A few weeks ago I climbed Freerider for the first time and I almost gave up. This is a 3,300' rock climb up the southwest face of Yosemite’s El Capitan. You may have heard of Alex Honnold climbing this route without ropes in a recent feature-length documentary called Free Solo.
Like everyone in history besides Alex, I climbed Freerider with the protection of ropes. The route is still a huge undertaking. The climbing is difficult (up to 5.13a), so many climbers aid this part of El Cap, standing in sling ladders to hoist themselves up the wall.
But as the name implies, Freerider is also the easiest free climb up El Cap. This makes it the usual starting place for those who want to climb El Cap bottom to top without falling and using their ropes for assistance. Though I’m a relatively new Yosemite climber, I set the goal of freeing Freerider by December 2020. Just a few weeks ago I got my first experience on the climb.
I climbed Freerider over four days in early October 2019 with my friend Mike. It was HOT and the route was harder than I expected. The climbing was extremely physical and often dangerous. By the second day my hands and feet hurt from jamming them in granite cracks. I was also mentally exhausted. Most of the route is safe, but a fall at the wrong time could be deadly.
At the beginning of our last day I remember waking up on a rock spire 2,000' above Yosemite Valley feeling both in awe and in pain. I was bleeding in at least four places and every muscle in my body ached. I was also moved by the beauty of the climbing, the magnificence of Yosemite and the rush of adventure. As we prepared for our last day on the wall, I remember telling Mike, “I don’t think I’ve ever been in this much pain before.”
Climbing Freerider for the first time was hard in that ‘almost too much’ kind of way. It was the perfect challenge in that it put me right at the edge of my mental and physical limits.
Why we often shy away from challenges
In the days after getting down from El Capitan, it was interesting to notice my thoughts. I had always known climbing Freerider would be challenging, and by most standards my first attempt on the route went well. But I also knew that climbing each pitch without falling would require at least a few more days if not weeks of focused work.
The idea of going back up there stirred up a lot of doubts:
“This might be too hard for me. Why doesn’t it feel easier? Staying home is so comfortable — why would I try again? I’m not sure I’m cut out for this. Is it even worth it? Will I ever do it? What if it’s just as hard next time? Maybe I should work toward a different goal.”
Fortunately, as a life coach, I recognized these thoughts for what they are: a normal, inevitable response to a new and challenging experience. These types of doubts and worries are exactly what we expect when attempting anything that involves new skills and the possibility of failure.
Haven’t you noticed how easy it is to shy away when presented with a challenge that feels like a stretch? This is because our brain has evolved to imagine and plan for what could go wrong. Think about it:
- When we’re planning to give a presentation in front of colleagues we imagine all the ways we could mess up and hurt our reputation.
- When we’re applying for a stretch job we think of all the reasons it won’t work out and isn’t worth the effort.
- When we’re getting ready for a race our mind is consumed by nervous thoughts about underperforming.
Our brain’s focus on this kind of ‘negative possibility forecasting’ was useful when we still had predators on the landscape. Watching out for what could go wrong was one of the best ways to avoid being someone else’s lunch.
But today this persistent stream of worries causes most of us a lot of stress. More importantly, it has many of us shy away from challenges that could be valuable learning opportunities.
Say you’ve excelled as a young entrepreneur. You’ve developed a great product and manage a small team, but you aren’t comfortable with big crowds. When a well connected friend surprises you with an invitation to share your story on stage at a large conference, your brain goes on high alert. You start imagining all the ways you could make a fool of yourself and botch the talk. Just the idea of standing up there in front of people makes you so uncomfortable that you turn down the offer. “Better to stick with what I do well,” you tell yourself.
Shying away from challenges isn’t inherently bad, but it definitely doesn’t promote our growth and accomplishment. Our hypothetical young entrepreneur might have saved themselves some stress, but they also missed out on a huge learning opportunity and a chance to advance their career.
Most of us have some big goals and dreams, and to achieve excellence we have to spend lots of time being challenged and failing. If we take our doubts and worries too seriously we’re likely to back off when things get uncomfortable.
The value of being uncomfortable
Most people are familiar with the idea of comfort, challenge and danger zones. We all have activities and experiences we’re comfortable with (comfort zone). Others stretch our capacities (challenge zone) or put is right into panic mode (danger zone). It’s valuable to spend time in our challenge zone because this is where we learn and grow. But it’s also uncomfortable.
I used to teach this idea to high schoolers as part of a leadership development curriculum. We would use tape to create physical circles on the ground and have the students step into different zones in response to scenarios. “You’re jumping off a diving board. You’re giving a presentation in front of the class. You’re asking someone on a date.” The students would step in and out of the circles to indicate which zone that experience would put them in.
This activity teaches three lessons that are pretty intuitive.
First, we’re each comfortable with different levels of challenge and risk in different scenarios. I might be terrified of open water swimming while for you it’s just a nice way to work out. Second, it’s good to spend time being both comfortable and challenged. There has to be a balance. Finally, what puts us in our challenge or danger zone can change. If you practice public speaking enough you’ll eventually be comfortable with something that probably freaked you out initially.
Most people get this. If we do something more, it becomes more comfortable.
