The Art of Losing
Failure in climbing can mean many things: disappointment, sadness, even injury or death. According to Mina Leslie-Wujastyk, failure is, once we recover from it, one of our most powerful tools.
Any pursuit we take in life has the potential to become part of the web of intricacies that defines us. Any undertaking can have the power to further form our identity, to change how we perceive ourselves and to take us on an emotional rollercoaster.
Such is the gamble with setting goals; to aim within easy grasp is to leave knowingly unfulfilled but to reach too far comes hand in hand with possible defeat. Failure in climbing can mean many things: disappointment, regret, and sadness or even injury or death. So when we make a plan, set a target, do we consider fully the failure factor? When we face failure, how do we resolve ourselves with it?
I have recently given a few presentations on the concept of self-efficacy in climbing. I have talked about how I have worked on my confidence in competition climbing to allow me to perform as close to my physical limit as possible. At the last talk I gave, I felt there was something missing. I was being so positive and that positivity was the cure, the remedy I was advising as a way to achieve one’s goals. I meant it and I still believe in the process I spoke about, but there was something missing, a pink elephant in my presentation.
I set a goal to make a World Cup final in 2013; I wasn’t quite good enough and it didn’t happen. I worked hard to try and climb my first V13 in Rocklands, South Africa, this summer; I didn’t get to the top. I have been working a sport route this autumn and, once on redpoint, I began to struggle; I gave up on it. These harsh realities made me feel like a fraud when I spoke to a room full of people about dealing with adversity and pushing through to achieve in their climbing. How could I stand there and talk when I had failed? I am, of course, not infallible but wasn’t I leading people to believe that there was a method to success, a concrete way to develop and achieve? What I later came to realize was that my lecture wasn’t fraudulent, so much as missing part of the picture.
To achieve big goals, we have to put ourselves out there. We have to learn to embrace our vulnerability, acknowledge the possibility that we may not get to the finish line and be okay with it.
Even within climbing, failure can take many forms. There are factors in our control: motivation, physical ability or commitment, and those outside our grasp: weather, skin or injury. Failing because of the latter often causes huge frustration but the former can be more painful, harder to stomach. We see people in temporary failure states all the time. The anger bursts at the crag when a move can’t be done, or when someone falls high up on a project. Tears can flow when disappointment hits, a deep sadness at not fulfilling a desire. So many different shades of the same thing, an emotional reaction to something we care deeply about.
Our endeavors are all relative; for some it is a climb, a challenge at work, an essay or simply the motivation to get out of bed and go for a run. Or just get out of bed. For me it was Evolution (8c+) at Raven Tor. This sport route was put up by Jerry Moffatt in 1995 and has been somewhat of a testpiece ever since. The route is very short and bouldery (including what is considered a V11/12 boulder problem at the start) and doesn’t let the climber rest, resulting in a mega power endurance challenge. Quite a big jump up in terms of difficulty for me, but a great route and I was motivated. I liked the moves, I saw the challenge and I was ready to tackle it head on. Did I think about failure at the start? No, not really. I didn’t consciously assume I would climb it but I also didn’t really think about how it would feel to give up. I haven’t really ever given up before so it wasn’t on my radar then.
So what happened? I struggled away, working the moves, inch by inch making progress. After quite a few sessions, I could do the route in two halves. It was time to start redpointing. Now this is where I lost it. I had two great sessions, getting past the first crux; surely I could only improve from there? With the weather window threatening to close, I started to feel the pressure and it was like someone flicked a switch; my mojo was nowhere to be seen. I was doing so well but I had been more psyched when I couldn’t do the moves! My head and my body were letting me down, I felt mentally tired from the effort and I needed some success. I was hitting a brick wall physically and mentally. So I switched tactics and began to try an easier route, I let Evolution go. But I am still glad that I tried.
To achieve big goals, we have to put ourselves out there. We have to learn to embrace our vulnerability, acknowledge the possibility that we may not get to the finish line and be okay with it. So how do we balance positivity, confidence and ambition with vulnerability, self-preservation and safety? Is it best not to think about failure and just deal with it if and when it arrives?
