Since January I have, in true ‘new year, new me’ fashion, taken up rock climbing. This may come as a surprise to anyone who has met me, who will be aware that upper body strength (or physical prowess of any kind) is not particularly my forte. But I do like a challenge, and so in the first week of 2017 I dragged myself to my local wall in South East London and signed up.
6 weeks later, having spent yesterday in rainy Carlisle happily sheltering from the weather in the local climbing centre, I feel inspired to publicly review my progress so far.
The first thing I noticed when I went to the Arch Climbing Centre in Bermondsey was the fact that there was a 6-year-old child scampering up a boulder that was giving me vertigo to look at. There’s nothing like fretting over your own mortality (above a 6-foot-high drop onto a nice soft padded floor) while children around you scale the walls to reassert the old adage: kids are fearless, and us grown-ups grow into our fear – of injury, or of failure.
Climbing, I have found, provides a wonderful analogy for the challenges we face in other areas of our lives. Each set of colour-coded holds is called a ‘problem’, and needs to be treated as such. Speed and strength will only get you so far – the most impressive climbers are precise, and thoughtfully contemplate each move before they make it. The climbers I like to watch look almost balletic, each movement perfectly planned and executed. When I started out 6 weeks ago, my methods were a lot more dubious. I would try and climb up the wall as quickly as possible – before my nerves had the chance to get in the way. But I would inevitably get stuck. Where on earth was my foot meant to go now? Where could my left hand move? It was frustrating to feel like I just wasn’t ‘getting’ it.
The lightbulb moment came yesterday in Carlisle, as I spent half an hour just trying to get off of the first move on a particularly tricky route. Each time I didn’t manage to get my feet up onto the wall I stopped, thought about what was working and what wasn’t, and recalibrated my move. I didn’t let myself get frustrated or disheartened. Eventually, I made it to the top. The best approach in climbing, as in life, is to think about a problem, try it, and then fail. Evaluate what worked, and what didn’t work. Try again. Fail again. And repeat. It’s black box thinking in action, learning from each individual failure. Once I relaxed into this mind-set, I progressed far quicker. Rather than clinging on to the wall for dear life because to fall would be embarrassing, now I tried new things and strange twists to see whether it would help me. Sometimes it didn’t, and I plopped down on to the mat. But other times that weird-feeling heel hook that took me 17 attempts to get right was exactly what I needed.
The most satisfying thing I have found about climbing is being able to feel your brain working things out behind the scenes: “Ok that didn’t work, how about this?”. A problem that initially looks overwhelming, or scary, or absolutely-no-way-am-I-getting-up-that, eventually becomes manageable, sometimes over a matter of minutes. Failing can be scary, it can knock our confidence or make us self-conscious. But when we embrace the learning that comes from not getting things quite right the first, second or fifth time round, the benefits really stack up. If anyone needs more evidence, just come down to Bermondsey and see me in action…
(This post was written by Adaptis consultant Alice Burks, who currently resides in London and is slowly improving her bouldering technique informed by the concept of ‘black box thinking’. This subject is defined and explored at great depth in Matthew Syed’s 2015 book of the same name.)