“Free Solo” is a gripping documentary that follows professional rock climber Alex Honnold as he prepares to climb El Capitan, a 3,000-foot wall of granite in Yosemite National Park. In the world of climbing, this adventure is nothing new.
But Alex is doing it without a rope.
Seriously, he summits one of the most difficult climbing routes in the world with a pair of shoes and a bag of hand chalk. It’s an ascent into a world of danger I cannot even fathom.
Taking Risks Without a Rope
I’ve had an interest in Alex even before the film was released earlier this year. I would scour YouTube to watch videos of his climbs and listen to interviews he did on various news outlets and talk shows. In watching these interviews, I noticed a common line of questioning.
Not surprisingly, people always wanted to know “why?” Nearly every conversation would mention how he is always so close to death in his adventures. This made me feel bad for him.
Imagine if people were constantly asking “why” to doing the thing you love. Imagine if people constantly reminded you that you were cheating death every time you went to work.
For me, after a while, I would question my life choices. But not Alex. He always answers in a similar manner, never seeming phased by the dangers. The lens he uses to view what he does allows him to take a look from a different perspective. He recognizes the danger, but his approach to this danger is what sets him apart.
An interview he did for Outside Magazine gave me the best insight on what is going through his head. The article highlighted a few quotes that not only should we consider before diving into something dangerous, but they are great general nuggets for living life.
“The first time I tried to solo Freerider (an El Capitan climbing route), I climbed up partway and then backed off. I was up there and it felt really scary. I didn’t want to be there. With (solo climbing), it’s important to listen to those signals and then act on them. If I’m not having a good time, there’s no real reason to be doing it.”
We’ve all been in those situations, relationships or jobs that just didn’t feel right. When those arise we have two options: back off or proceed with a sense of unease. When Alex decides to retreat, he does so because if he doesn’t, death is almost certain. And while we may not be hanging by our fingertips, 1,500 feet above the Yosemite Valley, we all are faced with choices throughout our lives that might have consequences just as severe.
If something doesn’t feel right to you, it probably isn’t. Turn around.
“My mom taught me how to drive. One day I was stressed in traffic, she said, ‘If you’re ever really worried you can just park. Just stop and get out. People will go around.’ That’s a great life lesson: you can always just stop.”
Whereas earlier he spoke about turning around, this one suggests to take a break, take a breath, let the chaos pass and proceed when ready.
This helps with problem-solving too. When we reach a particular moment when it’s hard to break through to the next level, backing off from the problem and coming back to it later can do wonders. It’s amazing how we view things from a completely different angle after stepping away.
Putting in the Work
“There’s a quote that I like: ‘Being a professional means doing the things you love to do on the days you don’t feel like doing them.’ Sometimes you train even though you’re not motivated, because you’re like, well, I’ll be better if I actually put in the hours.”
I cringe when I hear people use that common quote about job love, “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.” I like what Alex shares because it’s so much more honest. Despite doing something you love, it’s still work. There is still pressures involved, deadlines to meet and people to serve. Somedays work does feel like work, and that’s okay. It’s all that extra hard work that brings us to the next level and helps us serve others better.
“It’s not about controlling your fear. It’s about broadening your comfort zone. You need to systematically expose yourself to something until it’s not scary.”
This is my favorite from the article. Too often we are encouraged to “rip the band-aid off” quickly and all at once. When you take on too much and too soon it can be overwhelming. This causes many to fail before even getting started.
There’s the common cliche of taking baby steps into something. But I like the terminology of “broadening your comfort zone.” That’s exactly what Alex has done when he scales these seemingly improbable rocks. What seems scary to all of us, is an extreme level of comfort to him because it’s something he has done repeatedly over a long period of time.
While very few of us will ever come close to the physical accomplishments that Alex Honnold achieves, the method in which he reaches his goals can be a great lesson to all of us.
And there’s really no one better to take risk-taking advice from than the guy that climbs tall structures without a rope.
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Without a Rope: Thoughts on Taking Risks