Discomfort Zone

Where are you in your climbing career?  Where were you a year ago? Two? Five? Stop, put this article away for five minutes or so and think about it.

Thinking hard about it - Photo: Julia Watson
Thinking hard about it – Photo: Julia Watson

Have you achieved the goals you set for yourself, or made progress towards them? If you have, I commend you! And even if you haven’t, it’s never too late!

Some would wonder what the point is of having goals. To me, it is a simple matter, because goals keep me from wondering “why the hell am I even doing this?” Climbing is supposed to be fun, and only you can define what “fun” means for your climbing career. It’s amazing how we can get used to even the most extreme situations. Just think back to the first time you sat behind the wheel of a car and had to drive on the freeway. For most, that was a fairly frightening experience; I know it was for me. It seems we humans can get used to anything. If we just stick with it long enough, even the most extreme situations can become mundane.

Seriously, you can get comfortable ANYWHERE
Seriously, you can get comfortable ANYWHERE

Climbing, in other words, can get boring, or if not exactly boring, we tend to fall into routine where we lose sight of that sense of wonder and amazement that brought us out onto the rocks to begin with. We grow complacent, we get comfortable and well-oriented at our home crags and gyms, it becomes familiar and routine. If you’re like many climbers, breaking routine is part of what brought you out to the wall to begin with. We lose focus and wonder “what does it matter? I could skip this session.” And then one session becomes two, and three, and one day someone asks why you quit climbing.  Remember your first trip outside or your first time at a climbing gym? How new and exciting everything was! Back then it was the definition of adventure, and now its just another day at the office.

The best thing about setting goals, is that it breaks the monotony and keeps things fresh. New climbs, more climbs, harder climbs, different areas, different types of climbing, all of these things spice up your climbing and as they say: “Variety is the spice of life.” In the end, isn’t that the purpose of climbing: To enhance life? You may risk venturing out your comfort zone, but I don’t think it’s truly an adventure until you get at least a little uncomfortable. You could be comfortable on the couch with a bowl of ice-cream streaming Netflix. (Nothing wrong with that, but it’s a lot easier than climbing if all you want is comfort!)

If climbing looses that luster, its much easier to burn out without even realizing it, only to look back at the past year, or two, or five and realize you haven’t done any of the things you set out to when you first flipped through a climbing magazine, browsed internet videos, and swore “I’ll be up there someday!” I hear it sometimes, this paradoxical lament from frustrated climbers who aren’t progressing: “I just don’t get it, I’m coming into the climbing gym and I’m sending everything I try, but I’m not getting any better”

Just go for it!
Just go for it!

Of course not. Sending will never make you a better climber, because sending is simply a demonstration of the skills and strength you already possess. It’s an acceptable way to benchmark progress and keep track of your progress, but at the end of the day sending does not force you to learn anything or even help you grow stronger. Edison did not create the lightbulb in a single try. He famously said that the lightbulb wasn’t the single success after a thousand failures, but rather a process that simply took 1,001 steps to complete. Sending is our lightbulb, a great achievement and the arrival at our destination. If we stay there then we’ll never progress any further. To advance we must fail, and acknowledge that there are no real failures, only a process with 1,000 more steps than we had expected.

There are different levels of fear and of consequence. The important thing is to be conscious of your surroundings, and never deliberately push it to the point of danger or terror. Fear and terror will only threaten the mental gains you’ve already made, and set you back. The key is to push it only just a bit farther than what’s perceived as your norm. Make it your goal to find the most extreme situation in which you can feel only a little uncomfortable, in relative safely. Reach just slightly outside your comfort zone and explore that space until you own it! Once you push to the point of terror, it can be very difficult to control your mind if you are unprepared, and then your mind may develop a new fear of terror that can hold you back in the future. Instead of planting a flag and claiming new land, that place will be labeled with a sign that reads “Here be monsters.”

We humans are hard wired to fear faiure, it’s natural. Putting yourself in a position to get lost at a new crag, fall off of an onsight attempt, wander off-route and pull off a micro-epic or give it your all and try your hardest can be uncomfortable. Discomfort, I think, is where we grow as climbers and as human beings. When we confront the unknown and unknowable, the outcomes are uncertain, and that’s enough to induce a certain amount of discomfort in anyone. The thing to remember is that we humans can get used to anything if we stick with it long enough, and it won’t be uncomfortable for long. That’s really all it takes to get better at climbing, and even to progress in life. Refuse to stagnate, embrace those moments of mental discomfort and stick with it until they become routine, for that is one of many markers of mastery.

Monsters are out there, gotta stay calm
Monsters are out there, gotta stay calm

Falling is not failing, it’s just another step towards sending your lightbulb and getting the idea for your next real adventure. Take pride in the process of trying, and shake things up. You can’t push your limit forward until you find it, and you won’t find it if you never fall. Climbing can enhance your life so much more than just a simple in-the-moment distraction from daily routine. All you have to do is embrace your discomfort zone!

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