard Medical School psychologist Susan David. Her book, Emotional Agility concludes that emotional adaptability and resilience is the key to thriving in times of uncertainty and change.

How You Can Apply This Lesson:

Is there something in your life right now that you are trying desperately to control? Maybe your partner or child’s behavior? Try learning how to communicate better, be more emotionally adaptable, and be a better listener instead.

If there’s one thing that the pandemic has taught us, it’s that control is an illusion. Everything can change in an instant. So remember these wise words by Claire Lewicki the next time you find yourself trying to control a situation,

“Control is an illusion, you infantile egomaniac. Nobody knows what’s gonna happen next: not on a freeway, not in an airplane, not inside our own bodies.”

3. Comparison Is the Devil

When I first started climbing, I was climbing with people who were much taller and stronger than me. I’m 5'1 and was not especially strong back then.

I would frequently get frustrated because they could reach holds that I couldn’t. I would try over and over again to do things the way everyone else did. I trained for hours in the gym to get stronger to no avail.

Then I finally had a breakthrough. One day, I saw some kids climbing. They were shorter than I was yet they were climbing harder than the adults. The main difference between them and me was that they didn’t try to climb like the other adults.

I realized then that I didn’t have to do things the way others did because I have my own advantages that they didn’t. Because I only weigh 100 pounds and had tiny fingers, I could hold on to much smaller things than they could. Another superpower I had was my memory. I was very, very good at remembering exactly what to do no matter how long the route was or how long ago I had climbed it.

Turns out, all I had to do was to stop comparing myself to them and fixating on things I couldn’t do. I stopped saying I can’t get from hold A to hold B because my arms aren’t long enough. Instead, I started saying I could skip holds B, C, and D altogether because I had better technique and could get my feet up higher.

How You Can Apply This Lesson:

Have you been constantly comparing your quarantine productivity with someone else’s? Do you keep feeling like a failure because you haven’t gotten fitter, learned to bake the perfect loaf of bread, or started a side hustle during quarantine like some of your friends?

Remember, in addition to not helping anyone get better at anything — Mitch Prinstein, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina and the author of Popular: The Power of Likeability in a Status-Obsessed World, says that people who are prone to negative comparisons can also be seriously at risk of depression.

Stop focusing on what you are not, find your superpower — the one thing you can do really well because you are uniquely you. When your mind is focused on what doesn’t work, it cannot focus on what can.

“Don’t compare your weaknesses to someone else’s strengths.” — Anonymous

4. Ego Is the Enemy

Rock climbing is the kind of sport that tends to attract a lot of male bravado. When I first started climbing, I would observe these “bros” who would muscle their way up climbs and focus on climbing harder grades over climbing well.

Their climbing career would inevitably follow the same trajectory. They would start strong, push hard (instead of learning real skills), and then get injured. One finger injury could put you out for as long as two years, so they would always fall behind. They would come back and repeat the same cycle again.

They were unwilling to learn better techniques, climb different types of rock, rest, or do training drills because it meant that they would need to take a step back and climb easier grades. All that mattered were the numbers.

Inevitably, the climbers who approached everything with curiosity and humility — learning how to climb on different terrain and doing things that helped them be a better-rounded climber would have a slower grade progression but always eventually supersede the “bros”.

In his book, Ego is the Enemy, Ryan Holiday provides examples of geniuses who have wrecked their careers and companies who have squandered their fortunes due to the curse of egos.

How You Can Apply This Lesson:

Your ego can be holding you back in multiple ways that you aren’t aware of.

  • Your ego can make you inflexible — For example, you want to be a writer, but you refuse to “sell” or “market” your writing because it’s beneath you.
  • Your ego can prevent you from asking for help when you really need it — For example, you are really struggling financially but your ego is stopping you from having an honest and productive discussion with your family.
  • Your ego can keep you stuck — For example, you got laid off from your corporate job and your mental patterns have been so stuck with being indignant, “How dare they lay me off, I have a Harvard degree for crying out loud!” that you are unable to be open to new opportunities.

Think of areas in your life where you feel a strong internal resistance — typically indignation, shame, or self-judgment — and your ego is likely behind it. Confront your ego and release its power over you.

“Ego is the enemy of what you want and of what you have: Of mastering a craft. Of real creative insight. Of working well with others. Of building loyalty and support. Of longevity. Of repeating and retaining your success. It repulses advantages and opportunities. It’s a magnet for enemies and errors.” ― Ryan Holiday

5. Real Connections Make Life Meaningful

If I were to tell my 16-year old self how I have lived my life, she would be proud.

I did everything she had dreamed of — I traveled the world solo, rock climbed in some amazing destinations, and didn’t compromise my career in the process.

My 37-year old self would tell her that the experiences that have helped me grow the most and the memories that bring me the most joy weren’t finishing the hardest climb, traveling for days to a remote Instagram-perfect village, or getting that promotion. It was finding my tribe and creating a global community of people whom I have continued to adventure with for over a decade.

Rock climbing has a way of creating uniquely deep bonds. It turns out, trusting someone with your life, struggling through a scary cliff, getting benighted and lost on a cold night, and discovering new places accelerates intimacy a thousandfold.

I would tell my younger self to use travel and rock climbing as a means to build connections instead of letting connections happen by chance. I would tell her to make meaningful connections the focus instead of the byproduct of adventures.

I would teach her the difference between activity partners and real connections — the people who understand you deeply, accept you fully, and help you be the best version of yourself.

I would encourage her to read the book by Bonnie Ware called The Top Five Regrets of the Dying expressing that what people regret most at their death bed is not investing more in their relationships.

In rock climbing, just as in life — the people you surround yourself with and the connections you build are what make all the difference.

How You Can Apply This Lesson:

Maybe right now, you are feeling isolated and lonely but you figure it’s fine. You figure things will go back to normal once your frisbee group, book club, or office life starts up again.

If you realize that what you have are coworkers and activity partners, don’t just shrug it off. What the pandemic is doing is allowing us to see the strength and depth of our relationships.

Do you have friends locally once you exclude your activity partners? Are there people you are able to be truly vulnerable with? Are they people who really “get” you? Are there people who truly bring you joy?

Take this opportunity to really assess your relationships and prioritize creating real connections in your life.

“A day without a friend is like a pot without a single drop of honey left “ — Winnie the Pooh

The Takeaways

Even after all these years, rock climbing and the harsh mistress that is Mother Nature continues to teach me new lessons in life. I hope sharing five of the most powerful ones will inspire you to learn from them too.

Here they are again:

  1. The best lessons come from the toughest times
  2. Seek resilience, not control
  3. Comparison is the devil
  4. Ego is the enemy
  5. Real connections are what make life meaningful.

The best part?

You don’t have to break a leg to start applying these lessons!

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I write about connection - with yourself and with others. I want to hear from you! * Mailing-list and contact: https://maypang.substack.com/

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