Three months after I turned 30, I went bouldering for the first time. The indoor rock gym was a short drive from where I was living, and I signed up for a very simple reason: It seemed less intimidating to start a new sport at 30 than at 40.
I’m five feet nothing, and despite a love of hiking and swimming, I’ve never considered myself an athlete. In college, I mainly played for fun, occasionally. So taking up bouldering was—literally and figuratively—a leap for me. Bouldering is a type of rock climbing, different from the quick set-up rock walls at malls that have harnesses, ropes, and (in some cases) helmets. Instead, bouldering consists of climbing without any harness or rope; indoor gyms will provide large, mattresslike cushions for safety, and you can rent climbing shoes (which I don’t recommend), climb in sneakers, or bring your own. Routes are short but are both technically and physically demanding.
My first time up the wall was terrifying with the possibility of falling looming over me. The large hand grips on the rocks (called holds) of the beginner’s course did not feel large enough for someone afraid of falling. Ten feet seems very high up when you’re clinging to the wall with as much strength as possible. After the first session, my hands were raw. My shoulders and arms ached intensely.
Rather than discouraged, I felt quite the opposite: I felt powerful.
I loved every minute of it, including the mental component, which I hadn’t anticipated. Although the routes are clearly marked with colored tape and a rating of difficulty, one still has to figure out how to position and balance one’s weight, along with where and how to place hands and feet. The route gives you the where, not the how. When you know how the route should be climbed, only then does your body cease to be an obstacle. Getting to that point gave me such a high, especially after initially struggling just to figure out where to go.
In two years of bouldering, I have grown immensely—not just in physical strength, but in mental strength, too. Heights, and more specifically falling from said heights, is a fear that most people face, at least to some degree. Climbing forces you to face that fear. Once you understand what needs to be done and that part of it involves springing from your legs with just two fingers gripping the hold in order to reach for a nearly unreachable farther hold—that’s terrifying. To be successful, you have to trust your own strength and judgment.
Discovering a part of me that was willing to jump up and out into the risk zone was empowering. This was true for the rock wall but also true in life—at work and in relationships. The intense nature of concentrating on the climb and the resulting exhilaration from successfully completing a difficult route were addicting. I got accustomed to the feeling of hanging in the air and the equivalent “butterflies in the stomach” feeling I might get at work or in matters of love when stepping outside of my comfort zone. I had to relinquish some control to go for a huge payoff. In rock climbing as in life, if you can succeed easily without falling two or three times, you’re not challenging yourself enough.
Consider the best route I climbed at my original gym. It took me two months to solve. It wasn’t a particularly hard route, but nearest the top there was a sequence that simply couldn’t be completed unless the climber moved fast enough the entire way through. There were so many different moves that lingering too long on any of them could leave a person without enough reserve strength to make the final jump. After trying several times, each one ending with me letting go of the wall, I got thoroughly fed up with my fears. I resolved to push myself to trust in my abilities and behave as if failing were not an option.
Changing schedules at work and moving to a different state have made it difficult for me to keep up my bouldering routine, but I still use what I learned from those two years of climbing in my daily life—yes, even beyond the climbing gym.
First, to quote G. K. Chesterton, “If a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.” In other words, some things are so worthwhile that you should do them even if you may not do them well at first. I think people are justly afraid of failing. But we don’t give ourselves much permission to fail these days. In climbing, You. Will. Fall. You will fall many, many times. But it’s OK. You get easier about falling once you see everyone else doing it.
Of course, the same is true in life. We must practice to get better at our sales pitch, negotiating, or writing. We can only get better when we give ourselves the opportunity to succeed and to fail—and more importantly, to learn from our failures. Getting back up and trying again is a virtue that never goes out of style.
Second, I’ve learned that once you’ve given yourself permission to fall, it also serves as permission to try harder than ever at something and aim higher than just at the things at which you know you will easily succeed. At the time I started climbing, I had been in a junior leadership role for a little more than a year at my company. I wanted to move forward and would have described myself as ambitious. In reality, however, I was comfortable in my role and reluctant to be in a position where I might mistakes and take months to feel settled. This is when my newfound mentality from bouldering pushed me forward. In bouldering, you must pursue precisely the routes where you will fall; easy climbs with no real risk of falling will not teach you anything.
After months of practicing this thought process in the bouldering gym, it felt more within my grasp to apply this to my career. I realized that I hadn’t been pushing myself as much as I had thought. I knew that if I kept preventing myself from making mistakes by avoiding all risks, I would never move forward. So I shifted my focus. Instead of making risk avoidance my goal, I decided it was more important to give each new challenge my best effort, regardless of the outcome. This new permission to fail as long as I was doing my best led me to build new skills and, eventually, to be promoted to supervisor. That higher role, as challenging as it was, was more satisfying and led to more personal growth in six months than in the previous two years spent inside my comfort zone.
Third, I learned that people are stronger than they realize; it just needs to be tapped into. I surprised myself with how well I could climb, especially for someone petite and never good at taxing sports such as running or soccer. When you defy your own expectations, you feel like a superhero. And challenging yourself can have completely unexpected benefits. During my two years of bouldering, I developed markedly better hand–eye coordination. Maybe it was the concentration of having to reach and properly grip the holds and aim distances. This has helped me do things such as play tennis, which previously I wouldn’t have tried.
Most importantly though, I’ve discovered that it’s important to challenge yourself for your own good. It’s easy to fall into looking to others for reassurance and an indicator of our self-worth. Climbing gave me not only physical strength and the attendant confidence, but it also gave me the exhilarating feeling of achieving something difficult for myself and not for anyone else. And, to me, that’s the most valuable strength of all.
Photo Credit: Mark Doliner