“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t–you’re right.” Henry Ford
I used to believe this, but in my last post I mentioned that I once learned an important lesson on a climbing wall, I’d like to share that with you and explain why I no longer believe the above to be true…
I had always wanted to try rock climbing and I finally worked up the motivation to attend an introductory class. A climbing wall didn’t quite live up to my ideal of climbing sweeping cliffs overlooking the sea somewhere on the South West Wales coast line with the warm sun, the soothing sound of the waves and a gentle breeze for company (delusional I know, sun in South Wales!, I’ve lived in Wales all my life, you’d think I’d know better), but it was a start.
I quickly realised that climbing was going to be harder than I thought. I have excellent lower body strength and absolutely no upper body strength. Although, I had been assured that climbing depended mainly on lower body strength, yeah right, that why climbers have amazing arms and shoulder. Unfortunately for me it also requires flexibility, coordination and balance, I’m flexible, but I am notoriously uncoordinated and unbalanced (not just mentally). I’m also a shorty at just 5’2” and the wall had obviously been set up by someone much, much taller, because even on the supposedly easy routes I was struggling to reach the holds. I was also caught off guard by just how much fear being six-foot of the ground elicited, it wasn’t an unpleasant experience but it was quite unexpected as I’ve never had a problem with heights, although ladders that’s a different story, it wasn’t anywhere near as scary as climbing the rickety old wooden ladder my father uses to get into his attic.
After gaining some confidence on the easiest routes I wanted to try something slightly harder. I really couldn’t make any progress on the next route, the holds were placed even farther apart meaning that they were often completely out of my reach or if I could reach them, my arms or legs were extended to a point that I couldn’t bring any strength to bear to move myself up. I was getting frustrated, angry and tired. The instructor came over to help, unwittingly making himself a target for those feelings. I felt he was totally out of touch with my limitations in terms of my strength and height. As an instructor he’s supposed to know how to accommodate a persons needs to help them achieve the best they can and I felt he was being plain inconsiderate. After a few minutes of trying to do what he was suggesting I was feeling utterly useless, physically unable and generally inept as well as exceptionally annoyed at him. Convinced I would fall if I continued, I jumped off the wall and had the story ended here, then I would say this confirms the reasoning of the quote. However, back on the ground expecting some criticism from the instructor for not trying hard enough, I was ready, to repeat all the reasons I couldn’t do it and why he was being inconsiderate. I was surprised when without any accusation or note of disapproval, he simply asked with curiosity, like he really didn’t understand but wanted to – “Why did you jump?” – taken off guard, I answered almost immediately and honesty, that I believed I was going to fall and would rather jump than fall. Sounding almost baffled by my reply the instructor said, that I was better climbing until I fall, because if I never fell I would never know where my limits were, only where I believed them to be. I was struck by a startling realisation, an epiphany even, that this is what I always do. I was so afraid of falling or rather failing that I usually jumped whenever failure became a possibility, of course I always had a good reason, but it has happened so many times that there was definitely a pattern.
Still utterly convinced it was impossible for me to reach the top of the wall I asked the instructor if he would stay and direct me, I explained why I had been having so much difficulty, that there weren’t any holds I could reach and that I couldn’t get any purchase on the bare wall, he suggested that I have a little more faith in the limited purchase I had, that provided I committed and moved quickly it ‘should’ hold. Committed to climbing until I fell, really fell, I set off up the wall. It was inconceivable that I could actually reach the top. When I reached the section I had failed on previously I was scared, terrified beyond reason, not because I thought I would hurt myself, I trusted my climbing partner and realistically, on this wall, baring catastrophic equipment failure or freak accident the worst I was risking was a scuffed knee due to contact with its rough surface. I was terrified because I was challenging my physical but more profoundly my mental boundaries, my beliefs about myself and my reality. I was risking failing. At the time I couldn’t fully comprehend my fear, but on some instinctive level I understood that this was a pivotal moment and that ensured I remained totally committed, an enthralling combination of emotion. For that short time I placed my faith in the instructor. I could barely think through the battle taking place in my mind, the fear consumed me, I couldn’t plan, I couldn’t see a way ahead, I depended totally on his direction. I followed his instructions when I could and when I couldn’t I relayed back why so he could suggest alternatives. I’ve rarely put that much faith in anyone, its hard to explain I was so far beyond my comfort zone, I felt truly vulnerable. I was doing something I believed was impossible, every second expecting to fall, fighting my instincts to give up and get back to the familiar, the safe and on top of that I still had a sense, that I couldn’t explain, that this somehow had a much deeper meaning to my whole life.
Every time I pushed off a foot hold expecting the grip in my hands to give way, every time I dared to chance falling or failing I broke through boundaries in my mind, and when I didn’t fail that scared me even more, how often had I limited myself by what I thought was possible. Finally, I clung to the wall, so near to the top, if I could just push up onto my higher foot hold, and reach up with one hand I could reach the top. It was impossible, my arms and legs shook violently from the physical strain, I didn’t have strength to hold on much longer let alone achieve that one final feet of strength to reach the top. I was even more terrified of falling than ever, being this close and knowing absolutely that there was no way I would be able to repeat the attempt that day. I committed to moving, I let go and pushed up with every last ounce of physical and mental strength I had, and to my amazement, I did it, I didn’t fall. The relief and sense of achievement, and did I mention the relief were amazing. I had overcome the shocking and all-consuming fear I had experience on the way up the wall to achieve the impossible. I can’t remember the instructor’s name, but I will always be grateful. I find myself wondering if he even had the slightest inkling of the mental battle raging in my head whilst I tried to follow his instructions or just how deeply the experience would affect and guide my life from there on. I’m probably one of a hundred inexperienced climbers he helped get to the top of a climbing wall, but he changed my perspective and opened my eyes to my reaction to situations that I was unaware of and in doing so profoundly changed my life for the better.
Until my hand touched the top of the wall I truly did not believe it was possible for me to do so. It was the commitment to keep going until I fell and the guidance and encouragement of a knowledgeable and patient instructor that got me to the top, not my belief that it was possible. Now when I set myself a goal, like climbing the North Face of the Eiger, which I believe is impossible, that belief is largely irrelevant, I keep in mind that my beliefs are limited and they can change with new information, because I believe it’s impossible, it doesn’t mean it is, I place my faith in that, together with the knowledge that I am often capable of much more than I give myself credit for, I just need to keep taking a step in the right direction and resisting the urge to give up because or setbacks or because I fear failure or believe its impossible. I may have to ask for guidance along the way, or undertake to learn new skill and / or trust in someone else’s judgement on occasions, but if I keep going in the right direction, I can achieve the impossible, or at least increase the limits of what I believe to be possible, because reaching the top of that climbing wall never was impossible for me I just believed it was.