But this is also where many people miss out on a somewhat nuanced question: “How can we get more comfortable with being uncomfortable?”
Being comfortable with discomfort is a skill
Why do some people seem capable of jumping into their challenge zone willy nilly while most of us prefer to stick to what’s familiar? More to the point — how can you learn to get more comfortable with experiences that put you in your challenge zone?
The answer requires first seeing that becoming comfortable with discomfort is a skill. It’s not a magic trick or something we are born with. It’s something you can practice. At the core of this skill is a different way of engaging with your thoughts.
When I came down from climbing Freerider my brain was full of reasons why I shouldn’t go back to try the route. The experience was painful, scary and exhausting, and it felt almost impossible that I would accomplish my goal. But remember: these thoughts were just the normal, inevitable response to a new and challenging experience. They were exactly what I expected after doing a climb that placed me solidly in the outer range of my challenge zone.
Knowing how normal my brain’s response was helped me resist the urge to get home and cancel my plans to try Freerider next month. I also didn’t beat myself up or waste a lot of energy wondering if I would ever be good enough to free climb El Cap. I simply looked at the ways Freerider challenged me and identified how I’d need to improve as a climber to be more successful next time. I wrote a training plan to target my weaknesses and contacted partners to find dates when we could go back and try again.
At this point in the article you might be hoping for something like “Three Steps to Make Challenges More Comfortable.” But making challenges more comfortable actually isn’t the point. The point is that challenges are always uncomfortable and — with practice — you can become more comfortable with that discomfort. You can learn to be at ease with the normal doubts and worries that will always come up when you’re in your challenge zone.
Being comfortable with discomfort is a skill, and like any skill it requires practice. There are many ways to do this formally — through coaching, meditation, physical training, etc. — and there isn’t a magic formula. But if you’re not sure where to start, here are a few ideas.
In my personal and professional experience, the process of getting comfortable with discomfort goes something like this:
1. Spend more time in your challenge zone
The more time you spend stepping out of your comfort zone, the more comfortable you become being there. The key is to start with just a little more time in your challenge zone — maybe 10% more — and see how you do.
When you start to look, you may find that there are opportunities to be challenged almost everywhere. Do more public speaking. Go for a run with someone who’s faster than you. Write that article you’ve been scared to write. Tell your parents you love them. Jump in a cold lake.
2. Start to notice what thoughts you have when you’re in your challenge zone
Are the thoughts you have when confronted with a challenge empowering? Are they even true?
You might notice you make excuses or justifications for backing off. You might notice some resignation (“I’ll never get better at that anyway”). You will almost definitely notice scarcity thoughts (“I don’t have enough time / money / talent”).
Just starting to observe your thoughts will give you some choice in how you experience challenging situations.
3. Reframe challenges as opportunities for growth
People often have breakthroughs when they learn to notice their discomfort and — in the moment — reframe it as an opportunity for growth.
Suddenly “what if everyone laughs at me” becomes “what a cool opportunity to be trying something that’s totally new.” Which do you imagine will make you more likely to approach the challenge at hand with focus, creativity and perseverance?
If you manage to really experience this shift, possibilities will open everywhere.
What becomes possible when you embrace discomfort
You might be starting to see how learning the skill of being comfortable with discomfort can be a game changer.
My first real trip to Yosemite was in 2017 and my last day in the valley I climbed the “Nose In A Day” (NIAD) with my friend Jake. The Nose is El Cap’s iconic route, right up the middle of The Captain. The NIAD is a rite of passage for Yosemite climbers, and it took us twenty-one hours to climb the 3,000' from the valley floor to the summit in a single push.
Around 5am (after getting lost on the descent trail) we were walking down the back side of El Cap when we bumped into Alex Honnold and Jimmy Chin, who were heading up to the summit to film for Free Solo. We told them we were descending from our first NIAD, and Alex asked how long it took. Hearing we reached the summit in twenty-one hours, he responded, “Sweet! My first NIAD took twenty-two hours.”
At the time we met, Alex had climbed The Nose in less than two and a half hours. He held the speed record from 2012 to 2017, when another team broke it by 4 minutes. Six months later, Alex broke the record again (three times actually), establishing the current Nose speed record of 1:58:07.
Thinking about Alex’s progress on El Cap is a useful reminder of what’s possible if we embrace discomfort. It took Alex and I each just over twenty hours to climb The Nose on our first attempts — a pretty standard time for first-timers. Alex then spent the following decade climbing in Yosemite for months every year, including hundreds of trips up El Cap.
While Alex might not put it this way, it’s clear he’s mastered the skill of being comfortable in his challenge zone. This is the only way anyone keeps raising the bar as consistently as he has. The result is an athlete who has inspired millions and redefined what’s possible in climbing.
You might be a beginner climber or you might never rock climb, but I imagine this article has stirred up a challenge you’ve been considering pursuing in your own life.
Maybe it’s a new leadership position or launching that side hustle. Maybe you’ve been sitting on a great business plan or a song you want to record. Maybe it’s just signing up for that half marathon, or trying that climb you’re not sure you’re ready for. Maybe it’s been calling that person you’ve been thinking about.
What’s the worst that could happen?
Originally published at https://www.remyfranklin.com on October 22, 2019.