How rock climbing made me smarter in my business and better at handling stress!

I have been rock climbing for about six years now and it is hands down, one of my favorite activities. I started rock climbing as a little kid on a set of granite cliffs across the street from where I grew up. I climbed sporadically until I was about 18, and then didn’t climb again for almost 25 years, until I met my wife, who is a rock climber. We went to the local gym a couple of months after we started dating and I just loved climbing!  

I loved how physical it is and how much brain focus is required. But when I started climbing, I did what most beginners do; pulling hard with the hands and arms, while barely using the feet and legs. This results in the weaker arm muscles getting pumped and tired fairly quickly and ultimately, to a loss of grip strength. With no ability to hold on, that pretty much ends the day of climbing. The more experienced climbers would say, “Use the feet, trust the feet”.  But, relying on the feet, and sometimes just the tip of the big toe, can be quite unnerving at first. Thoughts of slipping and catching the chin on the rock or taking the skin off any part of the body that comes in contact with the rock is a reality. And, I think it is a natural thing as humans to want to cling and hold on with our hands.  It can feel very unnatural to step on a small foot hold and support the entire body weight, on a vertical piece of rock, barely holding on with the hands. But changing the way we approach anything can be difficult because we have to overcome the fear of change.  There also may be practice required to learn the new skill.

Now, after many years of rock climbing, I realize there are a lot of similarities between the path of mastering the process of climbing and what I experience on a daily basis in my product development business.  I realize much more about myself, my limiting beliefs, how I react under pressure and also how I instinctively approach problems.  I have been able to apply this awareness to the other areas of my life, including how I run my business.  As a consultant, this information is really useful to know.  I find it very interesting that our hobbies can be educational and provide valuable insights, if we know where to look, and how to apply the insights.

Here are some of the things I have learned through rock climbing:

Technique is very important in rock climbing. Without the proper understanding of the body’s physiology, balance and leverage, your rock climbing progress will slow to a halt and cease to progress. It really is that way with almost everything in life. If you don’t understand the fundamentals, all improvements that are made, such as increasing grip strength, will not yield the full results because the foundation to build on is not in place.

Trusting the feet and conserving the strength of the arms has taught me to look for the best technique for tackling everything I do.   There is always a better technique. You can do a task elegantly and with less energy, or conversely,  use brute strength. The elegant way may require some practice or learned skill.  It is well worth the effort, as not only do I believe the task will be done with more ease, but will also have a better result.

How do you approach your business tasks? How do you run programs? Have you mastered the fundamental skills?  Does your process leave you excited and motivated or exhausted and tired?

The ability to think under pressure is definitely something I learned to appreciate much more through rock climbing. We all want to be cool and collected under pressure so we can perform better and reduce  unhealthy stress!  Rock climbing showed me something about the ability to think under stress in a way that I had never experienced before.

I noticed one time, when I thought I had no other option, I made a frantic grab for a little hold that I knew I couldn’t stick and consequently fell.  After pulling myself back up to the spot where I made that fateful move, I looked around and could see  all types of hand and foot holds! What gives? Why hadn’t I seen them before? I realized that under the extreme physical and mental stress of being about to fall, my actual vision became narrow and focused only on what was right before my eyes. I truly was almost blind.

I see the same condition happen in highly stressful business situations. The more stress and pressure, the less we become able to think clearly to see all the potential options available.  Under either physical or mental extreme stress we literally become dumber.  In actuality,  our IQ drops, and we see less and less options.  We certainly do not see what we want, when we need to operate at a peek creative level.

In order to remain as calm as possible under pressure to avoid the tunnel vision, one option is to increase our skill level and our confidence.  That can lower the stress and panic feelings that result from being overwhelmed.

Having a process based on proper knowledge and experience in rock climbing is essential. Situations can degrade quickly and if the proper actions are not taken at the right moment, you can get very hurt or die.

I once learned, after the fact, that I had made my anchor improperly.  If my climbing partner had fallen, I would have been yanked off the rock and strangled around the waste by the rope.  I would have been banged up, to say the least.   At the time I was 130 feet in the air.  The point is that I thought I knew what I was doing, but I missed a critical step that made all the difference.

In our business of product design, missing a critical step can also have disastrous consequences. I have learned that if I haven’t done a particular task before, then I really don’t know that task. A solid process comes from the experience of having done a particular task over and over.  This will teach you  how to do it correctly and also what could potentially go wrong.   Knowing what can go wrong can be a lifesaver because you can be prepared if and when things go sideways.

Knowing your weaknesses is very important and as the saying goes in rock climbing; it all comes out on the rock. Whatever you struggle with, that hard, unyielding piece of stone will beat out of you. If you have trouble taking risks, you will hang onto holds too long burning precious energy.  Fear will keep you from making that next move. If you are impulsive and move quickly before planning your next few moves ahead, you will undoubtedly get to a point where you won’t know what to do next.   If the route is at the edge of your skill level, you may be stuck or fall. If you are unprepared you will get hurt or hurt someone else. Underestimating the consequences of our weaknesses doesn’t allow us to acknowledge them and then to improve. If you don’t train the areas where you are weakest and don’t continually educate yourself you will be continually frustrated and never get any better.

As professionals in our respective fields, we owe it to our clients to be highly skilled and ever improving. Rock climbing has shown me that losing the ego in regard to knowing it all, has really allowed me to learn so much more from others. And in the end that really does make us better.

Staying healthy is something I constantly battle with rock climbing. Because I just turned 50, I find I get injured much easier than I did when I was younger. I realize that I now require a lot of stretching and conditioning before I climb or I risk an injury that can take me out for months. We don’t always realize how important our physical conditioning is to our day to day life. Sitting in our chairs all day, staring at a computer screen until we are cross-eyed is not the way to be in peak condition.   

Just like in rock climbing, if we don’t feel healthy, we are certainly not going to perform our jobs at a peak state. We need to stretch both our bodies and our minds so we don’t get hurt. How many of us have missed days at the office with back problems? I don’t always enjoy the training, stretching, and core exercises required for rock climbing, but when I notice improvement it seems worth it. What things can you do to improve your physical and mental conditioning so you operate your business at the best state possible for you?

I believe that everything we have in our lives is exactly what we asked for on a conscious and subconscious level. Rock climbing is a way to push myself both physically and mentally to achieve new heights, literally!  It shows me how I can take that same drive, push through fear and, at times, laziness, to achieve so much more, in both my business and personal relationships. What is your rock climbing metaphor?

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