Impossible is Relative

Raise your hand if you enjoy rock climbing. Um…raise your hand if you have ever been rock climbing. Hmm…anyone heard of rock climbing? Have you ever said the word rock? Ok, I guess we’ll start from there.

Clearly rock climbing isn’t the most prolific sport that comes to mind for most people. In spite of that, we’re going to take a leap (figuratively, of course) into this niche hobby to better understand our perceptions of the impossible.

Our guide is Ben Yu of Svbtle, writing on his growing experience and understanding that rock climbing, like many things in life, is much more mental than physical.

My first and only outdoor climbing experience was what really blossomed my fascination with climbing. Two incredibly patient and generous veteran climbers offered another newcomer and me a ride into Connecticut or some other cold New Eastern place while I was at Harvard. We did several routes, and I’m fairly certain that I exhausted the bulk of my physical reserves by the time I was halfway up my first ascent.

But the veteran climbers kept encouraging us to continue and coached us patiently, and I’ll remain forever grateful that they did. The final ascent is the one I remember to this day. It was a dauntingly high route, up two separate rock faces in a corner and like nothing I had ever seen before.

As a culture we often think that the best and brightest are a product of some amazing genetics or simply gifted with a level of talent that us mere mortals will never posses. But the reality is that we have all been coached and trained, intentionally or otherwise, by a handful of folks who chose to give of their precious time to invest in our human capital.

According to one of the real climbers, this was a remarkably simple route – it involved stemming, or placing your feet directly on the two opposing walls. The friction is remarkably strong even on the sheer rock walls without any footholds and is enough to allow for a climb up. The real climber went up first with no trouble at all and thoroughly demonstrated how simple the ascent was.

Then it was my turn, and I found it incredibly difficult to wrap my mind around the notion that it was feasible, let alone simple and effortless to just place my feet on two sheer rock faces and expect that to hold me up. As a consequence, that route was particularly difficult for me and all I really remember about the actual specifics of the climb was how abjectly terrified I was (my fear of heights didn’t help much).

Let’s set aside for a moment the very intriguing fact that someone with a fear of heights chooses to pursue a hobby where success will always result in being a significant distance above the ground.

What’s more important is that even after seeing an experienced climber perform the stemming maneuver, Ben still struggled to believe that it was even possible. Seeing doesn’t always mean believing… immediately.

But gradually, as I returned to the bouldering wall at Harvard, I began to see how it was possible to ascend routes that I had never been able to even fathom climbing before. In fact, they became simple. Now, stemming is one of the techniques I enjoy most in climbing, and not only is it effortless but I actively seek out positions in which I’m allowed the opportunity to stem.

Something happened between that first moment when Ben discovered stemming and his own mastering of the technique. It wasn’t luck. And it certainly wasn’t some innate rock-climbing talent. It started with the very simple belief that it could be done. And that led to his trying it over and over again on the practice wall until his mind and his muscles simply understood the technique and when and how to use it.

The transition from pure disbelief to excitedly looking for opportunities to do something new doesn’t happen overnight. And it doesn’t happen in a vacuum alone at our desks. Yet how often are we presented with impossible challenges that we shrink from out of sheer disbelief that it can be done? And if we’re honest, how often have we taken on a challenge only to find ourselves stuck in our limited abilities and knowledge only to give up and deem the endeavor impossible?

That’s the thing about climbing – it constantly challenges my beliefs about what is possible. All these holds look ridiculously impressive and dangerously fragile, but in reality many of them are incredibly stable, even if it’s the smallest 2cm contact between a toe and a crack in a wall.

Problem solving (aka Design) and rock climbing are remarkably similar. They both require us to believe they can be done.

Fox Tip: Impossible is a relative term. If we don’t do it, someone else will.

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