Our perception of our own failure is undoubtedly affected by our view of the rest of the world and how other people are getting on. Rational though this is, it is hugely unhelpful because of the massive discrepancy between what actually goes on and what gets reported in the media. Never does one see the headline “Daniel Woods falls again on his V15 project and decides he is not yet strong enough”. Is that because it never happens? No, it is because that stuff doesn’t get reported. So, when we glance at climbing magazines or web pages, it is vital to remember that we are only being shown the good stuff, the shiny side of the coin.
Accepting defeat filled me with both sadness and relief; relief that I could relax and kill the pressure, sadness that I had given up. I always thought I could rely on myself to persevere, I thought that was my main climbing attribute. I guess we all have our limits, a point where we stop caring and throw the towel in. Accepting defeat was actually easier than I thought; why should I be able to climb that route when so many other strong climbers couldn’t? In the back of mind it was also a temporary failure; does real failure exist in this context when one is still functioning and the rock is still there? Perhaps it is just a postponement. Who knows, but at that moment, having put so much time and effort in, I was not robust enough to carry on. I needed to re-establish my confidence, to boost myself back up.
When we disappoint ourselves it is easy to fall into a place of self-loathing, to take the defeat as a personal flaw, a damaging blow to our sense of self worth. To really free ourselves from this failure trap we have to let go of what we think defines us and consider ourselves unconditionally worthy. However, if our successes no longer reflect our sense of self worth and identity, will they still mean as much to us? Is it actually feelings of worthiness that we are chasing around the world, from crag to crag? Can we simply accept ourselves regardless and then go out and play not fearing the once frightening failure?
In my presentation on self-efficacy I spoke about rehearsed positivity: using the conscious mind to affect one’s core beliefs about physical performance. I talked about self-awareness and the constructive use of mental strategies to alter how you identify with your abilities. I discussed it in in specific relation to climbing, and here I stumble upon the aforementioned missing piece! I now see that I gave only a corner of the picture; I encouraged belief in yourself as a climber, but the greater goal is belief in yourself as a person, irrespective of your climbing. Rehearse not only “I am a good climber” but also, “I am a good person”. If you can achieve the latter, the former will fit nicely into place. If you find it easier to start with the former then the latter can be a longer-term project, but, please, keep it in mind, as it is the whole picture.
If we can remove the fear factor from defeat in this way, disentangle it from our ego and sense of worth, we can liberate it into a constructive form. Failure is, once we recover from it, the most powerful tool to spur us on to success. With some distance from my initial “giving up moment”, I can now see what a huge opportunity I have stumbled on. When I started on Evolution I had no idea if it would ever be something I could do, now I know it is possible and my motivation for it will lead me to become a better climber. A stronger climber, a more committed climber and, hopefully, a more secure person with an acute awareness of my reserves. I need to work harder than I did this year; I need to be better. The experience now feels like an opening for progression rather than a closing door. Having taken the fall into defeat, I am no longer scared of it and will set my goals accordingly.
Failure is, once we recover from it, the most powerful tool to spur us on to success.
I think perhaps I have asked more questions that I have provided answers for in this article but maybe that is okay. Hopefully the process of considering my questions will be interesting; whether I have managed to communicate something worthwhile I will let you decide. The end result is always relevant but if we can let it go and enjoy the process, we are more likely to have fun. And, paradoxically, if we are having more fun, success is more on the cards.
So my parting thought, for those fanatics of climbing among us (you know who you are), for whom climbing is all encompassing and has the power to send you up and down emotionally. Take a closer look; perhaps it is possible to consolidate our worthiness from an internal source, thus freeing our deeper emotions from the volatility that is “success versus failure “and letting our climbing blossom without the extra weight.
Perhaps, more simply, fanaticism in climbing is a red flag for a psychotherapy referral. For those of you not wishing to follow this path, please remember to be kind to yourself.
Mina Leslie-Wujastyk is one of the strongest female climbers in the world. Hailing from Great Britain, she travels the globe cranking hard rock climbs. Notable ascents include Britain’s Mecca (5.14a), the colorado testpiece Mind Matters (V12), and multiple V11s in Fontainebleau, France, Cresciano, Switzerland, and Rocklands, South Africa.
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